MONTICELLO — Madison Stoffel was participating in a Champaign Heat club swimming practice in 2016 when it first happened.
Both of her hands turned a shade of purple often seen on clothes the Monticello senior wears.
Her fingers simultaneously went numb.
This was the start of a battle with thoracic outlet syndrome, which ultimately robbed Stoffel of her college swimming dreams.
But, for at least a short time, Stoffel is taking back her swim career in spite of the ailment.
The Sages’ small girls’ squad doesn’t possess a pool for workouts or meets, meaning Stoffel is preparing solely for the Nov. 16 sectional meet in Urbana.
She’ll get there by recording times in Champaign Heat races in the weeks leading up to the sectional.
And she knows it’ll hurt like hell.
“I probably won’t ever get the chance to swim in a competition like this again,” Stoffel said. “It’s going to be really hard, but I’m just going to push through ... just to have the satisfaction of, I did it one last time before I couldn’t do it again.”
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Stoffel has been a swimmer since first grade, she and a close friend spurred on by that pal’s older sister competing in the sport.
From a Monticello summer recreational league to a Clinton-based competitive team to the Champaign Heat, Stoffel built on her budding passion.
“It was just a genuine stress reliever,” Stoffel said. “Another reason I did it was just because that’s where all my friends started to be. ... I’ve always loved just being around pools.”
Prior to her freshman year of high school, Stoffel joined the Champaign Heat.
A rise in workout intensity from what she’d experienced with past clubs was accompanied by the first signs of thoracic outlet syndrome.
The purple hands. The loss of feeling in her fingers.
It’s the result of “when blood vessels or nerves in the space between your collarbone and your first rib are compressed,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Among the reasons it happens: as a repetitive-use injury in sports with heavy shoulder use, such as swimming.
Stoffel would leave the pool for short stretches, shaking out her hands. The symptoms returned as soon as she continued swimming.
Yet that’s exactly what she did. Even as the symptoms started showing up while she sat at her classroom desk.
“Fitness class is when we realized we were really scared,” said Stoffel’s mother, Laura.
“We were doing our end-of-the-year maxes (as freshmen), and I was trying to do power clean,” Madison Stoffel added. “I picked the bar up, and I got it to about almost my knees and it just fell out of my hands.
“I looked down and my hands were purple, completely numb, and I tried to pick it up again and my hands would not let me.”
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Stoffel paid a visit to her local family physician. He had no answers.
Neither did numerous other doctors and specialists. Stoffel estimates she showed her condition to a dozen such individuals — as far away as Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis.
All the while, she continued to swim. The purple hands and numbness soon were joined by “extreme shoulder pain.”
Finally, after six months of doctor appointments, a physical therapist in Champaign delivered a verdict.
“Two minutes of being in there ... she knew,” Stoffel said. “She put my arm up (in the air) and felt around and held my pulse. ... My pulse was just completely gone in my hand.”
Stoffel’s next stop was Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, which is renowned for its thoracic surgery unit.
Among those to undergo such a procedure at Barnes are former Illinois basketball player Malcolm Hill and ex-St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jaime Garcia.
Stoffel’s initial reaction to the surgery wasn’t a positive one.
“(Dr. Robert Thompson is) sitting in his office telling me he’s going to take one of my ribs out and he has to move a bunch of nerves around, and that a lot of people’s diaphragms collapse,” Stoffel said. “So that was extremely terrifying.”
Nonetheless, being told by her doctor that surgery and six months of physical therapy should leave her “110 percent better” allowed Stoffel to overcome any fears.
“I was kind of excited,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m actually going to be able to swim again without feeling pain.’”
In March 2017, Stoffel went under the knife to remove the first rib on her left side.
The four days following the operation were “definitely the worst ... of my entire life,” Stoffel said.
They included a hospital stay with frequent shots to ensure no negative effects from the surgery, including one to her stomach at 5 a.m. daily.
But once Stoffel left Barnes and completed her required therapy, she hopped right back in the pool.
“The first 45 minutes, feeling pretty good,” Stoffel said, “and then we started doing longer distance and more fast-paced stuff, and it was almost instant that just both hands (went) numb, shoulders (in) excruciating pain.
“I think I again cried because I was like, ‘This is not what’s supposed to be happening.’”
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The surgery was unsuccessful.
The folks at Barnes tried separating muscles and nerves near both of Stoffel’s armpits to “get that blood flowing,” as Laura Stoffel described it.
Madison Stoffel was presented three options: have a rib removed on her right side, swim through pain or stop swimming altogether.
She opted against a second surgery simply because of the first one’s failure.
And after attending a few more Champaign Heat practices, Stoffel decided to hang up her goggles and swim cap.
“It just wasn’t worth putting my body through that pain every day for such a little outcome,” she said. “Once we got talking to (college) recruiters and stuff, they say a lot of times, even if you are performing really, really well with an injury, a lot of colleges still won’t take you because you’re just a risk factor.”
Stoffel’s junior year at Monticello didn’t include any competitive swimming.
Prior to making the call about returning for her senior season, though, she stayed involved in the venture by giving lessons to younger athletes.
Stoffel does this in her family’s backyard pool. This most recent summer saw her tutoring “close to 40” kids, and a waiting list already exists for next summer.
“Even in just the two-week period that we spend together, it’s crazy how much information they absorb,” Stoffel said. “It really warms my heart that I started that interest in them.”
Knowing she won’t be swim in college, Stoffel desires to attend the University of Alabama beginning in 2020. She’ll study either “kinesiology slash athletic training” or business management while attending cosmetology school.
Before she readies for any of that, there’s more for Stoffel to accomplish in the water.
She’s aiming to qualify for sectionals in the 100-yard backstroke and a sprint freestyle event.
Then, barring state qualification, Madison Stoffel’s competitive swimming career will conclude.
Not the way she wanted, but at least on her own terms.
“I definitely am excited to see kind of the mental journey of it,” Stoffel said, “and see how mentally tough I can be to push through the physical pain of it without stopping.
“Because I know that, if I stopped, I would be forever mad at myself for not finishing this one last thing.”