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One leg up

BY IAN MURPHY | DECEMBER 18, 2014 5:00 AM

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At one point, Brian Donatelli thought he would lose his leg, effectively ending his illustrious career for the Hawkeye swimming team.

However, two injuries to the same leg over the course of 14 months were not enough to keep one of the best swimmers on the Hawkeye team out of the pool. Not an ACL tear that led to a threatening condition in which the whole leg was in danger of amputation. Not a broken tibia and fibula that initially deformed the leg.

For redshirt junior Donatelli, the thought of hanging up his goggles was never an option.

•••

Lying in the middle of a field on Aug. 23, 2013, Donatelli wasn’t sure what happened. He hit an unseen divot in the uneven ground trying to catch a pass in a game of two-hand touch football, a team-bonding event, and almost immediately knew something was wrong.

He thought the pain might have stemmed from a sprained ankle but then realized the injury was much more serious when he couldn’t put any weight on the leg.

When he fell, he tore his left ACL, triggering a chain of events the swimmer from La Grange, Illinois, could not have foreseen.

Following an initial surgery to repair the injury on Aug. 29, 2013, the knee became infected, and he faced the possibility of losing his leg, and even his life, if the infection spread to his bone. He stayed in the hospital nine days, requiring four more surgeries.

His mother said the process took a lot out of Donatelli, and there was always the outside chance of not swimming again. But watching the 2014 Winter Olympics, Julie Donatelli had a simple message for her son. If those snowboarders, who had broken countless bones and torn many muscles, could come back from their injuries, so could he.

“It would have been so easy for him to have given up,” Julie Donatelli said. “He has taken what has happened and done what he has to do to get better.”

As Brian Donatelli put it, he was afraid. The redshirt junior still gets nervous walking on ice.

He missed three weeks of classes and dropped out of the fall semester. That one misstep on a football field kept him dry for the 2013-14 swimming season.

“He probably didn’t want to [stay home],” his mother said. “But it was in his best interest.”

And mother knows best. Like so many others, Julie Donatelli said, younger people don’t typically possess the maturity to cope with an experience such as this, but Brian Donatelli handled the challenge as well as possible, rebounding academically to make the Dean’s List for the spring 2014 semester.

An ACL tear takes six to nine months to rehab, and the process must follow a case-specific protocol, said Richard Evans, an adjunct faculty member at the UI Hospitals and Clinics Rehab Therapy.

Athletes could return to their sport in six months at the earliest after an ACL repair, he said, although a swimmer may be able to return sooner because the knee is not so stressed as it is in other sports. A gradual, monitored recovery process is necessary, he said. “[Swimming is] an activity they could get into sooner than if they were running hard or cutting or playing. football,” Evans said.

Donatelli hit that time line and worked hard enough to qualify for USA Swimming Phillips 66 Summer National Championships this year, the biggest meet of the summer season.

His times were nearly what they were before he tore his ACL, and he was explosive in the first two meets of this season, with no fear coming off the blocks, or heading into the walls, or any other part of the race.

Through those first two meets, against Michigan and the intrasquad meet, he posted the top times in the 50 and 100 freestyles.

And just when the dark-haired sprinter climbed back to peak performance, yet another massive injury threatened his career.

On Oct. 16, Donatelli was on his moped, following about 10 feet behind a vehicle and traveling at roughly the same speed. The car ahead of him slowed down to take a left turn without signaling, and in an effort to avoid a crash, he threw the moped out from under him.

The moped accident occurred just one day before the team traveled to East Lansing, Michigan to swim against Michigan State.

Head coach Marc Long and the captains decided to honor their teammate left behind by writing Dono, his nickname, on their right shoulders, the same place Donatelli has his traditional Tigerhawk tattoo. Both the men’s and women’s teams participated.

“It completely cuts into what you’re doing,” his mother said. “It was almost like a repeat of what happened last year.”

The moped landed on top of his left leg — the same leg with the repaired ACL. He looked down. He did not like what he saw.

Both his tibia and fibula were broken, 419 days after he tore the ACL. While the break was not compound, his leg was deformed.

“I was petrified when I looked down,” he said.

Another hospital stay. Another long visit from Mom. More doctors. More X-rays. More pain.

But this time, Donatelli was back in the pool only a few weeks later.

•••

Walking on crutches up and down the length of the 50-meter pool on a Tuesday afternoon in late October, one of the best sprinters on the Iowa men’s swim team had a look on his face that alternated between longing and excitement.

Donatelli leaned on his crutches, barefoot, wearing an Iowa beanie hat, an Iowa swimming and diving shirt with the word “team” and a Tigerhawk logo on the back. Just weeks after the moped accident, there is no cast or boot or brace on the injured leg.

Today, he is looked up to by his teammates. Donatelli was picked as a team captain this year despite not competing in a single meet last season.

As soon as he was cleared, he was back at the pool, watching practice and rehabbing his leg.

Just 49 days after the moped accident, he competed in the 50 freestyle at the Hawkeye Invitational. He touched in 21.07 seconds. His best time of the season prior to the injury was 20.79 seconds.
Donatelli said it was “weird” to swim the 50. He swam with one leg kicking and the other dragging behind him.

“The fracture is going to heal a lot quicker than a ligament,” Evans said. A non-complicated fracture takes six to eight weeks to heal in a young, healthy person, he said, though such factors as smoking and body weight can extend the recovery.

He’s still Brian Donatelli and still a leader of the team. Part of that growing is in the pool, he said, and part of it is mental.

During his time at home following the ACL tear, he said he found himself in a dark place, but after battling through those demons, he says he came out better than ever.

“I found out what’s important and kept reflecting on that,” he said. “It’s tough to go through those dark places, but you need that.”

He said he found unconditional love, and now he wants to share it with as many people as possible.

“[Donatelli] seems to have understood that anger is a fundamentally wasted emotion,” said Scott McNabb, a mentor and UI associate professor emeritus of education. “If he could figure that one out, what a huge life lesson he has learned.”

McNabb has had Donatelli in several of his classes, and he visited the swimmer in the hospital after the moped accident.

He told Donatelli during the hospital visit that he would help him pass the class in any way he could.

Donatelli, in turn, made every attempt to make it to class after breaking his leg. McNabb said he was shocked that he missed only a few classes.

“He just guts it out,” McNabb said.

The two have developed a brother-type of relationship. McNabb even dropped off a small transistor radio so Donatelli could listen to NPR’s coverage of the upcoming elections.

“They say that a measure of character is how you deal with the challenges you’re confronted with in life,” McNabb said. “In the brief time I’ve know this young man, he has dealt with extraordinary pain with these two injuries, both freak accidents.”

Donatelli’s character is continually praised by those around him.

“He never gave up and continued what he was doing,” his mother said. “He has a multitude of interests, and he has continued pursuing them.”

His coach echoes the sentiments.

“We have some concrete goals in the water for him, but the payoff is going to be later in life,” Long said. “He still has a long road, but he’s determined.”

“This kid has been through a lot,” McNabb said. “He’s onto something a lot bigger than the swimming team.”

Throughout the process, Donatelli said, he has adopted McNabb’s philosophies, key parts of which are being grateful and having fun, and it’s clear he’s having plenty of fun.

He is still the team leader and is still, as his mother put it, embracing everything the UI has to offer. She said he takes time to show new international students around.

As for swimming, he says thinking too much about times takes the fun away.

“You just gotta enjoy it,” Donatelli said. “This can be taken away from you at any moment.”

That’s a lesson he knows all too well.

“A lot of people think my season is over,” he said. “Hell, no. As long as my heart’s still beating, I’m still a part of this team.”


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