Wakely defies doctors in triumphant return
You often hear the term resilience in reference to sport; the process of adapting in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy and significant stress.
At the age of just 17, Zebedee Wakely is the embodiment of the term, an inspirational young sportsman whose narrative has already followed the classic script of “promise, setback, comeback” before achieving glory against the odds.
Having decided to pursue a career in swimming as part of the Warwick Academy programme in 2017, Wakely was dealt some devastating news late in the same year when he discovered that what he believed to be a muscular issue within his shoulders was actually something far more serious.
“Back in 2015 a friend's mum noticed my shoulders were uneven,” he said.
“We thought it was just a muscular issue, but as I grew older and developed, you could see it more clearly.
“In June 2017, I had an X-ray done and it was then that I realised just how severe the problem was; there was curvature in my the spine and I was told I had scoliosis.
“In October and November, it became more and more painful; it was getting progressively worse all the time.
“The whole thing escalated very quickly over six months to where, all of a sudden, I was on the operating table in December.”
Heading into surgery, Wakely was faced with the very real possibility that his dream career in the pool could be over, before it had the chance to really begin.
“Originally, I was quite scared about the operation because the doctors told me my swimming career was over,” added Wakely, who got into the sport only at the age of 13.
“I was really emotional about that. However, someone told me that limitations don't define me and so I decided to treat the operation like I would a swim meet, in the sense that the fitter I am going into it, the quicker I could recover and return to the pool and prove people wrong.
“I thought to myself, I'll decide when I'm done with swimming; no one else was going to tell me my career, as such, was finished and make that decision for me.”
Channelling an inner self-belief, determination and maturity that belied his years, incredibly Wakely returned to the pool only four weeks after major surgery, building his strength and relearning old skills from scratch.
“I had to relearn to walk, run and swim again,” said Wakeley, who has seven levels of permanent spinal fusions, consisting of two supporting rods and 14 bolts inserted.
“There were times when I didn't think it was going to happen again for me, but I had to quickly reassess what I was doing and why I was doing it.
“Just the fact I could move my arms and swim at all was a big confidence boost. After that I got back to light training on my own, slowly building up the metres and helping my body to cope again. Mentally, it was really tough when I got back in the pool; it was almost like studying at school.
“That process of swimming was completely different after my operation. As a result of it, I can't rotate my torso quite so much, so my swimming has become a lot flatter.
“That is why I focused more on the butterfly stroke because you don't have to rotate quite so much from the hips.”
With renewed vigour and confidence, he got back into his old routine among his friends and team-mates at the Warwick Academy pool and as ever increasing improvements began to show, surprising personal best times followed.
“Swimming can be a little lonely, but I've been really lucky to have everyone around me in the team helping me along,” he said. “I love swimming with these guys and I owe them a lot in my recovery. I wouldn't be here without them, that's for sure.
“Still be able to hit personal best times was an incredible feeling and it proved that I had come back literally stronger and faster than before.
“My times in the last six months have dropped massively and even if I have a bad swim I have to remind myself that I wasn't supposed to be in the position again, and that keeps me humble.
“However, the more I swam and started hitting personal best times again, I decided I'd set myself the goal of qualifying for Carifta 2019. I was determined to do that.”
Following the script to a tee thus far, Wakely was handed the opportunity to write his perfect ending, at one last final meet for all athletes to achieve qualification at the Bermuda Amateur Swimming Association pool at Saltus Grammar School in January.
Having overcome major surgery just 12 months previously, being told there were concerns he may not walk again, let alone surpass any expectations in the pool, he seized his moment in the men's over-15 100 metres butterfly, touching the wall in a winning time of 59.19sec.
“When I finally looked up, I knew straight away that I had qualified,” he added. “That time has been on my wall for about six months, 59.29; that's all I focused on and so to hit 59.19 felt incredible.
“When the realisation kicked in, I spent about 30 minutes just hugging people and celebrating with friends, Ben Smith my coach and my family.
“Everything for the last year or so had been leading up to that final meet and, thankfully, I qualified.
“Qualifying for Carifta at the last possible opportunity was honestly euphoric; I was happy for about a week afterwards.
“I saw my name on the Carifta rankings and I was, like, wow, I'm going to the Carifta Games in Barbados.
“It's amazing to know that all the hard work was worthwhile, I had achieved my goal and that feels amazing.”
Turning his attention to the Carifta Championships next month, Wakely, who is one of 28 swimmers eligible for selection, is determined to keep on defying the odds and continue his inspirational journey in the sport, which he has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
“I don't feel any pressure when I swim because I don't do it because I have to. I swim because I love the sport and love doing it,” he said.
“Anything for me is an added bonus, but I'd love to get to the finals, top eight in the 200 and 100 fly.
“I just can't wait to represent Bermuda and have that Bermudian flag on my cap with my name under it.
“I want to apply to swim at universities in the UK and then do a National Collegiate Athletic Association masters afterwards. I have the rods and bolts in my spin for life; they are part of me. Swimming is what got me through the whole operation and recovery.
“It got me fit enough to cope with the operation and helped me recover. I owe a lot to swimming.
“I just love the sport and I can't see myself falling out of love with it anytime soon.”