March 16, 2012
Pierse keeping her head above waterAfter beating debilitating illness, Canuck ready to take on the world
By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency
VANCOUVER - About a week after returning home from the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India, Vancouver swimmer Annamay Pierse woke up feeling as though she had been run over by a truck.
That was about a year-and-a-half ago. Yet when Pierse talks about that day, and what she went through afterwards, she still shakes.
“I had a fever,” she said. “A huge fever. And it felt like every single bone in my body had been broken. I couldn’t move. If I rolled over, it hurt. If I stayed in the same position, it hurt.
“I couldn’t move my eyes ... you get this pain behind your eyes. It’s unbelievable.”
That was just the start. Pierse blew off practice and went to see her doctor, who took blood samples and the like, and suggested it might be the flu.
“I thought, ‘This is not the flu,’ ” said Pierse. “This is so not the flu.”
The next few days for Pierse were “excruciating.”
“On the Thursday I thought I was going to die,” she said. “My nose kept bleeding and my mouth kept bleeding. I couldn’t eat. I lost a lot of weight, very fast. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t watch TV, I couldn’t read. Basically, I curled up in a ball, wishing things were over.”
Pierse said the fever subsided after about four days, but that wasn’t the end of it.
“My hands and feet turned purple,” she said. “(I found out later) all the plasma was leaking out of my blood. And then I got covered in a rash and it’s like your blood’s boiling under your skull.”
Sitting in a coffee shop across a walkway from the University of British Columbia pool, where she trains with the UBC Dolphins, Pierse laughs nervously when discussing that horrific time back in October 2010. She laughs often. It’s like a survivor’s laugh, someone who laughs easily because they survived a devastating experience.
For days on end, Pierse remained in her little apartment, mostly suffering in silence, alone.
“I think I was delirious,” she said, laughing again. “I should have been in the hospital. But it was kind of bad timing. My family and everybody was kind of preoccupied and stressed.”
At the time of her illness, Pierse’s younger sister, Grainne, who is also a competitive swimmer, had been diagnosed with a serious autoimmune disease and had been in the hospital a couple of weeks earlier. Annamay didn’t want to put extra stress on the family, though she did tell them that she wasn’t feeling well.
“I think they did a little bit of: ‘Oh, it’s just Annamay. She’s just being a drama queen. It’s fine.’ But I wasn’t fine,” she said.
What it was, the lab revealed about a week-and-a-half later, was Dengue fever — an infectious tropical disease transmitted by several species of mosquito, which she caught in India at the Commonwealth Games. In some cases, the disease can become life-threatening.
Cases of Dengue fever in Canada are obviously rare. And Pierse discovered that she couldn’t do much to treat it.
“I couldn’t take anti-inflammatories because they thin your blood and the doctors don’t want you to bleed to death,” she said.
“My doctor offered me morphine. But I didn’t want to take any pain-killers because I would have overdosed on Tylenol.”
She wasn’t kidding.
Two weeks later, though still sore and tired, Pierse headed back to the pool to start training again.
“This is what athletes do sometimes. We’re not very smart,” she said, laughing again. “Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have done that.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of her problems with Dengue fever. Three months later, her doctor called her in for a chat, suspecting that Pierse was still in pain, at least emotionally. She was.
“The doctor told me there was a depression side of having Dengue fever,” she said. “And she was right. I had been a hermit, always upset, crying at the drop of a hat. I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t feel the same kind of bubbly person I had always been. But being an athlete you have to be tough. You have to be all these things. My sister was going through something so big and I had to be there for her. And I had to be tough in swimming and be the athlete I had been in 2009.”
The athlete she had been in 2009 was a star. Every time Pierse entered a meet that season, she seemed to set a record. At the Canadian short course nationals that March, she broke her first world record (short course) and won a car. She was training better than ever and, at the world championships trials that summer, the Toronto-born, Edmonton-raised swimmer smashed two Canadian records, in the 100 and 200 breast. Then at the world championships later that summer in Rome in the semi-final, she broke the long course world record in the 200 breast (2:20.12). Probably because of her incredibly draining swim in the semi, she faded in the final, but still managed to win a silver medal.
Swimming people began talking about the Joszef Nagy-coached athlete. The buzz was, by the 2012 London Olympics, she’d be a gold medal favourite. Canada hasn’t won a gold medal at the Olympics since Mark Tewksbury in the 100-metre backstroke at the 1992 Barcelona Games, so it was a considerable buzz. Despite her disappointing finish in the final at Rome, Pierse was on top of the world.
But her world came crumbling down in 2010. First there was a broken finger, suffered in training. Then a mysterious illness, which sapped her strength, that took months to diagnosis. That turned out to be a magnesium deficiency. Then came the bout with Dengue fever.
After that, there was a very different buzz surrounding the personable swimmer, whispers that she was a spent force, the victim of circumstances beyond her control. She began to wonder herself if her best days were behind her.
Her best competition time in 2010 in the 200 breast fell to 2:23.65, a full three seconds slower than her world record, and her time dropped to 2:24.10 in 2011.
At a World Cup in 2011, she was a mess, terrified to swim, to open up to anyone. Finally, one of her trainers sat her down and basically told her to look inside herself, stop blaming others for her problems and get on with her life.
“Whatever it was, I knew I had to fix it, or there would be no London,” said Pierse. “For someone like me, who had always been so independent and very self-sufficient, to be that person who would say, ‘All right, I need help’’ — that was tough.”
As the 2011 season ended, she sought help, from sports psychologists, from her friends, family and coach, and began rebuilding her career, determined that better days were still ahead.
A few weeks ago at a training camp in Hawaii, Pierse began to feel like her old self, training harder than she had in some time. She pushed and punished herself in the pool. And loved it.
“We did this one set in Hawaii and I puked my guts out. Like, hurled,” she said, laughing, of course. “And Joe (Nagy) was standing on the side of the pool, just clapping and cheering.
“When you work hard enough to puke, that’s a good thing,” he said. “And I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ ”
Pierse will compete at the Canadian Olympic team trials, March 27-April 1 in Montreal. For that, she’s excited and nervous — and confident. Confidence is a great thing, particularly when you lose it and get it back.
“I have everything in place now,” said the 28-year-old swimmer. “And everything in the right place to have a great year.”
She’s asked the million dollar question. Can she get back to where she was in 2009?
Pierse puts her head down for a moment and then looks up and smiles.
“I think I can,” she said.