Matt O’Donnell, a Bradenton resident and member of the North Carolina State swimming and diving team, was working out as usual one day in May 2015.
Then O’Donnell felt a pop and a snap in his neck. His mother, Stephanie, said Matt described it as “shards of glass in his neck.”
Matt consulted three N.C. State trainers, which led to a trip to Duke’s neurology department.
O’Donnell, who was diagnosed with hydrocephalus — which is when there is excess brain fluid that requires a silicone-tubed shunt placed internally from the brain down to the abdominal cavity to help drain the extra fluid — at 6-months old, spent the rest of the summer getting tested before Duke neurologist Dr. Herbert Fuchs got involved.
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Two brain surgeries and eight months later, O’Donnell qualified for the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha, Neb., in the 200-meter backstroke. The trials start Sunday and conclude on July 3.
“I feel ecstatic,” said O’Donnell via the phone from Raleigh, N.C. “There’s not a lot of people that make it that have an opportunity like this, whether it be in swimming or any other sport. With that being said, it would not be possible without the support of my coaches, my teammates, sports medicine staff, Duke Neurology and obviously my parents.”
O’Donnell swims Thursday in the 200-meter backstroke. His first competitive swim meet post-brain surgery took place in May. Just a year earlier, he was on the cusp of meeting the qualifying standard time in both of his events — the 200 backstroke and the 400 individual medley — during a stellar sophomore season at N.C. State, during which the Wolfpack won their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
But after that day in May 2015 and the testing that followed, O’Donnell’s swimming career was put on hold. And his time living with a shunt inside him was coming to a close, too.
“They determined ... that the problem had fixed itself,” said O’Donnell, a rising redshirt junior for the Wolfpack. “So the plan of action then was to take the shunt out.”
That removal came in September. Just a few weeks later, O’Donnell was a few days away from his check-up visit when something else happened.
“I got the most terrible headache I’ve ever gotten in my life,” O’Donnell said.
The pain was so severe, O’Donnell said, the lights in his room needed to be off and he couldn’t eat.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no, he needs to have it put back in. It didn’t work,” Stephanie said.
The emergency surgery took place in October. After spending a few days in the hospital, Matt began the recovery process. Light bike exercises turned into short yardages and pacing in the pool. He switched his diet to cut down on the 36-pounds he gained from not swimming competitively.
O’Donnell made his return to that competitive environment in Atlanta in May. His times were off. So he had to wait until a meet in Greensboro, N.C., just a few weeks ago for his next and final chance at earning a ticket to the trials in Omaha. In the 400 individual medley, O’Donnell came within a second of meeting the qualifying time of 4 minutes, 27.49 seconds.
The 200 backstroke was his last opportunity. He needed a 2:03.79 or better to qualify for his first Olympic trials. He swam a 2:03.59.
“It’s extremely remarkable,” N.C. State swimming and diving associate head coach Gary Taylor said. “It showed a lot of perseverance, a lot of goal setting, a lot of hard work, tremendous effort on a daily basis to come back. I don’t think people realize he was basically out of the water from the end of May until December ... and to perform at an Olympic Trial standard is pretty amazing.”
The amazing efforts in the pool began at an early age for O’Donnell. Born in Parkersburg, W.Va., he began swimming when his family relocated to Schenectady, N.Y. They moved to Austin, Texas, before settling in Bradenton in 2005. Upon arriving in Florida, he swam yearround for the first time and joined the Lakewood Ranch Lightning. A one-year move to Cleveland, Ohio, led to O’Donnell’s inclusion in the International Children’s Games in Athens, Greece.
The family moved back to Bradenton, where O’Donnell joined the Sarasota YMCA Sharks swimming team. Current University of Arizona assistant swim coach Steve Brown was his coach at that time.
“He always said about Matt that he had the heart of a lion,” Stephanie said.
That heart mirrored the words from Wolfpack basketball coach Jim Valvano of, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up,” in his fight against cancer.
And while Matt, a former Cardinal Mooney state swimming champion, said the expectations aren’t high for making the Olympics for Team USA, he is excited at having the chance after needing two brain surgeries less than a year ago.
“I don’t think it’ll happen this time around, but just qualifying is an awesome thing to be able to say,” he said.
U.S. Olympic swim team trials
Where: CenturyLink Center, Omaha
When: June 26-July 3 (prelims begin daily at 11 a.m.; finals begin daily at 7:45 p.m.)
TV: NBC live finals (Sunday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.); NBC Sports App, live prelims (daily, 11 a.m.)
Danielle Valley, Lakewood Ranch High School: 400 free (Monday) and 800 free (Friday prelims; Saturday final)
Daniel Erlenmeyer, Lakewood Ranch HS: 400 free (Monday) and 1,500 free (Saturday prelims; Sunday final)
T.C. Smith, Bayshore HS: 400 free (Monday) and 1,500 free (Saturday prelims; Sunday final)
Matthew Garcia, Cardinal Mooney HS: 200 back (Thursday prelims; Friday final)