NCAA champion and Cal alum Amy Bilquist has started an Olympic year with surgery for the second time now, this time for an injury in her left shoulder. On Tuesday, she posted photos of herself after the operation to social media with the caption: “New year, newish shoulder, same old me lol.”
Bilquist started feeling “significant pain” in her shoulder at the end of September before flying to Budapest to compete on DC Trident in the International Swimming League. She told SwimSwam via email that she saw a doctor and surgeon early on and underwent imaging, PT, and cortisone shots before leaving for the ISL. Despite this, her shoulder started to affect her more each week in Budapest. “The pain was getting extremely intense and normal activities (brushing my hair, putting caps on, etc) became more and more of a challenge.”
“But I was really lucky to have Amy Murray on the DC Trident staff,” Bilquist said. “She worked on it every single day and did everything she could to help me get through all those races. I started taking more and more days off during the season to give it a rest, laid off heavy lifting and started emphasizing my kicking more in the practices. At the end of DC’s time there though I was pretty uncomfortable due to the pain.”
Bilquist’s doctor initially recommended 3 weeks of complete rest from swimming. However, with that rest, her shoulder continued to decline and was worse by the time she got back into the water. On December 23rd, when she went to get another cortisone shot, Bilquist was told she would need surgery in the interest of both her long term health and short term training.
While injured, Bilquist was a key backstroker for DC Trident. She posted the 4th fastest 200m back time of the season (2:01.29) and rivaled a deep field of backstrokers including Kira Toussaint, Kylie Masse, and Lisa Bratton. After handily winning the 200 back in match 1, Bilquist was consistently at the top of the pack until DC Trident ended their ISL season after Match 7 and fell short of the semifinals.
Bilquist’s Full Explanation:
“I started to feel some significant pain towards the end of September, just a couple weeks before I was set to leave for Budapest. There wasn’t a significant moment that started the pain but was a pretty intense build from mild to intense pain. I had a difficult time swimming on it, so I was kicking a lot during that period.
I was able to see a great Doctor and surgeon early on and went through imaging, PT and cortisone shots before Budapest. While in Budapest, the pain was getting extremely intense and normal activities (brushing my hair, putting caps on, etc) became more and more of a challenge. I took 3 weeks completely off of swimming, and anything upper body related after Budapest to see if my shoulder would respond positively to time off. My shoulder kept declining at this point and once I got back in the water it was worse rather than better. I had another cortisone shot before my next appointment which was Dec. 23 when I was told for my long term health and even my short term training the surgery is necessary. Long term so I don’t keep damaging further to super scary levels, and short term because the pain is already dramatically affecting my training so why not try and fix it so I can train at full capacity when I heal instead of limping along.
I had a GREAT time during ISL Season 2. I thought they did such an amazing job keeping us safe and keeping a high energy environment even without fans. The lights, smoke, and music really elevated the meet which was super fun and gave us a chance to really feel that high pressure racing situation again, which I didn’t think I’d have in 2020. My shoulder really started to affect me more and more each week, but I was really lucky to have Amy Murray on the DC Trident staff. She worked on it every single day and did everything she could to help me get through all those races. I started taking more and more days off during the season to give it a rest, laid off heavy lifting and started emphasizing my kicking more in the practices. At the end of DC’s time there though I was pretty uncomfortable due to the pain though.”
Recovery and Going Forward:
Post-op, Bilquist says the healing time is still unknown besides the fact that it will be measured in months rather than weeks. “It seems to be an 8 week window before I can try a stroke, and about 4 weeks out of the water but hopefully that will shorten. Only time will tell,” she explained. One possible advantage she has is that her knee recovery has taught her valuable lessons, including not to rush back into training too soon, which she hopes will speed up her shoulder recovery time.
23-year-old Bilquist has had her fair share of injuries including more than 12 stress fractures which started in 2015, a broken foot in 2018 during her senior year at Cal, and a broken hand the summer that she graduated. But with each injury, she came back and posted some of her most notable swims to date. She ended her senior year as an American record-holder on Cal’s 200 free relay with 4 NCAA relay title wins and 4 at the PAC-12 Championships. By the end of the summer which she started with a broken hand, Bilquist claimed her 100 back national title.
She described this repeated process of injury and recovery to SwimSwam: “I’m not going to lie, it’s super frustrating and if I let myself get down mentally it’s hard for me to get back up. Body positivity and confidence has been a forever fluctuating relationship for me. By that, I mean a lot of people think it’s only about how you look but for me it’s also that my body gets hurt a lot and “fails” me more often than my peers it seems. So I try to stay thankful for all the opportunities that it’s given me but also be hopeful for the one’s it will give me when I’m healed up again. I try to lean on my family and friends during this time as well.
I think the best advice I was given and try to do each injury is to make other goals during this time. This time I will try to make my lower body stronger when I’m cleared to enter a gym again. Go on a walk and get fresh air everyday, etc. These goals may seem small but they give me purpose like my normal practices do, so when I lose that I need to fill that purpose with other things that will keep me on a healthy track for both mind and body.”
An additional factor this time around is the year-long postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, now set for August 2021. Bilquist described the postponement as “mentally tougher than physically.” After her knee surgery, she had it set in her mind that she would not be able to come back again after another long period of time out of the water. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, causing a worldwide halt to training.
Bilquist says the Olympic postponement has been beneficial in some ways because it allowed her to gain more racing confidence during ISL season 2 after a long break from competition. On the other hand, it also brought her another injury.
“Overall, I am grateful for the extension because it gave me more time to stay with family, heal my body, and it gave me more time in the sport that I love,” she wrote, emphasizing how her injuries have shown her how grateful she is “for every opportunity to get in the pool.”
Bilquist will continue to train for the 2021 Olympic Trials, which are currently scheduled for June, with Scottsdale Aquatic Club. She lists her goals as “to be at the Trials in the best shape and condition I can be in, but most importantly to be happy and grateful I’m there.” She hopes to compete in a meet before Trials, but her recent success in ISL season 2 after a year-long competition gap from ISL season 1 has given her confidence that she would be able to race again after another competition drought.
She emphasized, “I know I’m the best swimmer I can be when I’m happy so I will need to channel that gratefulness and overall positive attitude during the lead up to trials and at trials.”