COLUMBIA — It was the last ski run of the day for Jack Brown.
Brown, a U.S. National Team swimmer and nine-time All-American, was skiing on a warm April day in Tuscon, Ariz., when the accident happened. Brown was an avid skier, but in 2010 he hadn’t skied in five years to avoid the risk of an injury that would ruin his collegiate swimming career at the University of Arizona.
But after his final year swimming for the Wildcats, Brown and his roommate decided to go skiing. On the last run that day, Brown fell, rolled 35 yards down the mountain and broke his leg near his hip.
“Sure enough, when I went to move my left leg, it wouldn’t move at all,” Brown recalled. “It didn’t hurt at first, but when I went to move it again all of the sudden my whole body started shaking. It hadn’t even hit me at that point. I hadn’t even started to think about everything that it could be.”
When Brown arrived at the hospital, the surgeon told him there were two options: He could get a hip replacement, ruining his swimming career, or have three screws put through the bones in his leg, giving him a chance to swim again.
Brown decided to have the screws placed in his leg, starting a recovery that he hoped would allow him the opportunity to try out for the 2012 Olympics. The effort has brought Brown across the country to Columbia, where he found the conditions right for a return to the pool and an improbable chance to compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
"At that point, my chances of getting back in the water to make the Olympic team were 50-50,” Brown said of the surgery.
Afterward, Brown was in a wheelchair for three months and on crutches for a month and a half after that. Brown then had physical therapy for three months.
“The one thing about physical therapy that was frustrating was that they always wanting me to do less than I wanted to do," Brown said. "I always wanted to do more like any athlete, but they told me I couldn’t or else I would hurt myself.”
In August 2010, Brown began training for the U.S. national team. He was no longer a Wildcats swimmer, but he continued to train at Arizona. He soon became frustrated with the direction of his training after his former coach Greg Rhodenbaugh had left the Wildcats to become the new head coach for Missouri’s swimming and diving team.
“Part of my frustration with staying in Arizona was I had just come off an injury,” Brown said. “And my coach, who I had developed such a strong relationship with, just left. I didn’t really have a coach at the time. I was kind of being pawned off to different coaches at the time, and that was tough as well. I didn’t feel like I had a focused recovery plan.”
Brown came to visit his former coach at Missouri during the Missouri Grand Prix in February 2011. After talking with Rhodenbaugh, Brown decided to move to Missouri to train and to continue his academics as a graduate student. Brown then resumed his training in May in Columbia and made the U.S. national team again in August.
His next goal is making the U.S. Olympic team, and his coach has confidence Brown can make it.
“I think he’s got a great shot at making the Olympic team,” Rhodenbaugh said. “I think he could be one of the guys that could knock out one of the two top guys out. He’s already put himself back in that position.”
Even though Brown’s injury might seem like it’s hindered his swimming career, Rhodenbaugh said he thinks Brown has become a better person because of the injury.
“Jack worked through something that was pretty large and came out better from it, Rhodenbaugh said. "That’s what we are supposed to do as people, if we are approaching life in a healthy, productive way. We are given trials that we have to overcome. So I think that it says a lot about his character, that he was able to handle all of that.”
Brown will need to be one of the top two finishers at the Olympic Trials in July in order to make the Olympics. Although he is confident he can make the team, he also realizes this swim could be his last.
“I consider the Olympic trials to be the last swim of my career if I don’t make the team,” Brown said. “But, I want to leave the sport knowing that I've done everything in my power to make the team. My goal is to go there, swim my race and make the team.”
Brown’s leg still bothers him when he trains or swims, but he’s learning to not focus on the pain.
“The pins in my leg aren’t flush in with my bone, so I get a lot of grinding and popping and stuff," Brown said. "I’ve been told it's not a big thing, but it's actually excruciating. It's something I’ve learned to put in the back of my mind and not think about it, but it’s still really uncomfortable.”
Brown began training in September for the Olympics with nine water sessions a week and three weight sessions a week and is now fully into his training. No matter the outcome of the Olympic Trials, Brown has already accomplished something for himself.
"I'm really happy with my decision to move here and train," Brown said. "Even if I don't make the team, it's been a great journey, and I'm so grateful for everything that everyone has done for me."