Madison Strathman, a student in the Doctor of Chiropractic degree program at Cleveland University-Kansas City, competed in the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha, Neb., on June 5, 2021. Her participation was a personal triumph after an injury prematurely ended her competitive swimming career at the University of Arkansas. Following a lengthy recovery fueled by sheer grit and determination, she returned to swim against the nation’s best. This article was prepared prior to the Olympic Trials.
Athletes from across the country are now preparing for Olympic Trials and a chance to make the U.S Olympic Team for the summer games in Tokyo. Cleveland University-Kansas City (CUKC) student Madison Strathman is one of them. Even more impressive, this is the second time she has qualified for the trials. In June, Strathman will travel to Omaha, Neb., to compete against the nation’s best swimmers in the 100-meter breaststroke.
But as she prepares to close out her athletic career, she’s already planning for life after competitive swimming. As a first-year student in the Doctor of Chiropractic degree program at CUKC, she has now begun to focus on her next career. And with her grandfather, father, and uncle all choosing the same profession, it wasn’t an unlikely choice for her to follow in their footsteps.
These two influences have been an important part of her life for years. Throughout her youth and into college, she’s had swimming in her heart and chiropractic in her DNA. But before she could change from competitor to chiropractor, she had some unfinished business to handle.
Strathman began swimming as a child and quickly found a connection with the water. After joining her local summer-league team when she was just 11, she was hooked.
“I fell in love with the idea of the individuality of the sport, and that you weren’t relying on other teammates,” Strathman said. “If you did well, it was on you; if you did bad, it was on you. I liked how it forced you to take ownership of your swimming, and I felt like it helped teach a lot of important lessons.”
Strathman next joined a club team and made competitive swimming her focus. She began to set more lofty goals that would make her sport of choice the center of her world, and she developed a plan to push herself as far as the water would take her.
“By the time I was a freshman in high school, the goal was definitely to get a scholarship to swim in college,” Strathman said. “I had dreams of making it to the Olympic Trials, but I never thought that was a real possibility.”
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By 2015, the years of hard work and determination began to pay off. Strathman had earned a scholarship to swim for the University of Arkansas, and during the summer of 2015, before starting college, she qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials in the 100-meter breaststroke. That winter, while competing as a freshman for the Razorbacks, she qualified for the trials yet again, this time in the 200-meter breaststroke.
Strathman had competed against Olympic-caliber swimmers prior to college, and admittedly, she found herself “completely star-struck.” But by the time she was competing for Arkansas, she had developed a different mindset.
“Once I got to college and was competing at nationals where you have Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky, and numerous others, you have to almost act like you’re not star-struck because you’ve earned your right to be at the same caliber meets they’re at,” Strathman said. “At trials in 2016, it was amazing just to be walking around shoulder to shoulder with all of them. Even though it wasn’t my first time (being around them), you still know what a big deal it is to be in the presence of such excellence in the sport.”
To qualify for the Olympic Trials in swimming requires an athlete to match or improve on a specific time set for each event. If participants make it to the trials, they must then endure three qualifying rounds just to reach the race that determines who will make the Olympic team for that event. Strathman only competed in the preliminary round in 2016, but it was incredible to be among those performing at the highest level of her sport.
After that experience, Strathman returned to her college team and stayed focused on trying to dominate at every meet. Just like many other athletes, she has ways to stoke her competitive fire.
“I definitely like to listen to music before I race to help get me pumped up and ready to compete,” Strathman said. “During the race, as I start to get tired and I feel my muscles start wanting to give out, I repeat the word ‘power’ every stroke that I take to remind myself to be powerful every stroke because in a race, every stroke and every kick matters.”
Watch Madison’s video interview below.
From her earliest days of competing, individual effort has always been what appeals to her. For a few moments, she is a team of one, doing what she was meant to do. She stays focused on her technique and churns through the water, defying exhaustion.
“Hearing the crowd get louder and louder as you get closer to the end motivates you to keep going,” Strathman said. “As you start to get tired, seeing the girls on either side of you out of the corner of your eye pushes you to hang in there and out touch them at the finish. Touching the wall at the end of the race and looking up at the board and seeing the time and place you were hoping for is such an amazing feeling; it makes all the pain you just experienced, and the pain from all the practices leading up to it, all worth it.”
And in sports, that kind of pain is always worth it when you get a victory or achieve a personal best. It’s a sweet pain, tolerable because it often comes with a reward. But there’s another kind that’s never welcome. It’s the bitter pain associated with injuries. It offers nothing; it only takes. It steals hopes, dreams, and sometimes one’s ability to compete. That’s the kind of pain that Strathman faced in the fall of 2018.
