MISSION VIEJO--Mandy Wightman may not do well at the Southern Section 4-A swim meet in two weeks. She may not win an event. She may not even qualify for the finals.
But she'll be there . . . in the pool . . . competing.
And, for Wightman, that's plenty to be happy about.
A little more than two months after shoulder surgery appeared to have ended her prep career, Wightman has returned to the Mission Viejo High School swim team. Her performance hasn't been great, but considering she missed nearly half the season, it hasn't been bad, either.
Wightman has qualified for the Southern Section prelims in the 50-yard freestyle and is close to making the cut in the 100 free, which has exceeded any expectations she had two months ago.
"To tell you the truth, I'm surprised to be swimming again," said Wightman, a senior. "I thought my high school career was over."
Wightman's despondent attitude stemmed from a six-year struggle with a shoulder injury. In February, she underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a tear in her rotator cuff.
At the time, Wightman was told that it would be six months before she could swim competitively again. A month later, however, she was back in the pool.
"It's really amazing that Mandy is back swimming right now," Mission Viejo Coach Jan Most said. "A big reason she's come back so quickly was because of her attitude. This was her last year in high school and she wanted to compete. Nothing was going to stop her."
Wightman, who has been swimming competitively since she was 4, spent three days a week in physical therapy. Most of the time she worked on improving the range of motion in her shoulder by stretching and using small weights.
During that time, she tried to remain a part of the Mission Viejo team. She attended every meet and kept track of times.
However, watching others swim while she ran the stopwatch only made things worse.
"My attitude was really bad," Wightman said. "I was ready to walk away from swimming, I'd had enough. I finally decided that it was my last year of high school and I wasn't going to spend it keeping other swimmers' times."
Wightman worked harder in therapy, and soon showed progress. Three weeks after the surgery, her doctor gave her a release to start swimming again.
She rejoined the team in time for the Southern Section relays and swam in the 200 medley.
"Obviously, the surgery was very successful for Mandy to come back so quickly," said David Green, Wightman's physical therapist. "But Mandy was also very motivated."
Said Wightman: "When I couldn't swim, it was like something that was mine had been taken away. I wanted it back."
Wightman was a promising swimmer when she entered Mission Viejo. She had done well in age-group events with the Mission Viejo Nadadores and qualified for the junior nationals when she was 12.
Most said she expected big things from Wightman when she got to Mission Viejo.
However, Wightman had injured her shoulder during a race when she was 12 and it had bothered her ever since. The injury wasn't considered serious at first, just a muscle strain.
It didn't affect her swimming at first and Wightman continued to do well in races. She qualified for the 4-A meet as a freshman and sophomore and finished 11th in the 50 free.
But she did not become the dominant swimmer Most had envisioned.
"I remember seeing Mandy swim before she got to high school and she was really fast," Most said. "She was doing times as an eighth-grader that most high school seniors couldn't do. But the shoulder started bothering her more and more."
Part of the problem was that Wightman could never be fully rested for the high school season because of junior nationals, which are held in March.
Last season, the pain became too much and Wightman's performance was affected. She failed to qualify for the Southern Section finals.
"The more I swam, the worse it got," Wightman said. "It was frustrating. I tried resting the shoulder, I tried strength exercises, I took a lot of aspirin. I even had five cortisone shots in five years. Nothing worked."
After last year's Southern Section meet, Wightman didn't swim for five months. She began training again in October, but reinjured her shoulder a month later during a race in Las Vegas.
"It was getting to be ridiculous," she said.
Wightman saw Green for the first time in December and he recommended she see Dr. Benjamin Rubin, doctor for the U.S. national team. Rubin determined that Wightman had a tear in the rotator cuff of her right shoulder.
"It was sort of a relief to finally know what was wrong," Wightman said. "I wasn't happy about having surgery, but it was better than sitting out and hoping it would get better."
Wightman has had no pain in her shoulder since her return. But coming back has been difficult.
She has trained little in the last year and has swam in only one race. The layoff left her out of shape.
"It was really weird when I came back," Wightman said. "It was like I was a different swimmer. I just didn't have the stamina."
Recently, though, the endurance has begun to return. At the Mission Viejo Invitational last week, Wightman finished second in the 50 free (25.56) and third in the 100 free (56.60).
"Mandy is really hungry now," Most said. "She's anxious to get in the pool at every workout. Sometimes I even have to say, 'Whoa, take it easy.' She has to remember that her stamina won't come back immediately, she has to build on it."
Wightman wants the building to be completed in time for the Southern Section 4-A meet May 10. She has also begun training again with her club team, the Saddleback Valley Aquatics.
But her focus is on the the Southern Section finals. It will be the first time in her high school career that Wightman will be healthy for that event.
"I hope she does well and I hope she wins," Most said. "But just the fact that she's able to swim at that meet is enough of a victory."