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Pioneers only All-American swimmer takes final DU lap

Grace Kittle overcame back injuries to become DU's only All-American swimmer.

One day, Grace Kittle will look back on her time at the University of Denver, and her most vivid memories will involve making history and enduring pain.

When Kittle picks up her bachelor’s degree at DU’s undergraduate Commencement on June 4, she will do so as the most decorated and accomplished swimmer in the history of DU.

Kittle led DU to its first Sun Belt Conference championship, set numerous records, and earned the distinction of becoming the Pioneers’ first All-American thanks to her record-setting performance at the 2011 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships.

Yet while the Dallas native is blessed with the sort of tall, athletic build perfectly suited for her sport of choice, it was a nagging physical shortcoming that nearly derailed her career well before the team and individual hardware began rolling in.

Kittle nearly broke DU’s All-American barrier as a freshman, but during that breakout rookie season —when she qualified for the NCAA finals and ultimately placed 17th in the 200 breaststroke — Kittle knew something was not quite right. Her back ached and before long the pain increased in both intensity and duration.

Once a numbing sensation began creeping into Kittle’s feet, she was pulled from the pool and soon was diagnosed with fractures in her L5 vertebra. Instead of eyeing a sophomore campaign that would bring her to national prominence, she was placed in a restrictive cast and forced to endure a painful rehabilitation process.

“I struggled with a lot of back pain, during workouts or lifting. There was constant back pain, and then I started to lose feeling in my feet. That’s when they pulled me out. I lost feeling in my feet and had a lot of pain. I was put in a cast for eight weeks, which was just such a joyous occasion,” Kittle says sarcastically. “It was basically a corset. I could take it off for physical therapy and showering and that was it.”

Trapped in a cast that completely encased her torso, Kittle assumed this step — while discouraging and incredibly uncomfortable — would at least alleviate the back issues that ultimately robbed her of her entire sophomore season. It turned out the remedy would not come so easily.

Kittle endured physical therapy in hopes of picking up where she left off as a junior, but it became clear her back pain was not going to relent. Throughout her junior year, Kittle essentially had to re-learn strokes she already had been honing for years. To this day, Kittle still receives pain-numbing epidural shots every four to six months in order to manage the injury.

“It was a challenge to go the same time as before,” Kittle says. “You want to constantly drop as a swimmer, but I guess technically that was my sophomore slump that everyone goes through as an athlete. It was disappointing, but it definitely drove me for my senior year to improve and know what I had to get done. I had to learn to re-swim my strokes so they weren’t aggravating it.”

With her back pain finally manageable and her “re-learning” curve handled, Kittle turned in a 2010–11 campaign unparalleled in the history of the program.

“After taking a year off and having her training compromised, she came back and did a nice job of getting back to where she was her freshman year,” DU head swimming coach Brian Schrader says. “This year, she was able to build off that and take it to another level. It’s what you want your kids to do every year. To improve every year is a goal of our program.”

Competing in the NCAA finals, Kittle broke her own school and Sun Belt Conference records in the 200-breaststroke, recording a time of 2:09.49 during the preliminary heats. Kittle ultimately finished eighth with a finals time of 2:11.12.

Kittle holds school records in the 100- and 200-breaststroke, and also was a member of record-setting squads in the 200- and 400-medley relay events.

This summer, Kittle will work as an intern with the giant accounting firm PwC (formerly known as Pricewaterhouse Coopers) before heading out to graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in accounting.

Regardless of what comes next, Kittle’s mark on DU’s swimming program will remain indelible.

“I haven’t reflected, but it definitely has been kind of a roller coaster. I definitely have learned a lot,” Kittle says. “College teaches you a lot. Being faced with an injury, I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted out of life and my career. There are some sad memories, but also some that are really good. I’m glad it all happened.”

DU’s undergraduate Commencement ceremony begins at 9:30 a.m. June 4 at Magness Arena. For more information or to watch a live stream of the ceremony, visit the DU Commencement website.

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