Becca Parrow never realized how much her Harford County swimming title meant to her until she thought she might not be able to defend it.
The first gold medalist in Joppatowne swimming history, Parrow won the 100-yard freestyle at the Harford County championships last winter and finished second in the 50-yard free. She seemed likely to win at least one of the two again this season -- until she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.
The injury occurred a week into swimming practice while playing soccer in the Harford County Senior All-Star Game.
"My foot caught in a divot in the grass. The rest of my body pivoted, but my knee didn't," said Parrow, 17. "I felt the pop and I heard it, too."
That November day, Parrow wondered whether her high school athletic career was over. In addition to tearing the ACL, she also sprained the medial collateral ligament in the same knee. The MCL would heal, but to repair the completely torn ACL, she would need surgery. Rehab likely would last four to six months.
Parrow was lucky from a competitive standpoint, because she was a swimmer.
Her injury, although serious, has less impact on swimming than other sports. Her orthopedic surgeon, Dr. G. Howard Bathon, said swimming, especially freestyle swimming, would not aggravate the injury, so they postponed surgery until Feb. 18 -- a week after the county finals.
"He said do whatever does not hurt," said Parrow. "He said it would be good for my knee to get in [the pool] and move it."
Bathon said the ACL function is more critical to sports such as soccer, basketball and volleyball, because they involve cutting and/or jumping.
"Swimming doesn't involve any of those things," said Bathon. "The flutter kick comes from the hip and the knee goes along for the ride. The flutter kick doesn't depend upon intricate knee function."
Once Parrow found out she could still swim, she hit the pool with a new determination.
"I definitely want to keep my title," said Parrow, "so I keep doing everything I can. I push myself hard, harder than before."
Her coaches noticed.
"She's like a different kid this year," said Mary Ann Smith, who coaches the Mariners along with her husband, Ted Smith. "All of a sudden Becca's really working. Last year, it just seemed to come, so she wasn't the hardest worker. It was like no one was going to beat her. Maybe with the injury, she thought she could be beaten."
Parrow finished second in her first race, a 50-yard freestyle event, on Dec. 16. She is unbeaten in nine races since.
On Jan. 11 at Magnolia Middle School, Parrow broke her own school record of 26.09 seconds by swimming 26.04.
"I really surprised myself," said Parrow, who also holds the school record in the 100-yard freestyle at 57.52 seconds. Her fastest time this season is 58.17.
When she first got back in the pool, Parrow didn't have much trouble with her stroke, but she struggled with starts and turns.
"The first week, I tried some turns and I was very far away from the wall," said Parrow, who could not compete in the 100 at first because it required three flip turns in the 25-yard Magnolia pool.
"Now, it's a lot better. I trust myself, that I won't smack my heel on the wall. I know this pool. I know where my foot is."
Bathon explained that the ACL is one of four principal ligaments holding the knee together. In addition to that "cable effect," he said, the ligament is also "important in letting you know where your body parts are in space."
Parrow said she had difficulty determining where her ankle was in relation to her knee when she first got back in the pool.
"My knee was very Jell-O-like and it didn't feel like it was even there. It was so weird. But that was at the beginning [of the season]. Now, I have a good sense," said Parrow, who has been in physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around the knee.
She has occasional soreness in the knee after a meet or an intense practice, but nothing an ice pack can't ease.
As a freestyler, Parrow was able to come back quickly even though she said her kick is not quite as strong as it was. She swam the 50 free in 26.41 seconds in her first meet back.
Because the kicks used in other strokes require more use of the knee, Parrow only can do the backstroke, but her times aren't as good as they were.
Still she knows she has her work cut out for her if she is to win another county title -- especially with so much practice time lost to snow days.
Three meets have been canceled, so Parrow hasn't even had a chance against her best competition -- especially C. Milton Wright freshman Patti Rawlick, who has posted a 25.58-second finish at 50 yards.
In the county meet, which begins with preliminaries Tuesday at Magnolia and concludes with finals Thursday, Parrow will be seeded second in the 50 and fourth in the 100.
"She really hasn't been pushed, so it's hard to tell what she could have done if she had been," said Smith of Parrow, who last year broke her own school records almost every time she swam.
Parrow's new motivation has made her rethink her college plans.
As a freshman, Parrow decided soccer would be the sport she pursued in college. Admittedly burned out and suffering from shoulder tendinitis after four years of year-round junior swimming, Parrow fell in love with soccer in the eighth grade.
She decided to swim for the Mariners to keep in shape and because she was good at it, but she didn't plan to compete after high school. Now, she is considering swimming at a Division III college, but only because she could also play soccer.
Now that she has shown she can win despite her injury, Parrow wants to prove she can still best the county's year-round swimmers in the girls county meet, which begins with Tuesday's preminaries and concludes with the Thursday's finals.
"I want to stand up on that podium and show everybody that I can still swim," said Parrow. "I'm determined to take finals."