A Sidelined Surgeon Finds New Purpose as a Swimming Coach

A heart condition ended Sherry Colgin's career as a hand surgeon, but Colgin soon began to work as a swimming coach with Paralympic athletes and returning veterans.

Read Sherry's inspiring story from the December 2018 issue of Guideposts!

Hi Guideposts; I'm Sherry Colgin. I'm a retired hand surgeon from Birmingham, Alabama. 

I retired at a very young age; I was 51 at the time. I've trained in plastics, reconstructive hand and microsurgery; it took me nine years of training. I was born and raised in Alabama; I've enjoyed living here. I was forced to retire in 2006, at the age of 51, as I mentioned, from cardiac disease. I had my first heart attack at 47, my first bypass at 49 and my second bypass at 51. 

I was devastated when I was told I needed to retire because this is all I knew. I was a triathlete and had been fairly competitive but I couldn't do that either. So I sat around wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life and a friend of mine called me from a place called Lakeshore Foundation; it's located in Birmingham, Alabama. It's an Olympic and Paralympic training site and what she needed was a swimming coach.

I told her, I said, "Jill, I'm not a swim coach; I can teach how to swim across a lake, but not in a pool." She said, "I'm in a bind and you don't have anything to do and you can learn." So she had me take four Paralympic athletes, who had just returned from competing in the Athens Games, and she wanted me to take them to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for a swim meet in December.

And when I walked into that natatorium, I couldn't believe it. I saw disabilities I never dreamed could swim: quadraplegics swimming, amputees swimming, kids that were blind swimming. It was an amazing experience for me.

We worked very hard and I had one of my swimmers qualify to go to the Beijing Paralympic Games, and I actually picked up a cyclist—we took her as well. Probably one of the best things I've had happen in my life is when I saw both of them having a medal placed around their necks. It was quite amazing.

I again had a little bit of down period because I didn't know what I was going to do, until I was contacted by the Navy Wounded Warrior program. They asked me to be their swim coach for two years, and it was an amazing ride. I met young people who had just come back from war, who were injured in unspeakable manners—people who'd lost legs, people who'd lost multiple limbs, head injuries, blind.

So we worked very hard—some of them we had to teach to swim from scratch—and then we would take them to the Warrior Games to compete against their brothers in arms: the Army, the Marines, the Air Force and Special Ops. They would do great, and I learned so much from them. They lifted me more than anything that had ever happened, other than the trip to Beijing. I really learned a lot from my athletes about how to get over tremendous adversity and horrible injuries. 

I've not been involved in coaching as intimately as in the past. I coach a little bit now; I work with athletes and non-athletes, disabilitied and abilitied, but my love is to work with people who don't know how to swim and I'm continuing to do that and it's very rewarding.

I now have to overcome my disabilities and learn how to compete on my own. So it's been an amazing ride to learn from my athletes how to overcome adversity, how to use what you have and don't have and be successful. My athletes, I think of them all the time and how I can overcome what I've been given, my path, and it has been an amazing ride and I wouldn't change it. It's changed me. 

So when I retired and thought I had nothing left to do, I realized that after I was involved with my athletes at Paralympics and Lakeshore and then my involvement with the Navy that God put me exactly where I needed to be, that I was in the career that I was really destined to belong in, and I've been more happy than I could ever imagine. God has moved in incredible ways in my life, directing me where I needed to go. I now have my new career. I thought I'd lost the love of my life, my surgical career—and I had, and I'd lost an identity—but what I found was a much more important identity and that was coaching and helping others, but learning from them. It was an incredible experience, and I hope I can keep at it. 

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