FAYETTEVILLE – Tera Bradham
, a member of the University of Arkansas swimming and diving program, was named a semifinalist for the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup. The award honors collegiate and professional athletes who best display character, teamwork and citizenship. Bradham was among 31 semifinalists to be honored.
“Being a semifinalist for the Wooden Cup is the biggest honor I’ve ever received because you can get academic honors and you can get athletic honors, but something that encompasses your character and who you are means more to me than anything,” Bradham said.
Bradham’s semifinalist honor marks the second consecutive year that an Arkansas student-athlete has been recognized by the Wooden Cup. Last year, Nathanael Franks
won the Cup for his performances on and off the track.
Bradham was chosen to be nominated for the award by the University of Arkansas’ Office of Student-Athlete Scholarships & Awards Committee out of nearly 50 other Razorback student-athletes who met the minimum criteria for the award.
To complete her application for the award, Bradham submitted several different components, including an essay detailing her struggle to recover from arm surgery, an impressive resume of more than 30 different community service events she has attended, and three letters of recommendation from coaches.
“I worked with (Career Development Coordinator) Alison (Nail) a lot,” Bradham said. “We worked on it for probably a month or two. She had me write that essay that’s five pages or so. Then, we had a list. I tried to remember, and couldn’t even begin to remember, all of the individual community service events that I had done. Then, I had three recommendations.”
Each nominee was asked to demonstrate athletic ability, including training behavior and relationships with teammates and coaches, and contributions to the campus or community. For Bradham, her resilience to continue rehabilitation and training in the wake of recovering from surgery was met with her dedication to serving the community.
“Being involved in things outside of yourself means so much to me,” Bradham said. “I worked last year a lot with Horses for Healing. It’s in Bentonville, which is a 40-minute drive. A lot of times I would catch myself thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I have so much due. I can’t take four hours out of my day every week to go help.' Then I would get there and I would see a girl who took thirty minutes to get on a horse. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to be more productive with the few hours I have left in my day than I ever would have been before I had gone there.’ It’s such a perspective shift. I think that’s the most essential thing for me. By serving others, it’s what makes life worth living.”
Below is an excerpt of the essay Bradham submitted to the Cup committee describing her journey of recovering from injury.
Bradham came to the University of Arkansas a week after her high school graduation to get a head start on her rehabilitation from a major shoulder surgery. The surgery encompassed the anchoring of torn cartilage in her shoulder back to the bone and was what she thought was the end of a five-year battle with debilitating pain. Five years earlier, Bradham tore her shoulder at the end of the 50-yard freestyle at the Texas Swimming and Diving State Championships. She lunged into the wall full-speed in order to win her seventh event of the championships. Until that moment, Bradham had been the fastest swimmer in the country her age in three events for three years. She was a 34-time state champion and had broken six Texas state records that she still holds today, eight years later. Her coaches discussed not whether she would make the Olympics, but whether or not she would have a shot at age fifteen. The sky was the limit for Bradham…until that 24-second race.
“My coach has told me that I would swim through a wall if I had to in order to win. Well, I actually did that.” Bradham jokes about it now, and from the joy in her demeanor you would never guess the story behind a comment concerning the moment that changed her life.
Bradham knew the moment she tore her shoulder, but was on such an adrenaline rush that she ignored the pain. When she woke up the next morning she could not lift her arm. After kicking for a summer without using her arms, the pain was no better. An orthopedist administered a shot to alleviate the inflammation. He accidentally nicked an artery with the needle, causing a hole in Bradham’s lung. After swimming through an entire practice with the hole, causing air to be pushed out of her lung and into her throat, her local doctor sent her directly to the emergency room. Doctors said if she had swum another practice, she would have died.
After recovering from the near-lung collapse, Bradham returned to swim, seeing every type of doctor imaginable. All told her she had tendonitis or they could not diagnose the issue. One quietly took Bradham’s parents aside and whispered his recommendation to see a sports psychologist. He said Bradham could not handle her “fall from fame,” and was making up the injury as an excuse.
So after five years of excruciating pain, the surgical repair of Bradham’s labrum in 2011 left her hopeful. Doctors told her that she might never compete at the level she did before surgery, and if she did it would be at least two years before she came close to a best time. After watching the bus pull out with the team the entire season as she redshirted, Bradham raced a 100-yard breaststroke during the break of a dual meet in March of 2012, a year after her surgery. Her teammates’ cheers erupted on the edge of the pool as she posted a 1:04.3, less than a second slower than her personal-best time. At a meet in June Bradham competed for the first time since surgery in the 400-meter individual medley, her best event. She missed the Olympic Trials qualifying standard by fewer than two seconds. Two weeks later Bradham competed in the Omaha Swimvitational, finaling and placing third in the 200-meter IM and missing the Olympic Trial Qualification standard by 0.68 of a second.
