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Learning how to swim, without a leg
January 26th, 2012
10:42 AM ET

Learning how to swim, without a leg

Denise Castelli is one of seven people chosen to be a part of Dr. Sanjay Gupta's Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge. As a recent amputee, Denise is searching for a way to reclaim the feeling of being a competitive athlete that she cherished before her accident.

Getting in the pool has forced me to face a number of fears. The first being the obvious fear - ditching the doggie paddle and actually learning how to swim. The other fear is not so obvious and much more personal.

The swim is the only leg of the race that I’ll be doing, well, legless. Prosthetics aren’t made to be submerged in water and I can imagine it would be quite difficult to swim with a heavy piece of carbon fiber attached to my body.

My prosthetic has been my safety net ever since I learned to walk again. It has essentially become my super hero cape. When I wear it, I know I can do anything. I have the world in the palm of my hand. Without it, am I handicapped?

That is a word I seldom use to describe myself. But whenever I catch a glimpse of myself without my prosthetic on, it really hits me. That’s when I’m forced to face the fact that this is me and this is how it’s going to be forever.

This isn’t the bad dream where you’re in your high school in nothing but your underwear. There is no magical unicorn blood that I can drink to help regenerate my leg. This is real life. I am an amputee. And that is a lot harder to swallow than the occasional mouthful of pool water.

Facing this realization, I jumped in the pool for the first time and, much to my surprise, it was not as bad as I expected it to be. My coaches, Mickey Cassu and Kristin Cacicedo of Start-Tri.com, had me swim the length just to see where my knowledge base was. By the time I reached the end, I was panting. All I could think was, “How am I supposed to swim half of a mile... in the Pacific Ocean?!?!”

Then Mickey assured me that if he swam the way I did, he would be out of breath too. That’s when I learned how to work with the water instead of against it.

Since that first lesson, I’ve been swimming on my own at least three times a week. Along with these solo swim workouts, I’ve met with Mickey and Kristin two other times for some one-on-one training. I can already feel the improvements that I’ve made, which makes me hungry for more. Every time I’m at the pool I “swim stalk” other people and I’m mesmerized by their perfect form and ability to glide through the water. I want that.

Helping me get there is my new best friend – the pull buoy. It helps me keep my focus on my breathing and where my arm entry is.

“Head in the water, rotate every third stroke to breathe, repeat.” Trying to form muscle memory is a lot harder than I remember. It’s going to take a lot of repetition. It’s going to take a lot of repetition!

So, for now, I’m just going to keep baby steppin’ until it becomes second nature. I’m going to keep clicking my leg off and hopping to the edge of the water to dive in. Overcoming all of my fears, one stroke at a time.


soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Greg Lopez

    Denise you will glide,you will have that perfect form and you will do very good. You have determination and desire to be better and overcome your fears. You will be a inspiration to many. Keep up. No Retreat no Surrender. One stroke at the time.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Tony

    I just started swimming about a month ago to start training for my first triathlon in July. I know exactly what you mean by "swim stalking" people. Good luck with your training! You'll do awesome!

    January 26, 2012 at 12:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LaPetiza

      Ay, caramba. I've been corlarled and turned in by the word police who won't let me use enrichen. I've changed it to enrich. I could swear that enrichen sounds better to my ears, but then I've been living my whole life in foreign countries, so what do I know Can't get away with enything enymore, but at least it still starts with an e'

      September 13, 2012 at 23:31 | Report abuse |
  3. Sharon

    One of the top swimmers at my daughter's high school lost a leg to cancer when he was younger. He's phenomenal!

    January 26, 2012 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Wanda

    Denise, you have an advantage over most triathletes right now- you understand that in order to swim well you have to focus on technique! Most triathletes do not want to hear this.

    January 26, 2012 at 16:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. TheHawk

    I admire your strength!
    I started doing pushups and they didn't just make me stronger I learned that if you go down you are always going to have to get back up somehow if you want to succeed.

    January 26, 2012 at 21:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. 1amWendy

    Denise, I lost half a leg at age 4. Water was my friend – my dad used to call me an otter. I've had people tell me that water was a great equalizer for me. Keep it up, girl!!!

    January 27, 2012 at 11:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Denise

      Wendy, thank you! I hope to someday feel like an otter, or a mermaid! Hearing the success stories of fellow amputees makes me smile.

      January 28, 2012 at 17:02 | Report abuse |
  7. Rick Morris

    Denise, you can do it! I'm honored to have you as a team member and look forward to our first meeting in Atlanta. Don't ever believe you can't do something. Just do it.

    January 27, 2012 at 17:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. anne

    Denise, when you said "My prosthetic has been my safety net ever since I learned to walk again. It has essentially become my super hero cape. When I wear it, I know I can do anything. I have the world in the palm of my hand. Without it, am I handicapped?"
    It's like you stepped inside my head, I have been an amputee now for 10 years after being crushed in a tornado. This past week I have had to actually leave my prosthetic leg off due to a large blister and I am shocked at how useless I feel, I don't normally have difficulty doing any of my daily activities but I think I must be a really bad amputee because I can't hop, swivel, or balance very well at all without my prosthesis and I am horrified when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror without my leg on, it's like all of a sudden I realize I am an amputee (and I lost my leg 10 yrs ago.)
    I used to be a lifeguard and spent hours in the pool every day, but although I have tried to get in the pool without a leg, I was extremely self conscious and it was made worse by the horrified looks of the other swimmers seeing my empty prosthesis sitting on the pool deck even though it was partly covered by my towel. I also loved snorkeling and couldn't resist going into the ocean with my leg on with very limited success, lol, hard to make any headway with one ankle fixed at a right angle creating drag but that has become the only way that I am comfortable in the water, if I had my way I would never take it off – ever, without it I feel so vulnerable and yes, that is the only time I feel handicapped! Kudos to you for participating in the triathlon, you are an inspiration to us all, and I wish you all the best.

    January 27, 2012 at 23:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Denise

      Anne, I'm so glad you were able to relate to my story! Hopefully you'll be able to ditch the prosthetic and get yourself back in the water. I know it's scary, and the stares make it THAT much harder, but I'm so glad I did it. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to seeing myself without my prosthetic on. I know I'm an amputee, but to see myself in a photo or in the mirror legless still freaks me out. I'm hoping that comes in time?

      Best of luck to you! Please, if you'd like and you have a Facebook, contact me on there and we can keep in touch. I love meeting other amputees!

      January 28, 2012 at 16:59 | Report abuse |
  9. megan

    The good news is, long distance swimming is more arms than legs, so, though you may be short in the leg department, its really not going to hold you back in comparison to others. Keep up the good work 🙂 and good luck. I love the feeling of finishing a tri (right after I catch my breath). You will do great! Just relax and have fun.

    February 3, 2012 at 20:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.