A swimmer with the backbone to win

Paralyzed, swimmer Michelle Konkoly relied on the George Washington University Hospital at a time when she was in need. She depended on the staff at the hospital to get back to a normal life and for her gold medal recovery.

Did you know?

Since 1997, the George Washington University Hospital has been part of the UHS network of facilities. As an academic teaching facility, GW Hospital continues defining medicine in many ways, especially serving as a Level I trauma facility that can treat the most serious patients.

In 2011, Georgetown University student and swimmer, Michelle Konkoly fell five stories from a dorm room window and her dreams of competing as a collegiate swimmer seemed to be slipping away. The fall left her paralyzed from the waist down when she suffered broken ribs, fractured vertebrae, punctured lung and severely injured foot.

Michelle was rushed to the George Washington University Hospital, a Level 1 trauma center that treats some of the most complex patients. There, the medical team stabilized her condition and within 24 hours, spinal surgeon Warren Yu, MD, successfully completed the delicate procedure to fuse her vertebrae.

For Michelle, this chance at recovery was an opportunity to challenge herself and she seized it.

She moved back home to be with family in Pennsylvania and began her rehabilitation. After a day-to-day battle, she learned to walk again. Michelle’s determined spirit wouldn’t give up. “I was paralyzed for two months after my accident,” Michelle says. “But I was working really hard because I was determined to get back on my feet.”

By July 2011, less than seven months after her accident, Michelle was walking unassisted, her rehabilitation was completed and she headed back to college. Her goal was to continue swimming competitively at the Division I level, however her injuries took a toll on her. Her mother suggested competing in the 2012 Paralympics in London and Michelle went for it. While she didn’t qualify for the 2012 team, she tenaciously pursued and won a spot on the 2016 Paralympics team for Rio de Janeiro. Capturing this prized spot meant beating a lot of worthy challengers. However, the one person she truly enjoyed beating was herself. In the 2016 Paralympics trials, her swim times were faster than before her accident.

“I had to train extra hard to compensate for the limited function in my legs,” says Michelle. “So when my times came back so fast, I knew my hard work had paid off!”

I am very fortunate to have had the best surgeons at the George Washington University Hospital put me back together.
Michelle Konkoly

Michelle won two gold medals, one silver, one bronze and set a world record, two Pan American Records, two Paralympic Games records and four American records.

A lot of sweat, self belief and resilience went into Michelle’s journey to become a champion. Yet, not for one second, does she believe that she traveled this road alone.

“I am very fortunate to have had the best surgeons at the George Washington University Hospital put me back together,” Michelle says. She is also grateful for all the physical and occupational therapists who were part of her journey. “Knowing they were behind me made it so much easier to focus on my recovery,” says Michelle.

Games and school now behind her, she wants to share her experience with others. She began medical school in 2017 and wants to focus on working with disabled children to inspire them to live a full life.

“I have spoken with children with disabilities whose doctors have told them they can’t do certain things. That tells them they are limited,” she says. “I want them to know that they have no limits and say to them, ‘Let’s figure out HOW to do this!’"