As the postseason nears, Watterson High School senior swimmer Sam Schuttinger still is not 100 percent healthy, although that remains her goal.
She considers herself at 90 to 95 percent, but even that would be a significant improvement from last year when she worried that an injury could derail her state hopes and her future.
A year ago, Schuttinger had worked hard to improve her strength and conditioning during the offseason and was confident she would place high in the Division I state meet in the 200-yard freestyle and 500 free after placing sixth in both events as a sophomore and ninth in both events as a freshman.
In addition, she and 2012 graduates Camey Rabold, Aly Francis and Michele Rielly were among the favorites to win the state title in the 200 free relay after placing second in a team-record 1 minute, 35.03 seconds behind Upper Arlington (state-record 1:34.12) in 2011.
Schuttinger had teamed with Rabold, Rielly and 2010 graduate Gracie Finnegan to win state titles in both the 200 and 400 free relays as a freshman.
"I worked so hard and was really looking forward to my junior year because we had everyone from our relay back and UA had graduated their best relay person (Abby Chin), so there was no way we could lose," Schuttinger said. "Your junior season is really important for college recruiting, so I was hoping to finish high on the state podium in my individual events, too."
Schuttinger's dreams appeared to be dashed in November 2011 when she was injured during gym class. She collided with another student while playing soccer and tore the posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her right knee and fractured her patella and tibia in her right leg.
"I still have nightmares about that day," she said. "I was avoiding the ball like any uncoordinated swimmer should and the only reason I kicked it was I didn't see anyone around me. I just remember hearing this sickening snap, crackle and pop and feeling intense pain.
"I was devastated because I thought my junior season was over and that I had ruined the senior seasons of three of the greatest friends you could ever ask for."
Schuttinger chose not to undergo reconstructive knee surgery because that effectively would have ended any chance she had to compete in the postseason last February. With her right leg immobilized, she did as many dry-land training drills as possible to stay in shape. Then, in late December 2011, she resumed swimming against the advice of her physical therapist.
Her return to the water was short-lived, however, as she developed multidirectional instability in her right shoulder as a result of overworking her upper body to compensate for the weakness of her right knee. The multidirectional instability caused her shoulder to partially or completely dislocate several times while she swam.
"The pain was so bad at one point that I had to be dragged out of the pool and I just laid on a bench crying my eyes out," Schuttinger said. "Basically, I was a hot mess at that point."
Nevertheless, Schuttinger trained through the pain and made it back to the state meet, where she finished 23rd (54.05) in the 100 free and teamed with Francis, Rabold and Rielly to finish second (1:34.97) in the 200 free relay and third (3:30.55) in the 400 free relay.
"I came back but I didn't do nearly as well as I hoped I would," she said. "It was a blow to my self-esteem and I didn't think any college coach would want me after that."
Schuttinger received Division I scholarship offers from several schools during this past offseason as her body continued to heal and get stronger and she ultimately signed with the University of South Dakota on Nov. 22.
"I was so scared I wouldn't be recruited because of my injuries, and I'm so grateful that people still believe in me," she said. "South Dakota is beautiful and the coaches and girls on the team are sweethearts."
Watterson coach John Sands believes Schuttinger will have a strong finish to her prep career.
"Sam is our hardest worker and she's a strong leader who encourages and gets after our younger swimmers in the weight room and pool," he said. "She's incredibly versatile and she can compete with the best in any event that's offered in high school. Based on how well she's fared against the top competition in the state this year, I'd say that a state title isn't out of the question for Sam."
Schuttinger believes her injuries last season proved to be a blessing in disguise, as they allowed her to commit more time to community service programs. Having logged almost 1,000 hours of volunteer work, she said working with Special Olympics athletes has been one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.
"My injury has almost been a gift because it has revamped my enthusiasm for the sport by making it fresh and exciting again," she said. "Also, I got to do a lot more volunteering when I wasn't able to train, and it was fun to help other people do their best in swimming when I couldn't be in the pool.
"I adore the Special Olympics because it's shown me that there's so much more to life outside of the little universe that I live in. Those kids have taught me so much more that I could ever teach them, and spending time with them always makes me feel good."