By Jim Morris
When Martha McCabe discovered in early January she had a stress facture in her right collarbone she feared more than her chances of competing at this month’s Commonwealth Games were in jeopardy.
“You doubt yourself,” said McCabe. “There were times I thought this could be the end of my career.”
McCabe considered the hand fate had dealt her.
Even though the odds were stacked against her McCabe refused to quit. The months of pain, hard work and perseverance paid off when the 24-year-old from Toronto finished third in the 200-metre breaststroke at the Canadian Swimming Trials in Victoria, squeezing her way onto the 33-member team that will compete in Glasgow, Scotland, from July 23 to Aug. 3.
“It was a relief,” said McCabe, who finished fifth in the 200-m breaststroke at the 2012 London Olympics. “When I realized I had qualified I was like ‘now I am really sick of this injury.’
“In a way it was sometimes even more challenging because my mind was so ready to go but my body wasn’t fully healthy. Luckily it worked out. Now it’s about catching up on all the work I missed and really getting back into it for the Commonwealth Games.”
Ben Titley, head coach for the High Performance Centre – Ontario, praised McCabe’s determination and conviction. He believes the only other swimmer he has coached that could have overcome such a devastating injury is former world champion Liam Tancock.
“It’s a huge testament to her,” said Titley. “There would be days where she was obviously fazed by it but she never missed a workout. She never let it get to her.
“Anyone else I know wouldn’t have been able to handle it. They would have had a breakdown, they would have disappeared for a week.”
McCabe, a bronze medalist at the 2011 world championships, first noticed the pain in her collarbone in December. The stress fracture was confirmed by an MRI in January. She believes the injury was caused by overtraining in the gym.
“I got really fit really fast, which was awesome for my swimming but it kind of backfired a little bit,” McCabe said.
With four months until the trials McCabe couldn’t lift her arms over her head. She couldn’t use a kickboard or push off a wall.
“Swimming is a full body sport,” she said. “It was a little rough.”
McCabe said she wouldn’t be packing for Scotland if it wasn’t for Titley’s encouragement and ability to improvise training techniques to compensate for her injury.
“He is probably one of the most creative coaches I have ever worked with,” she said. “He would come up with ideas to try and mimic race-pace situations.
“That is so important in breaststroke to be able to feel how fast you are moving through the water so you can have that feel.”
One of Titley’s training devices was a wooden crutch with a belt and a bungee cord on the end. McCabe attached herself to the contraption and kicked in the water with her arms at her side while Titley ran up the side of the pool.
“I’m a big believer in swimming at race pace,” said Titley.
McCabe also spent time floating in the pool with a foam noodle tucked under her arms. That allowed her to kick while maintaining a breaststroke body position.
On the surface Titley remained positive and supportive. Inside, he had his doubts about McCabe being able to recover in time.
“I probably looked at it from a very logical point,” he admitted. “I could see what she was able to do and it wasn’t looking good.”
Watching McCabe at the trials, Titley remembers thinking “wow.”
“The last 15 metres looked like one of the most painful things I have ever seen,” he said. “She was unbelievable.”
McCabe cleared a big hurdle when she qualified for Glasgow, but she’s still in a race against time trying to catch up on lost training while the collarbone healed.
“The frustrating thing is even though I am near 100 per cent, I still have to catch up all that training,” she said. “When I dive into race I’m not necessarily the fastest right now. That can be a pain.”
Titley believes McCabe has the ability to contend for a medal in Scotland. She swam a time of two minutes, 27.03 seconds at the trials. To be in the medal mix at the Games she will need to swim around 2:22.
“Mentally we know she can handle it,” said Titley. “Physically will be the challenge.
“I fully believe she can be pushing for the podium.”
No matter what happens at the Games recovering from the injury has been a learning experience for McCabe. “I’ve learned a lot and I’m still in the process of learning things,” she said. “For one, not taking your full body for granted.
“Now that I am actually able to swim a workout it feels amazing. If my coach tells me to swim a freestyle set I’m just happy to swim a freestyle set because it was so frustrating not to be able to use my arms. I just want to makes sure every single opportunity I have to get better I am using it to my full potential.”