Diana MacManus is back in her element – chlorine.
Years after a pair of devastating injuries that left her doubting herself and her future, the former youth swim star and almost-Oympian is “ready to dream again.”
Earlier this month at a masters event at the Kroc Center in Coeur d’Alene, MacManus shattered the current published national masters record in the 50-meter backstroke by more than a second and a half. She missed a world record by twelve-hundredths of a second – “the blink of an eyelash,” she said.
That’s how fast her personal Olympic flame was doused several years ago. She was training for a triathlon and fell on her bike, tearing a disc in her back. Later, at the University of Texas, she dislocated her elbow on a hard turn.
“That’s how I ended my college career,” says the 25-year-old MacManus, who in an earlier life competed at the international level on the U.S. national team.
Forced to “re-evaluate my life path” three years ago, she visited her mother and younger sister in Coeur d’Alene, “fell in love with this place” and found a job at the aquatics program at the Kroc Center.
“I’m blessed with the opportunity to teach swimming here,” said MacManus, who at the same time had to suppress that competitive fire. “I had put it out of my mind. I’m emotionally connected to the water. Being humbled, I never thought I’d be at that level again.”
She didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Shawn Burke, a local triathlete and personal trainer, needed some swimming tips.
Her help was repaid tenfold: Burke in turn helped her with strength and conditioning.
“I asked her about her goals, and she asked if I would work with her on strength and conditioning,” Burke said. “She thought her career was over, but now she has a chance to come back and get her life back in terms of injury.”
But could she get back more than that?
Even recreational swimming had been painful barely a year ago, but by last April MacManus’ injuries had shown significant improvement. “Now I have zero pain,” she said, crediting Burke.
Her life path was being re-evaluated in front of her eyes, and she tentatively dipped her toes back into the competitive side of the pool.
A year ago at the same masters event, “I just wanted to see where my times were at,” MacManus said, and they were still pretty close. In the 100 backstroke she was just 1 second off her personal best. Masters-level times are not the same as Olympic-level standards, but they are a good benchmark, she said.
She stepped up her pace of training, especially this year. “I’ve seen a huge improvement in my swimming times.”
That all came while holding a job at the Kroc Center. She credits the support of Kroc Center management in helping with her training.
That brought her to this year, which began with her being pain-free. At the meet this month at the Kroc Center, MacManus also broke a national masters record in the 50 butterfly, but her biggest validation came in the 50 backstroke.
“My plan was to break the world record by June, when I’d be fully tapered and rested, so this really boosted my confidence.”
Later this year, MacManus plans to compete in a short-course meet in Moscow, Idaho, then in British Columbia and finally the World Masters meet in Italy this summer.
Down the road? With luck, a spot on the national team next year and another Olympic try in 2016.
She’s come full circle, and so have her dreams.
“As a young swimmer I had a big dream, not just to race. I wanted to be at the Olympics, stand on the podium and represent America,” she said.
She came close, setting a national age-group record at age 12 and placing fourth in the Olympic trials at age 14, missing the 2000 Games by mere hundredths of a second in the 100 backstroke.
“Don’t be afraid to dream big, and don’t let anybody tell you that your dreams are too big,” she said.