Written by SportsDayDFW.com
Highland Park's Karalyos has had quite a long swim back
Swimmer overcame temporary paralysis, fractured vertebrae after pool accident in 2008
UNIVERSITY PARK — The other day, Ann-Claire Karalyos was struck by an odd thought after a swimming practice and she wanted to share it with a Highland Park teammate, wondering if the water granted him a similar sense of liberation.
“When you’re in a pool,” she asked, “do you ever feel like you’re flying?”
A few years ago, swimming helped save Karalyos’ life. And since then, she’s tried over and over to make it as prominent a part of her life as it once was.
Back then, Karalyos never reacted to sports on the land. When her father, Laszlo Karalyos, tried throwing a soccer ball her direction for the first time, she caught it with her face, suffering a bloody nose. She was never quite into tennis, either. Swimming brought out her best.
“We went to the pool, and you just can’t take her out,” Laszlo Karalyos said.
As she grew older, she competed in the Junior Olympics and with top club teams. Originally from Canada, she was one of the country’s top youth swimmers. That was her pedigree when the family moved to the Chicago area, where everything would change.
At practice in the summer of 2008, her coach asked her to perform a new dive as part of a workout. Karalyos said he told her to thrust off the board with her hands at her side, like a penguin dive. The goal was to create a quicker start.
“It’s not like I doubted him,” she said. “I trusted him 100 percent.”
Karalyos propelled through the water, crashing head-first into the surface, unable to control her body. She was able to stand up in the water, and then her body started shutting down. The pressure felt like someone was sitting on top of her. She was paralyzed for a couple of hours.
The fall fractured two vertebrae, and one struck her spine. The doctors said that if her back and neck hadn’t been strengthened from years of swimming, the bone could have punctured the cord worse. She might have faced permanent paralysis. She might have died.
Karalyos was fortunate, not even requiring surgery on her spine. She was in the hospital for eight days. The recovery, though, will never end.
In the months afterward, Karalyos was placed in a full-body cast. A year went by before she could get back in the pool, tiring out after walking in the water. She wasn’t able to truly swim competitively until 2010, and she has never felt as she once did.
Swimming, perhaps more than other sports, requires a participant’s ultimate exertion. Karalyos cannot physically do that. Sitting at her desk for an extended period, she experiences pain in her upper back and neck. When she reaches the threshold at which she used to push past in a race or workout, her neck tightens and her body sometimes goes numb.
“I love it, but it’s really, really hard,” she said. “I don’t win gold medals all the time like I used to. It’s kind of like a love-hate kind of thing.”
Last weekend, she remembered why she still swims, why she wants to for as long as she can. Karalyos, a junior, participated in six events at the Greater Southwestern Invitational, dropping her best times in all of them, the first time she had done so in more than a year.
Friday and Saturday, she’ll compete in the 100 breaststroke, 50 freestyle and possibly a relay or two at the 4A Region II championship. Karalyos’ goal is to make the state meet, though she’s already achieved plenty. Even during these last few years, nothing has taken her out of the water.