TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Looking back on it, Bailey Scott now realizes how fortunate she is to be alive.
Her left arm was numb and her hand would turn different colors. The risk from blood clots forming so close to her heart and lungs was high. There were even concerns about the surgery. She could have died with barely a moment’s notice and on top of all of that the corrective procedure was the kind of thing that some wouldn’t have even try to come back from.
Yet the University of Alabama senior is set to compete at the NCAA Championships for a fourth and final time, beginning Wednesday. She’s one of five Crimson Tide female swimmers to have qualified in individual events on the Ohio State campus, with another four having earned relay positions.
Her story, though, stands out.
“She’s a real inspiration,” Crimson Tide swimming and diving coach Dennis Pursley said.
Swimming at such a high level is extremely difficult even under the best of circumstances, but at the height of her career, Scott was abruptly confronted with both the biggest physical and mental challenges of her life — the former being easier to deal with than the latter.
Even her own instinct was to say “enough” and walk away, not only from the sport but school. The only thing that kept her going was a promise, one that she simply couldn’t break.
“At the time I was ‘That’s dramatic Bailey, you’re fine,’ but looking back on it and talking with the trainers, it could have been a lot worse,” Scott said. “I just didn’t understand that.
“In reality ,it could have potentially been pretty bad.”
— Alabama Swim & Dive (@AlabamaSwimDive) March 12, 2018
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
In 2015, Scott knew that something was amiss, but no one could figure out what. The more she swam, the more her left arm and hand would go numb or feel tingly, and since there was no real physical evidence of an issue, some of her teammates wondered if it was just something in her head.
The initial guesses on the medical staff focused on the shoulder, maybe a labral or rotator cuff tear, or inflammation. She took eight weeks off in hopes that rest would be enough, but it didn’t help. Neither did mixing up her practice regimen, training in different strokes instead of just her primary stroke, the freestyle.
For roughly a year, the Crimson Tide staff tried everything they could think of, with no apparent results one way or another. Then there was a sudden change.
“Once my hand started turning purple and blue, it was ‘Something is wrong,’” Scott said. “I wasn’t gaining any muscle weight, I wasn’t gaining any muscle mass, because this whole left arm was dead essentially.”
It turned out that Scott had Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, an orthopedic and vascular condition that compromises the integrity of the arms, cardiovascular system and lungs. It stems from a compression of the nerves, arteries and/or veins in the passageway from the lower neck to the armpit.
“I was having impingements coming from my shoulder and it was causing a blockage of blood flow and nerve impulses down my entire arm,” she said. “Blood clots were forming around my heart and my lungs.”
Consequently, the situation was considered both life- and limb-threatening.
Scott underwent surgery in November 2015 and missed most of the swimming season. The procedure included the removal of a rib. Doctors cut around the scalene muscles in her neck to save them and shaved down some of her coracoid process that stabilizes the shoulder joint.
The rehab was difficult and it was projected she would need to be out of the pool for at least four months. Instead, Scott was back in the water after just four weeks, doing small drills. After eight weeks, she got the green light to go all out again.
“The first few weeks were really rough,” Scott said. “I couldn’t use my arm. I had 20 staples in my neck and my shoulder, so I was very limited. Once I got my mobility back, I was back in the water fairly early.”
Although it had been a relief to finally know what she was up against, Scott described the diagnosis as initially being devastating to her. She’d subsequently encountered something that truly was.
The inspiration’s inspiration
The key to understanding Scott and her swimming is that she’s been doing it longer than anything else minus breathing. Whatever her older brother tried, she wanted to be doing it too, so her mother started her in the pool at just 6 months old.
“No exaggeration,” Scott said.
Part of the thinking was to get her used to water as soon as possible — they had cousins with a pool, and one can never be too careful with infants. Only she loved it, and the safety concerns turned into an early passion.
Tupelo, Mississippi isn’t exactly known for being a swimming mecca, but Scott thrived. She was a three-time state champion in the 50-yard freestyle, and twice won the title in both the 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke.
Named Tupelo High School’s 2011 Athlete of the Year, she began developing an inner focus that heightened in competition. Call it a “game face” or whatever, but she definitely has it.
Also dramatically developing at the time was her relationship with her mother, who doubled as her best friend. They had always been close, kindred spirits if you will, sharing dreams and encouraging the other.
So naturally her mother’s first cancer diagnosis shook Scott, who was in her sophomore year at Alabama. Discovered in the colon, her mom fought it head on and appeared to beat it.
Or so the family thought.
It was when Scott was making her own comeback that the second diagnosis was made. This time it was in her liver.
“You don’t come back from that, and I didn’t know that,” Scott said. “I was very optimistic, I think our whole family kind of was.”
That added to the initial decision of not telling Bailey, at least not right away. They knew what her reaction would be.
“I would have been home in a heartbeat,” she said. “I found out how bad she was in May. I train here over the summer and I was training for the Olympic trials that year. It had been a dream of ours forever — especially for my mom and myself.”
Melissa H. Scott passed away on June 4, 2016. The retired school teacher was 53.
One of the last things she did was deliver a final message to her daughter.
“I got to spend a week with her at the end of May and and I was ‘I’m not going back to school. You’re crazy. I’m staying here,’” Scott said. “My mom sat up in the bed, she had been bedridden for a while, she sat up in the bed and was just like, ‘You get back to school.’ She was, ‘You’re going back. You’re training for trials. You’re going to swim and you’re going to do well.’ And you’re going to finish this and finish that, so I made all these promises to her.
“That’s why they didn’t tell me. I wouldn’t have been focused here.”
The tougher comeback
One of the things that appeals to many swimmers is the total immersion and isolation they feel in the water. They can see and sometimes hear others around them, but swimming itself is a very solitary thing. You’re alone with your thoughts while in a state of buoyancy. One can reach a mental state that’s similar to meditation.
It can also be therapeutic.
Scott’s mother had passed away on a Saturday. She was laid to rest on Monday and the swimmer was back in the water by Thursday.
“My family is big into not breaking promises,” she said. “I’m where she wants me to be and I’m doing what I love, and what she loved and what we loved together. That’s one part of it. Another part of it is my team has been incredible. They have been my family away from family, and they were the first people there when all of that is happening.
“Without the support from here, I wouldn’t have been able to come back the way I did. So my motivation is my mom, but I do it for my team too, because they were there for me.”
Over the summer, Scott competed in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and then she kept going. By November she was setting both personal bests and school records, and became an All-American for the first time.
Her junior year was also highlighted by becoming the first swimmer in program history to finish the 50 in under 22 seconds (21.84). She finished 13 th in the NCAA Championships while also competing in the 100 freestyle, and the 200 and 400 medley relays.
Along the way, Scott won the Crimson Tide’s Most Outstanding Swimmer Award and was nominated for the prestigious Honda Inspiration Award, a national honor that’s part of the Collegiate Women Sports Awards. She finished as one of three finalists, which sort of woke her up to what she’d endured.
This week will be her final meet for the Crimson Tide, but Scott will still be around Tuscaloosa. A communicative disorders major, she has another year of grad school, and is flirting with the idea of training for the next Olympic trials in 2020.
“I’m not ready to walk away from it,” she said.
In the meantime, she has a new message, one that she thinks her mom would definitely like.
“It’s OK to struggle, but you can push through,” Scott said.
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