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Brown Deer swimmer Ott, a hero to some, a regular guy to himself

Overcame brain injury to compete again

March 22, 2013

"… So I started to work my way through this. When something is thought to be impossible, determination is what brings you through."

- Nick Ott, Brown Deer senior swimmer

There are two narratives at work in the story of Nick Ott, actually more, if you consider how smart he is, fifth-ranked in his class with a 4.13 weighted GPA on a 4.0 scale that will likely lead him to the University of Minnesota next year to major in linguistics and business.

One of the lines, voiced by the man himself, goes like this: He just wants to float the hallways of the school incognito, just another kid going to class, just another teammate who helped his undermanned Brown Deer/University School swim squad (nine total guys) compete as best it could this past season.

He's largely achieved that now. A case in point being his personal best 50-yard free anchor leg split of 25.9 seconds on the 200 free relay that turned in a season best at the WIAA sectional meet on Feb. 9.

"He just wants to be Nick," his coach Bob Van Lieshout says.

And then there's the other scenario, voiced by Van Lieshout in a more emphatic manner, and it's one that many around the school and the Brown Deer community seem to embrace.

"He's my hero," the veteran coach said.

Arteriovenous malformation is defined by Wikipedia, is an abnormal connection between arteries and veins, bypassing the capillary system. This vascular anomaly is widely known because of its occurrence in the central nervous system, but can appear in any location. Although many AVMs are asymptomatic, they can cause intense pain or bleeding or lead to other serious medical problems.

Ott had been a bit sick with a fever for a little while around the start of his junior year in the early fall of 2011, but being an active 16-year old kid, he was tired of being cooped up.

"I was a little stir crazy in fact," he said. "So I went out and ran around the block a couple of times. When I got back, I couldn't take off my left shoe, because neither my left arm or left leg were working. … This was not what I expected."

In a stunning way.

"I fell on the floor and couldn't get up and I started to slur my words," he said. "They took me to one hospital. Then they flew me to Children's (in Milwaukee) because they thought it was an emergency."

And it was, as he had been stricken with a case of AVM in his brain.

In the 18-plus months since the diagnosis, Ott has regained much of his function. He's still a little weak on the left side but slowly things are coming back.

More difficult, however, is that he still has to be reintroduced to people he's known for years because that particular part of his memory was damaged in the attack,

But current things he's working on right now, like his schoolwork or his swimming or the combination of four jobs he works 15-20 hours a week with the local YMCA and the Brown Deer Recreation Department, he does all right with.

"I can say I never saw Nick with anything but a smile when he returned," Brown Deer Athletic Trainer Carla Larson said. "He knew it would be difficult but he just wanted to be back in the water with his teammates.

"He wasn't afraid at all of getting back into the water. I know his parents just wanted him to be able to have as normal a return as possible and to be able to do the same things as much as he could before his incident. He's kept such a positive attitude and has been an inspiration."

But it took awhile to get to that point.

When they took Ott to the hospital they had to perform angioplasty in his brain to stop the internal bleeding.

"They told my parents that they had to do that or I would perish immediately," he said very matter-of-factly. "I don't remember a lot of my time in the hospital. It took awhile to get everything back. There was electroshock therapy and they were constantly making me do stuff (as to provide stimulus and promote healing in the brain)."

Evolving study in how the way the brain works also helped him.

"… For a long time, they used to believe that when brain cells died, they never come back," Ott said, "but they just told me that the brain heals very slowly. The memory comes back, but slowly. They had to tell me who people were. People who were my friends.

"When I got back to school (full time) that following January (2012) I still didn't know my lockers or who my teachers were. Bits and pieces are coming back better than ever, but there are still things I struggle with and I have some harsh realities to face, that some things may never come back.

"… It's just a matter of re-connecting my life."

Lots of physical therapy followed, because the attack, which occurred on the right side of Ott's brain affected his left side adversely. The leg and the arm function did not come back quickly either, as he even had to use a walker for a time (since discarded). He came back to school part-time that same November (2011) for a few weeks but then had more surgery in December of that year.

Remarkably, he still swam for part of the season his junior year, before that December surgery cut that short. Nor surprisingly, his teammates elected him a captain for his courage.

As noted, the recovery was slow, but the simple fact of the matter was, was that before his attack Ott didn't know what AVM was. But as the recovery process ensued, the AVM began to find out it was dealing with a very determined patient, who with the help of his family, had made a laser-focused goal of beating it.

"My mom (Beth) started me with swim lessons when I was just six months old," Ott said, "and she didn't like the idea of one of her children being an invalid. She thought I could be a functioning individual again.

"So did I."

Part of that was coming back to the swim team, which at first was easier said than done, given his various surgeries.

"In any situation like this, the athletic code says you have to get a medical clearance," Van Lieshout said. "Carla (Larson) and I worked very closely on this. I tend to be conservative in situations like this and on this one (dealing with the brain), I was very, very careful.

"Because, as I got the reports, it was described to me as something of a short-circuit in the brain. You had to trip (the circuit) breakers slowly, one-by-one.

"But he got on Carla's strength program and that helped him. Still, there were subtle things happening (initial problems keeping a straight line while swimming), but no one pushed him harder than himself. He was simply not going to back down."

"I just wanted to get back into it," Ott said.

Much healthier heading into his senior season, Ott was elected a captain of the team again and was better prepared.

"He needed to do so many compensatory things (just to get into the pool) and he just does them," Van Lieshout said. "It's like working his way through a cornfield maze. He just keeps going."

And the team followed him. Because of their small numbers, they had a hard time competing in the big meets, but Van Lieshout liked its esprit de corps behind Ott's leadership.

"It was very satisfying for me," Ott said. "It was like coming back full circle and it was a great honor being named captain again. My teammates were very supportive."

Things got back to normal in other ways. When he got back to school full time, people at first swarmed him to find out how he was doing, but to his relief that has since died away. He took off from his various jobs to focus on swimming in the winter, but has since resumed them to make money for school next fall.

He will treat his upcoming graduation in June, with as he says "gratitude."

Ott will have regular checkups, probably for the rest of his life; just as likely, he will swim for the rest of his life, too. He'll work hard in summer and then he'll head off to college. Hopefully, there, he can just be regular old Nick again.

But to Van Lieshout and others, he will always be someone far greater than that.

"He's something special," Van Lieshout said. "His story is not over yet, not by a long shot. He will write his tale in another area."

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