By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, December 16, 2016The months leading up to Olympic Trials this summer were anything but hospitable to Amy Bilquist.
The then-freshman at the University of California-Berkeley suffered through chronic, debilitating stomach pains from the time before NCAAs in February through May.
“The pain was excruciating at times, so bad that I often had to stop doing whatever I was doing to focus on breathing and managing it,” she said. “I tried so many different things to find out what the problem was, but it seemed like nothing worked.
“We finally found something that worked, but there was a period when doctors told my parents and I that it could be life-threatening – possibly a tumor. That was really scary for all of us.”
The ailment was eventually attributed to a suspected bacterial infection (although that was never confirmed according to Bilquist) in her stomach lining, and she was prescribed medication to control it.
By the time she arrived in Omaha in June for Trials, she was feeling back to normal but suspected her illness, which sometimes was so painful she lurched awake at night and often kept her out of the pool, may have limited her preparation and left her short of the competitive edge she needed to compete against the best swimmers in the United States.
But once she took to the water, Bilquist quickly found her rhythm – her groove – and swam to a third-place finish in the 100 backstroke, just missing making the team.
After all she had endured, she felt little regret or disappointment.
While bittersweet to come so close to tasting her Olympic dream, she came to the realization that things largely went as they were meant to.
“When (Cal Coach) Teri (McKeever) and I talked about it after the meet, we decided it was a good outcome for me at this stage of my swimming career,” she said. “Coming so close gave me a taste, and now I know I want more in the sport. It has definitely given me the desire to want to accomplish more.”
Bilquist said her Trials experience has not only given her more confidence heading into her sophomore year this season, but it also taught her more about herself.
It energized her to not only want to be a better athlete but a better student – and she’s become more aware of what it will take to make her better at both.
“I’m learning to become a good coach for myself, and that’s something I didn’t even know existed a year ago,” said Bilquist, who calls Carmel, Ind., home, and finished fourth in the 100 and fifth in the 200 back at NCAAs earlier this year despite her stomach pain.
“When I was training in Carmel, we spent a good bit of time studying race footage of other swimmers, but I don’t feel like we looked at how Amy could swim faster. Now, it’s something I look at after every meet.”
Stomach pain wasn’t the only physical ailment that Bilquist battled over the past couple of years.
The summer before last, she lost time in the water due to stress fractures – two in her left leg, one in her right – caused from normal wear and tear on her body. Pushing off the walls during training and meets didn’t help.
Eventually, she was told not to swim at all, but eventually she returned to the water but was instructed not to push off the walls so the fractures could heal. Eventually, the scar tissue thinned and the fractures healed.
At 6-foot-3, Bilquist suspects her fractures originated from her early career as a volleyball player, an outside hitter required to jump and leap repeatedly during practice and matches. She quit volleyball before her junior year of high school to focus on swimming.
Now, with all of those problems behind her, Bilquist said she’s been able to focus on training – and the entire experience has strengthened her love for swimming.
“I’ve always loved swimming, but when you feel that something you love is being taken away from you or could be taken away from you, you really start to love and appreciate it even more, in a way you didn’t know you could,” said Bilquist, who was born in Arizona and took to the water by the age of 1. She was competing by the age of 4.
“I wake up every day wanting to be in the water now. I’m working toward achieving something for myself that I didn’t even know I wanted. Now I know exactly what I want in the sport, and I know how to get there to get it.”
What she wants is to have a great sophomore NCAA season, and then take the next step next summer at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships of making the World Championship team.
“This has definitely been a process, but I appreciate now why it happened, although not how it happened,” said Bilquist, a media studies major at Cal. “It’s given me new perspective, and taught me to better appreciate all that swimming means to me.”