Written by Bill Huddleston
From setback to comeback…it’s a phrase associated with the story of many athletes who have overcome an injury in order to return to play and continue their pursuit of success. Yet, for senior Meredith Stevenson, the journey to overcome a seemingly common knee injury to compete for a gold medal in swimming has required a life-threatening detour during the last 18 months.
While performing a halftime routine as a member of the Muskogee High School dance team in October 2020, Stevenson tore the ACL in her left knee that required what is normally a simple procedure to restore the ligament. In fact, only five months later, the then junior swimmer had completed a rehabilitation program in time to qualify to compete in the 2021 OSSAA state championships in February for a third straight year.
She was forced to scratch from the 100-backstroke due to the stress on her knee but did finish sixth in the 100- butterfly.
But the journey for Stevenson was far from over-something that doctors, trainers, coaches or the accomplished swimmer could ever have expected.
A rare salmonella infection mysteriously attacked the graft in the knee leaving doctors searching for the cure with the right antibiotic.
“About the end of last April, I started to notice something was wrong,” recalled Stevenson, who started competitive swimming at age eight. “I was so confused. Salmonella didn’t seem like a big thing. I was really scared and devastated when Dr. Boone told me that my graft had to be removed because I had worked so hard to rehab my knee and now it had to be taken out.”
With the care of infectious disease doctors at Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa monitoring her care round the clock, Stevenson’s senior year in high school would change from A-P classes and swimming practices to a 30-day critical care stay in the hospital before the right treatment would be discovered.
“I didn’t understand how the reconstruction surgery could result in this kind of infection. I was beside myself. It’s so rare that this could even occur,” she said in an emotion-filled voice. “It was terrifying to think that the doctors didn’t know what antibiotic to use to eradicate the infection. What am I going to do…lose my leg or even worse, my life? It was a pit of darkness. It was very, very hard to have a positive outlook. I’m so thankful for Dr. Lewis because he really cared about me and gave me hope.”
In less than four months, Stevenson’s journey moved from would she swim again to a life-threatening battle.
Still uncertain of her future, the determined 17-year-old endured a grueling rehabilitation program just to regain use of her knee and the ability to walk.
“All I knew was that if there was a chance, I wanted one more go,” Stevenson said. “After I met with my therapist Omar at Advanced Orthopedics of Oklahoma in Tulsa, it was game on. I didn’t realize the rehab process would be 15 times harder than the ACL recovery. It was physically exhausting multiplied by my illness, which had left me anemic and required two blood transfusions. Mentally I had to keep telling myself I could do this. Omar frequently pushed me beyond what I thought were my limits.”
Then came the next questions for Stevenson.
“Can I swim again? Can I still go to state? Is there still a chance that I could medal?”
Admitting that she used her own stubborn streak to bolster her determination, Stevenson was forced into altering her swimming style, determined to regain a championship form.
“Before all of this happened, I saw myself standing on the podium, winning a gold medal and then signing a scholarship to swim on the Division I level,” she said with renewed confidence. “So when Dr. Boone said I could swim, I screamed ‘Let’s go!’”
As her coach, Beth Wells, and members of the Muskogee swim team shared tears of happiness, Meredith’s return to the pool at the Muskogee Swim and Fitness Center lasted 11 minutes.
“Honestly, that first time, I was still scared. But at the same time, it gave me relief that I could still do this.”
Each day her time in the pool grew longer as her body, both physically and mentally, grew stronger.
“I had to start with the little things by working on the technical parts of swimming. I had to figure out my flip turn off the wall and push off while blocking out the pain. I had to include distance swims to rebuild my cardio and breathing.”
Proving the adage that there’s nothing tougher than a Rougher, Meredith Stevenson achieved her goal to compete at the OSSAA regionals where she competed in the 100-backstroke as well as swimming with her teammates in the medley and freestyle relays.
“I have put my heart and my soul into this sport since I was a tiny little girl. It’s been my life. If I can finish my senior year and represent Muskogee, it would mean the world to me.”
And whether or not a medal was awarded, Meredith Stevenson earned her victory. She didn’t just say why me and use the setbacks as an excuse, but instead chose to win every day the Muskogee way by refusing to allow any obstacle to keep her from accomplishing her dreams.
And for her perseverance, Meredith Stevenson touched the wall in qualifying time to advance to the Class 6A state swimming championships where she will compete in the 100 backstroke along with her teammates in both relays to prove to all she deserves the title…”Wonder Woman”.