“It is absolutely gut-wrenching to look up and see you missed Olympic Trials by half of a second, but for me a victory came with that defeat. It was a comeback meet, and I got to prove to the world what faith and belief can do. I’ll be back in four years,” Bradham said with a gleam in her eyes after the race.
After her triumph in Omaha, Bradham was faced with another obstacle. Her shoulder pain was as agonizing as ever, and after pushing through to attempt to qualify for Olympic Trials, she was once again unable to lift her arm. Two weeks after her performance in Omaha, she was on the operating table again. This time surgeons found many minor causes of pain, but said on the whole the repair looked perfect and she should be pain free. Bradham returned to the pool in less than two weeks. She competed in the 2012-13 season, never failing to score for the team. At the SEC Swimming and Diving Championships in March, Bradham placed 26th in the 200-yard IM. After almost scratching the 400 IM, her best event, due to pain, Bradham opted to compete for her team. She qualified for the C Final and after a surging finish from eighth to fourth place in her heat, Bradham placed 20th in the event.
Two weeks later Bradham quit the sport. Her shoulder pain became intolerable not just for the sport, but for life. She could not brush her teeth, reach for an object, write or type, put on a backpack, or sit in class without jumping from surges of pain. She had radiating pain from her shoulder to her hand 24 hours a day, could not sleep from the pain, had waves of temperature changes through her bicep, and had a patch of numbness on her shoulder that kept expanding and causing a loss of sensation in her arm. All doctors gave up and said there was nothing else they knew to do. Her teammates told her to quit trying to come back and be the manager for the team. Friends told her if she ever wanted to be able to pick her kids up one day, she should forget about trying to swim again.
When asked how she kept going despite the overwhelming negativity around her, Bradham smiles. “I won’t say I wasn’t in the fight of my life, because I was. I had no quality of life at age 19 and according to the world I was destined to live with it for the rest of my life. But what most people think is a door closing is actually a miracle waiting to happen.”
After three months of no exercise and extremely limited use of her arm, Bradham’s shoulder was worse than ever. Her parents found a surgeon in Denver who agreed to look at her case. After a month of rehab and little improvement, he and his team agreed to perform another surgery, the third surgery on Bradham’s shoulder in three years. Once under the anesthetic, Dr. Schlegel realized Bradham’s shoulder had severe instability in three of four directions that he was unable to diagnose before due to her subconscious compensation. Other than this, he agreed with the previous doctors that nothing looked out of the ordinary. But, as they had decided earlier that Bradham’s biceps appeared to be the cause of pain, he began a biceps tenodesis, or a cutting off the biceps tendon. As he pulled the biceps back, he found the source of pain: on the underside of the tendon, not visible until this procedure, was severe damage and trauma. After being torn from the initial injury for eight years, the bicep was essentially rotting through itself.
“Either problem would have given her severe pain, but the two together would have been overwhelming,” Schlegel told Bradham’s parents after the procedure. For Bradham, the procedure was nothing short of a miracle. “I knew it,” she whispers. “I just knew it.”
After three weeks in a body brace and six more weeks in a sling, Bradham is now exercising again and continuing to improve each day. Bradham says few believe she will come back. But she replies, “I will swim again. I will fight for my destiny, and one day I will throw my children up in the air and catch them, laughing in joy. I will do everything that the world told me was impossible.”
Bradham recently starting running, and she has no pain for the first time in as long as she can remember. She continues to heal every day and hopes to be competing in swim meets by this summer. Bradham is applying for a medical redshirt this year, and since she is graduating a year early, she plans to get her master’s degree in education while continuing to compete collegiately. However, just swimming again isn’t Bradham’s goal.
“I am going for the Olympics. I know this dream is utterly impossible, but if you can accomplish a dream on your own without God’s intervention, then it is not big enough. I serve a God of the impossible, and I believe He will take me there; but if I don’t make it, the journey is the reward. And just watch the lives I will touch and the things I will accomplish in the process.”
When asked what she hopes people learn from her story, Bradham sits quietly for a moment. Then she simply but passionately declares with confidence, “I want to encourage people to hope against all hope, to see the invisible, to go for the impossible, and to believe the incredible. I want to speak life and encouragement into people who think they have lost their dream.”
Bradham’s story of hope, determination, and perseverance has just begun. “A story isn’t worth living if you don’t have to fight for it,” she says. For anyone who knows Tera Bradham
, there is no doubt that she is up to the task.
For more information on Arkansas swimming and diving, follow @RazorbackSwim