Straight back to the pool

GUILDERLAND — Stephenie Bintz couldn’t wiggle her toes.

The recent Guilderland High School graduate and member of the Guilderville swim team was in great shape but couldn’t wiggle her toes while lying on an operating table, waiting for major back surgery. She could paddle her feet and did while being put under by the anesthesiologist, who asked her to wiggle her toes.

It was a tough time for Bintz. She was having rods put in her back to correct the scoliosis that has plagued her since the seventh grade.
"I’ve got two rods, hooks, and screws," Bintz said matter-of-factly. "I decided I was going to do it after sectionals this year."

Bintz, who has dedicated a lot of her life to swimming, went under the knife on Nov. 27, just a couple of weeks from the end of the season. She recovered enough to qualify for the Empire State Games and will swim in college at the State University of New York College at Cortland.

The scoliosis had her spine at a curvature of 47 degrees after her junior year and 49 degrees before the surgery. At 45 degrees, surgery is highly recommended.
"Scoliosis can be life-threatening," said Bintz’s mother, Michelle. "If it gets past 50 degrees, it can impact your cardio-pulmonary system if you don’t take of it."

The surgery repaired Bintz back by about 50 percent to 24 degrees.
"It was like a cobra, clinching her backbone," Michelle Bintz said. "It didn’t straighten out her back, but the surgery now made it so it can’t get worse."

The surgery, performed by Dr. Allen Carl, itself posed risks.
"She could have had paralysis it he nicked a nerve," Michelle Bintz said. "She could have become a quadriplegic. It was very, very life threatening. Her life was literally in his hands."

Carl, of the Bone and Joint Center on Washington Avenue, came highly recommended and has been a successful orthopedic surgeon, working on many athletes.

The Bintzes were pleased with how they were treated and with the results of the surgery. (See related story.)

One last swim

Bintz was determined to compete during her senior season. Last June, she was willing to put off the surgery and got permission from the doctor to hold off until November.

Surgery prevented Bintz from doing any activity for about six months and that was not an option.
"I’ve been swimming since I was in eighth grade and I was a captain," Bintz said. "I had to do it. So back in June, they measured me again, and the doctor said it wasn’t getting any worse. I wanted to swim and have a good time doing it."

Bintz easily qualified for sectionals and just missed going back to the state meet in the backstroke. She also missed going to the state meet in her junior year after qualifying for states in her sophomore year.
"I got to do everything that I wanted to do," Bintz said. "It was a fair trade. I got to go bowling and ski before I had the surgery."

For six months, Bintz was like a fish out of water. After the surgery, she spent a week in the hospital.
"I had problems with the medication they gave me," Bintz said. "People came to see me for a little while. A lot of friends supported me. There is one girl on the [Guilderville] team that will need to have surgery on her back. She came by with a gift and we talked."

As typical with her personality, she found a silver lining while lying in her hospital bed.
"I had to do it," she said. "It was good to get a break from swimming."

But it didn’t take long for Bintz to get the itch, not just to swim, but to do any activity.
"Three months into the recovery, I was getting bored here," she said. "I wanted to get back into the water. I knew it was going to be so much harder to get where I was before. I have been swimming for 11 years; it’s going to take a lot of work to get up to where I was."

And when she got back into the pool for the first time, it wasn’t the great experience Bintz thought it would be.
"I’ve lost everything," Bintz added. "Two months ago, It felt like I was swimming in sludge. It had never been that hard for me. I was not able to train like I wanted to."

Able to do some exercises during the six months and getting in the pool just a couple of months before, Bintz came back for her first competition at the Empire State Games trials.

That was in late June, and Bintz had some doubts about what she would be able to do.
"I was really nervous," she said. "At Empires, I knew that there were girls there I hadn’t seen before. Last year, I tried so hard to make it. I was really positive about it, but, at the same time, I was really careful. I said to myself, ‘If I make it then, yeah. If not, that is okay.
"I treated it like any other meet," Bintz added. "I just swam. It felt good to race again."

The Empire State Games start on Thursday, and Bintz will swim in the open women’s 200-meter and 100-meter backstroke races.

It was a huge accomplishment for Bintz, who admitted that it was her major goal in her recovery.

