Remarkable People

By David

Every swim team has members with extraordinary stories to tell. West Auckland Aquatics is no exception. Nikki Johns’ story is exceptional. Six months ago the seventeen year old was another promising swimmer coming to grips with the testing training ideas of her new coach. She seemed happy enough with the challenge. Seven personal bests in nine races at the Auckland Winter Championships was an auspicious start. An improvement from 1.06 to 1.04 in the 100 meters backstroke was particularly pleasing. She confidently began planning and preparing for the 2011 summer racing season. For someone who had previously swum around 20 kilometers a week, Nikki recorded eight weeks of 45 kilometers a week. She looked great. She was swimming strongly and was a fun, larger than life, member of the West Auckland Aquatic’s team. Coaching the Nikki Johns of this world is tough but it’s a privilege as well.

In October, Nikki had a couple of quiet training weeks as she prepared for final exams and attended some end of year school functions. She had an annoying sore throat that required a short stay in hospital. Then it got worse. I visited her in Auckland Hospital’s Ward 47. She was in good spirits and looking forward to getting back to training. She clearly enjoyed the water-wings I took her just in case she had forgotten how to swim. Doctors said she would be out of hospital by the end of the week. There was no need for her tonsils to be removed. A course of antibiotics would quickly put an end to some residual infection in her throat.

Nikki’s father is an Auckland region senior swimming referee. The weekend after my hospital visit he was working at a swim meet at our team’s home West Wave Pool. I thought I’d check on Nikki’s progress. Was she home? Would she be back at swimming next week?

“No she will not,” he said. Nikki had been rushed into emergency surgery during the night. Most of her large intestine had been removed. Nikki had what the medical world calls a colostomy. Wikipedia describes what had happened as follows: “A stoma is formed by drawing the healthy end of the large intestine through an incision in the abdominal wall and suturing it into place. This opening, in conjunction with the attached stoma appliance, provides an alternative channel for feces to leave the body. A portion of the colon (or large intestine) that has been operated upon often needs to be ‘rested’ until it is healed. In this case, the colostomy is often temporary and is usually reversed at a later date, leaving the patient with a small scar in place of the stoma.” No one was sure what had caused the infection to her bowel. The removed tract was being flown to a specialist laboratory in Japan for analysis.

All that was five weeks ago. Nikki was never over weight but she is now 15 kilograms lighter. Her physical and mental recovery has been remarkable. Just read this amazing record of text messages she sent her swimming coach.

October 23, “Just had surgery.”

October 23, “No, tummy operation. Feel like sht.”

November 8, “Hey David, got out of hospital 2 days ago. Will c u at the pools today.”

November 22, “Hi David, I’m gna swim even if I just do a kilometer or something. Wot time will u b down thr.”

Last week Nikki swam 1500 meters for each swim and totaled nine kilometers in the week. This week she will swim a similar distance. As if that’s not remarkable enough, she confidentially answers the most detailed questions put to her by inquisitive team mates. “How often do you clean the bag?” What does the bag look like?” “How often do you have to replace the bag?” “How do you do it?” No question is too personal. No inquiry too intimate. Everyone is answered openly and honestly. She has the most mature approach to her current problems. I’m sure the speed of her physical recovery is a reflection of the health of her mental state.

Next Tuesday Nikki will back in hospital to have what she tells me is a reversal of the colostomy. They are going to sew her back together. In typical Nikki fashion she says she’ll be ready for our January training camp and will top the team in the race to secure a tan. Her courage is a lesson to us all. I do hope that one day soon, when she is restored to full health, she resumes her swimming career and brings that 1.04 down to under a minute. When that does happen I have no doubt her improvement will be entirely the result of the character and sheer bloody minded toughness she has shown during this time of handling something much more important than how fast you can swim two lengths of a swimming pool.

Nikki Johns – good luck and best wishes next week.

Nikki Johns

Nikki Johns