Ashleigh Shanley held onto the wall, tears streaming down her face. She had managed to finish the race, but the pain was unbearable.
“I’m a little bit of a biological freak, and I have extra muscles in my elbow. My ulnar nerve popped out of its normal spot when I was stretching in weights before the Richmond meet my freshman year,” Shanley said. “Right before my 200 IM, it popped out [again].”
Shanley swam the event anyway, a decision that, in hindsight, she admits might have been ill-advised.
“We all knew [she was hurt] because she couldn’t get out of the pool,” teammate Colleen Wixted said. “[Athletic trainer Kevin Ortega] had to come over and physically pick her up out of the pool.”
Shanley pushed through the remainder of the season, getting on Duke’s team bound for the ACC championships, but she came down with mononucleosis the week of the meet. Shanley struggled through that 2014 meet, finishing 32nd in the 100-yard breaststroke and 34th in the 200-yard distance, not coming close to her season-best times.
With the impending graduation of talented breaststrokers Christine Wixted and Emily Barber, Shanley focused on getting healthy so she could return for her sophomore year to lead the team in the breaststroke events.
But her elbow pain remained a nuisance. That June, doctors finally identified the problem, and Shanley had surgery to remove the extra muscle on July 3, 2014, in Michigan. She was confined to a cast for 10 days and could not train fully for months.
But as soon as she got the cast removed, Shanley re-entered the pool to do whatever she could. She could not move her arm, so she just started kicking. She had no interest in redshirting the upcoming season, so she set a firm target for a return to competition, even though she knew such a quick turnaround would defy the odds.
“My motivation was our first meet against Pitt in October last year,” Shanley said. “My sister was a senior at Carnegie Melon─which is right across the street─and so it was my goal to be back swimming and competing at that meet. My parents were going to come up, and she was going to see me swim.”
When Shanley returned to Duke in August for her sophomore season, her teammates saw her determination to get past the injury as quickly as possible and get back on the right track.
“I think she tried, not necessarily hide it, but [to] come off in a way that [said] ‘I’m not injured, and I’m not going to let this affect me, and I’m going to do everything I can to rehabilitate and get back to where I was before,’” Colleen Wixted said.
Shanley pulled off the improbably quick comeback. After doctors cleared her to return to competition in late September, she swam against the Panthers on October 11, 2014, as planned. She even managed to beat her times from the previous year’s ACC championships, but she quickly realized her sophomore campaign would be very much a rebuilding one.
Classmate Liza Bragg watched as Shanley struggled to balance her own expectations of a quick return to top form and the likelihood that the process would be more drawn-out.
“It was tough for her because she was just getting back in the swing of things, and not everyone understood what she had gone through,” Bragg said. “She made a ton of progress throughout the year, but it was definitely really, really hard for her sophomore year, just gaining back strength, not necessarily being able to do full practices until midway through the season.”
Shanley landed on her second-consecutive ACC championship squad that season, and she moved inside the top 30 in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke. She also helped both Duke medley relay squads finish in the top 10. Still, Shanley was far from satisfied, having failed to swim a personal best since the Nike Cup early in her freshman season.
Finally at full strength, Shanley remained in Durham during the summer to train with her teammates and Duke head coach Dan Colella.
“We’re always our own worst critic,” Colella said. “I think she finally realized that what she went through was something that was going to take some time to really get back to full strength. She’s just been incredibly persistent. She’s done a great job of doing the things that she needs to do in and out of the pool, and her swimming this year speaks to that.”
Last fall, all that hard work began to pay off. Swimming in a home meet against Florida State in mid-October, Shanley recorded her first personal-best time in almost two years, touching in 1:03.12 in the 100-yard breaststroke, knocking four-tenths of a second off her previous best to clinch her first-ever collegiate victory. She went on to win the 200-yard breaststroke that day as well.
“My first thought was ‘Thank God my mom finally saw me have a good race in college,’” Shanley said. “It was just so exciting. I had been stuck at that time for so long─high-1:03s, high-1:03s and just couldn’t seem to get a best time. Once I did that, I mentally relaxed.”
Shanley said her approach to the sport has totally changed in the past year. With her injuries behind her, she has finally learned to have fun with it, quash stress about her times and enjoy every moment along the way. That spirit came from Christine Wixted and Barber, and now Shanley is providing the same type of leadership to her cohort of breaststroke specialists, of which she is now the elder stateswoman.
“I think that’s where she’s been really great, being that leader in the breaststroke group, really showing the others...what fast really is,” Colella said.
Her teammates agree. Colleen Wixted said Shanley has grown into her role as a team leader, being more forthcoming with her opinions and providing encouragement and advice for younger teammates. Freshman breaststroker Susan Hynes credited Shanley with setting a high standard in practice and ensuring that her teammates are performing to their fullest potential.
Backed by that leadership and her success in the pool, Duke’s program has reached new heights since Shanley’s class arrived on campus. The Blue Devils will be a strong contender at this week’s ACC Championships in Greensboro, N.C., hoping to bring home the first top-five finish since 1981, and Shanley will be a big part of that effort.
But after all the setbacks along the way to her first two ACC meets, Shanley just wants to keep her mind on swimming fast, letting the rest fall into place.
“I just want to focus on getting best times at ACCs and having fun,” she said. “Finally having a good ACCs would be the icing on the cake for this year.”