The other goal was to swim in college. She had a spot secured at Cortland before her surgery, and Cortland Coach Brian Tobin stood by her and by his commitment to her.
"He came to Empires last year and he has watched me swim for a little over a year," Bintz said. "I want to major in physical education and it’s a great school for that and people told me I should go there. He’s excited for me to swim. I just went to orientation there and I loved it."

She was worried about college swimming, though, when it came time to have surgery.
"I was apprehensive," Bintz said. "You don’t know if someone would recruit you, when you tell someone that you are having surgery and need to take six months off. And Coach Tobin told me to take my time and, if I don’t swim my first year, he still wants me on the team. He told me that I have a great personality and talent for it. That was a relief."
"She is an outstanding individual with a good head on her shoulders," Tobin said. "With an injury like that, you don’t know if she would be back in one year or four years. But she is a positive kid and she has a lot of ability. She seems to be getting better, and knock on wood, she continues to get better. She is a good person and this seemed like a great fit for her"
"She has the qualities to be successful," Tobin added. "In college and beyond. She will not just be a successful student-athlete, but she will be great at teaching, or if she decides to do something else, she’s going to be successful. She’s a real go-getter."

There was some stiffness in her back. But now the only time Bintz can feel the rods, she said, is when she is swimming.
"It’s something I need to get used to, the rods," Bintz said, adding jokingly, "I have some time to get used to them. I eventually will get used to it."

Living with a crooked backbone
"I never thought it was that bad," Bintz said. "Then, and this may sound silly, I was trying on prom dresses and it was hard to get the zipper up with my back. Then I realized that something had to be done. I thought surgery wouldn’t do anything. It did not seem worth it."

With her backbone curved to a 49 degree angle, something definitely needed to be done.
"I had to have it," Bintz said of surgery. "It’s worth it now."

Scoliosis is something she lives with now, and has played a major part in making her who she is. Some of the things she went through made her a stronger person.
"On my 15th birthday, my present was a big, ugly, plastic brace," Bintz said. "And when I went to a sleepover, I had to bring it with me."

In the self-conscious world of teenagers, that is a big deal.
"There wasn’t a time when I thought, ‘What did I do to deserve this"’" Bintz said. "I didn’t like the brace. I was embarrassed by it. With surgery, I could stop wearing the brace, and that didn’t hurt me."

When it was time to learn about the surgery, Bintz had a realization about scoliosis.
"I thought no one had it," she said. "But a lot of swimmers have it.
"Swimming is a blessing and a curse," Bintz added. "It’s a great exercise and work out. But it releases a certain hormone. I’ve been doing the sport forever, and it’s frustrating to know that the sport I love was the reason why my back got worse."

Though she downplays it, scoliosis could have been a big factor in why she slowed down in the pool.
"I never thought it affected me," Bintz said. "It might have had a part of why I couldn’t get as fast as I wanted to. In 10th grade, when I went to states, I was flying. But then the next year, I started slowing down. I was training the same, but my times weren’t getting better. It was frustrating."

A dedication to herself, her sport, and her teammates kept Bintz competing, even though she was dealing with more than the typical doldrums.
"You get so tired, you just want to take a nap after school," she said. "You just want the season to end. But this was my last year with Guilderville and I was going for surgery. I have never had anything this serious. I haven’t even broken a toe. I was so scared. But I had so much fun with the girls."

Helping out

With her surgery behind her, it is time for Bintz to move on. She received a lot of support from friends and other people who have been through the same thing.

Bintz wants to help out other young people who have problems with scoliosis. She feels it’s an overlooked affliction that can potentially be dangerous.
"I love talking to people about it," she said. "I talked to one girl that had the surgery and she had the same ups and downs. It was so helpful for me. It made me feel better. I hope to make them feel better."

Bintz was surprised that so many other people have scoliosis.
"When I was out in Cortland," Bintz said, "I talked to a girl in Ithaca, and I told her about the ups and downs. And that also made me feel a lot better. We just met over lunch."

Bintz has talked to a few people who have scoliosis and might need surgery in the future. It has given her an opportunity to help other people and also help herself.

Bintz is much stronger now. And not, as she joked, because she has two titanium rods in her back; but because she took a difficult challenge head on.

Plus, she still gets to do what she loves the most, by command of her doctor, to keep her muscles strong.
"The doctor told me, I have to swim for the rest of my life," Bintz said.

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