At the beginning of her senior year at Arkansas, Strathman had high hopes for a solid season, but those hopes were dashed during practice when she dislocated her shoulder and tore her labrum. The labrum is a rim of cartilage in the shoulder that lines and reinforces the ball-and-socket joint. It’s crucial because it’s the attachment point for the ligaments in the shoulder and supports the joint and the rotator cuff tendons and muscles.
Her doctor felt that rehabilitation and time would allow her to heal properly. As a result, Strathman took a medical redshirt for the 2018 season, which eliminated her from all college meets during the 2018 season. She did compete in the senior nationals that winter, but she was still not 100%. Even so, just three months removed from her injury, she was still able to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials in the 100-meter breaststroke. But, after swimming in a preliminary round and the finals, she lacked the strength in her shoulder to attempt the 200-meter breaststroke qualification the following day.
Strathman continued to rehab her shoulder through her senior year and into the summer of 2019, hoping to return to the pool for her fifth-year season. But when it was determined that rehab wasn’t working, surgery was the only option. That would mean six to eight weeks of recovery time. However, doctors discovered more damage in her shoulder than expected; her recovery time was extended to six to eight months.
“That completely destroyed any chance of me returning to competition for the University of Arkansas,” Strathman said. “The season would be over before I could even get started. I then lost my fifth year of eligibility and did not return to swimming after the surgery. I was convinced trials was not going to happen since I had no team to train with — I thought that was the end of my swimming career.”
However, after already losing so much, and when reaching the Olympic Trials seemed impossible, things began to change. In 2020, Strathman moved back to Kansas City and planned to start classes at CUKC in the fall. Then, COVID-19 delayed the 2020 Olympics, moving the Olympic Trials to the summer of 2021.
Always the competitor, Strathman began to wonder if the trials might still be within her reach. It would be an epic challenge, but one she was willing to pursue. She got back to the basics, and reconnected with her old club team that she swam with growing up.
After being out of the water entirely for almost two years, Strathman began training full-time again in November of 2020. She now divides her time between the rigorous coursework of the chiropractic program and intense practice sessions at the pool. Swimming is still about that individual effort that she finds so appealing, and her coursework requires the same.
“It’s definitely been a challenge trying to balance both of them. I’ve had to miss practice for Zoom sessions, for class, or other school events,” Strathman said. “When I have 3-4 tests in a week, those extra 18 hours each week that I’m spending in the pool would certainly make the studying aspect a little easier, but swimming taught me time management from the beginning, so now I am relying on those skills to continue to get me through this busy time and succeed in both.”
For eight years, maintaining a strict training regimen while swimming in high school and college kept Strathman in world-class shape. She is aware that she’s not in peak physical condition now, and as a result, it’s unlikely that she will advance beyond the preliminary round at the trials in Omaha. After what she’s been through, she’s at peace with that.
Perhaps more importantly, Strathman will get to re-write the end of her career in the sport that she loves. Instead of having it taken away from her, she’ll be able to leave on her own terms. There’s no place more special to do that than with the best swimmers in the nation at the Olympic Trials.
“The expectations are not to go a lifetime best time or anything like that,” Strathman said. “The expectation is only to have a great time, enjoy this incredible experience that so few people get the opportunity to do, and to officially put an end to my career at such a high-caliber meet…hopefully on a high note.”
When she returns, Strathman will get back to the business of preparing for her career as a doctor of chiropractic. Even though chiropractic runs deep in her family, she was initially unsure if it was for her. Although her injury disrupted her swimming, it also gave her the gift of time to ponder her future. She had been focused on dental school, but that changed during her recovery.
“I actually never thought I was destined to become a chiropractor,” Strathman said. “I then took a year off when I was supposed to be doing my fifth year of swimming to figure out what I wanted to do professionally. After many discussions with my family and some soul searching of my own, I came to the conclusion that chiropractic is my path, and it was right in front of me all along. I’m so incredibly happy with my decision and look forward to what the future holds.”
Madison Strathman had a solid performance at the Olympic Trials. She took part in Wave I with 57 swimmers. There were seven heats for the 100-meter breaststroke, and she placed first in heat three with a time of 1:11.14. Although she didn’t beat her personal best time for the event, she did place 14th overall out of 57 competitors. Only the top two swimmers advanced. After being out of the water for nearly two years, it was a crowning achievement to compete against the best in her sport one more time.
Catch Madison’s 30-second “One Big Thing” clip below.