Kevin Swiryn’s comeback story was inspirational, and then tragic, and maybe could be inspirational once more.
The former Saint Mary’s All American who became the USA 7s team captain had retired from the game in 2012 due to a series of injuries. He was in pain, beaten down after years of non-stop rugby, and needed a break. But along the way he got the passion back again.
During his break Swiryn moved to Seattle and got a job at Kibble & Prentice in the commercial insurance division. He was working there, with several other current and former rugby players, and after a while gave in to some gentle pressure to return to the field.
And he did, for all the right reasons – because it was fun. He played for the USA at the Maccabiah Games in 2013, and then started coaching at the University of Washington. Healthy, and not in pain, he started working out harder and harder, and then, as fans know, he got the call to try out for the USA team once more.
Amazingly, Swiryn made that team, suiting up for the Eagles in Dubai and South Africa, and getting warm welcomes from announcers and fans and opponents.
But then it all came crashing down in Wellington during the Plate semifinal against Australia.
He had worked so hard to get back there, and then, as he was running with the ball, he crumpled to the ground, his ACL torn, just like that. The comeback dream over, just like that.
“The initial feeling was a pop,” Swiryn told Goff Rugby Report. “The second feeling was a grind of my bones. I knew instantly, before I hit the ground, what had happened. The initial feeling … well I was in a bit of pain, but not a significant amount, was a whole lot of frustration. I remember I had a headband on and ripped it off.”
Swiryn said it took him about a minute to get over it, but that was just the initial shock. The feeling that his luck was turning against him stuck around for a few hours.
“At first I thought ‘just get me off the field and we’ll get on with this,’” he said. “Thinking ‘why me?’ Yeah that might have crossed my mind. But I mostly remember thinking at the time I had to root on my team and get some ice on it and try to stay positive.”
Head Athletic Trainer Brian Green said he needed to do a test on the knee, and Swiryn said to him, “I know what it is, it’s okay, don’t beat around the bush.”
And then that night in the hotel, Swiryn sat down in the corner of his shower and let it hit him.
“I was crushed. I was feeling sorry for myself. But thankfully that was the last time I felt negative about it.”
Good thing, too, as the injury turned out to be worse than feared – a torn ACL, but also a torn meniscus. The comeback was no more, right?
From then on it was about taking steps. Get on the plane home. Get to the doctor. Get the bad news (“we don’t know if you can come back from this”).
“They told me that I didn’t have enough time – that to get back and try for the Olympic team would mean I needed to be playing in camp in 4 1/2 months, ready by the Olympics in six months. They said there was a very slim chance. So I responded, ‘you’re telling me there’s a chance.’”
And Dr. David Chao, who has worked with USA team members for years, said the same thing, in a different way. “It’s not impossible.” The injury had to be the right sort of injury, and fixable in the right way. The surgeon has to be good, and the rehab, he said, had to be phenomenal.
That’s all Swiryn needed to hear.
The surgery went well – they were able to suture his meniscus back together, and then it was a case of rehab. Brett Thompson had also been injured in Wellington, and was also rehabbing at the same time. Swiryn got word from work that he would be allowed the time to devote to coming back.
And he had support, from Atavus in Seattle and the US national team.
“What I’ve learned from Atavus and (Waisale) Serevi, and why I was able to come back, is that hard work can be fun too, and that’s what I needed to get back,” he said. “But at the same time, it was Waisale Serevi, Mike Palefau and playing with Seattle and the Atavus / Serevi teams that rekindled my passion and joy for the game. That’s what I wanted – more of that. I came into the US team with that passion and joy because thanks to them I had re-learned to love the game again. Coaching at UW was the same thing. Those kids have such an immense love for the game, and it became contagious.”
Contagious, also, is competition, and Thompson and Swiryn have been sharing the competition of rehab.