This issue: Summer 2021

Diving Deep

Health setbacks, then a pandemic, derailed Joanna and Jamie Zuckerman’s swim dreams – but rough waters only deepened their special bond with coach Natalie Turner

By Kimberly Felton

Coach Natalie Turner tracks all her swimmers’ times at competitions. But at this particular moment, one swimmer was foremost in her mind. Joanna Zuckerman, then a junior, was racing for the first time since brain surgery.

Turner knew Joanna would not win this race or beat her previous time. She couldn’t care less. What mattered was Joanna was back in the water. She was swimming again. Slower than before, but strong.

As Joanna glanced at the clock and climbed from the pool, dripping, Turner stood at her spot by the assistant coach, her grin stretching across the concrete deck to her very competitive and somewhat disappointed swimmer, tugging out a smile in return. As soon as Joanna reached her, Turner wrapped her in a hug.

“It was not the time I wanted,” Joanna recalls, “but as I walked over to talk to Natalie, I couldn’t help but smile, seeing the excited look on her face. She told me she was just so happy to see me racing again. That meet was special; it reminded me how much Natalie supports me and cares about my health and swimming career.”

This was just the beginning, Turner knew. Joanna would get stronger; she would be fast again. Because that’s just who she is. She and her twin sister, Jamie, had been competitive swimmers since age 7. Both had to overcome a debilitating condition that presented a clear but still-difficult choice: brain surgery or paralysis.

J and Jo

Turner and the “Zucker twins,” as everyone calls them, began together at George Fox in 2017. Turner was the newly hired swim coach, charged with the task of creating a team and building it into a competitive force.

Jamie and Joanna were freshmen, the promise of competitive swimming clinching the deal for them when they toured the university the year before. Literally the first two student-athletes to commit to the new Bruin swim team, the duo first spoke with Turner in the golf coach’s office because she had yet to receive her own space.

The twins had goals. From age 10, Jamie planned to break a minute in the 100-yard butterfly. Joanna aimed to be a top-eight finalist in the conference in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke events.

She helped us see how far we’d already grown, and she was invested in how much more we could grow.”

Freshman year, “J and Jo,” as Turner dubbed them, helped build the team. Swim practices were open to all comers that “zero year,” when the team formed and practiced but did not compete. The twins were the only ones with competitive club experience. “They were the fastest girls on the team, the ones everyone would watch to get an idea of what good technique looked like,” Turner says. “They were the role models.”

As a coach, Turner saw her athletes in the pool nearly every day. But she wanted to know them beyond that. The team gathered in large and small groups, sometimes at Turner’s house, hanging out and playing with her dog. And team members were expected to schedule office visits with her every two weeks, just to talk.

“How people are doing mentally has a huge impact on how they do in the water, and she wanted to understand us,” Joanna says. “I always looked forward to those meetings. I remember talking with her freshman year, being so excited for the team she was creating. She cared about each of us. She helped us see how far we’d already grown, and she was invested in how much more we could grow.”

Turner remembers some of those freshman-year talks with J and Jo. “They’re ...” she pauses and smiles, searching for the right word, “achievers.”

Her grin broadens. “They didn’t know they didn’t need to spend 86 hours studying for a chemistry exam,” she reminisces. Joanna laughs and says it couldn’t have been more than 45 hours. Regardless, Turner encouraged a little more life/study balance.

But office talks took a troubling turn when electric sensations Jamie had noticed in her arm got worse. “You just need to go to the doctor,” Turner told her. “Just see what they say.” But the doctors said everything was normal.

The next semester, Turner sent Jamie to the university’s athletic trainers. During the physical exam, they alternately tapped her skin with a pen or soft brush. Eyes closed, Jamie could not tell the difference. The trainers recommended that she see a neurologist. But referrals and insurance approval were slow. By the end of freshman year, Jamie’s appointment was still months away.

Before leaving for the summer, the twins and Turner met at the park to walk her dog and talk. “We reminisced about the year and plans for the upcoming year,” Jamie remembers. “She was happy to tell us what trips we would take, the cool gear.” They refused to let Jamie’s worsening pain overshadow their anticipation.

Natalie Turner, Jamie and Joanna Zucker standing over a swimming pool, you can see their reflections in the water

News that changed everything

Barely into their sophomore year, as the swim season approached, the twins’ goals came sharply into focus. But so did the pain.

Every time Jamie flip-turned at the end of her swim lane, electricity shot down the full length of her back. She couldn’t even dive off the blocks. The butterfly – her signature stroke – was excruciating, causing numbness that settled into her left arm and the right side of her back.

Six months after starting the referral process, Jamie saw a neurologist, who immediately ordered an MRI. Jamie and Joanna were in their apartment after a team barbecue when Jamie’s phone rang.

“I remember it perfectly,” Jamie says. “I was laying on the floor, telling Joanna how excited I was for the team this season. And then I get this call and they are saying, ‘You have Chiari malformation with syringomyelia. You have to get this surgery done.’”

The lower part of Jamie’s brain had pushed down into the spinal canal, and expanding cysts (the “syringomyelia”) had formed within the spinal column. Postponing the surgery meant paralysis. “I’m not going to lie … I cried,” she says.

But Jamie pushed on with swimming. This was her first year of competition, and the ambitious college student wasn’t about to sit it out. “I don’t have to do the surgery right away. I can get it done in the summer,” she told herself and everyone else.

Turner’s job is to push swimmers to do their best. Push past the tired, past the pain. But not this time. She remembers Jamie coming to her office and telling her, “The doctor says if I have surgery now, I can save some feeling in my back – but I don’t want to miss out on swim season.”

“I had to say, ‘Sorry! You’re missing out,’” Turner recalls. “It was hard to say, ‘You’ve got to trust me.’”

Still, Jamie hesitated, until the neurologist said, “You don’t want to walk into the store one day and collapse because you just became paralyzed.” Finally, she was convinced.

“Many tears were shed in my office – from all of us,” Turner says.

“She always had tissues ready,” Joanna says. “I used lots of tissues. But she would cry with me.”

“They had goals, and they talked about it from their first year on the team,” Turner says. “It was hard to see that slowly slip away as each new diagnosis came in, every new doctor’s report. Just coming to terms with the limitations being put on them was really, really sad.

“There definitely were times we had to sit back and really talk about God’s plan, and how this could possibly be part of it.”

A second diagnosis

From conception until that moment, Joanna and Jamie had never been apart for the 14 days needed for Jamie’s surgery and recovery.

“If there is an eight-lane pool, and every lane is open, they’ll share one,” Turner says. Now Joanna was left to swim alone.

“If you put trust in God, you know everything’s going to work out the way he plans,” Joanna says. “But it’s different putting trust in humans to carry out such a severe surgery involving the brain and spinal cord.”

Joanna took anatomy that semester. The day of Jamie’s brain surgery, Joanna had just returned from visiting her at the hospital, and the assignment was to dissect a sheep brain. “I was a mess,” she says. “During the dissection I was thinking, ‘I hope the surgeons are not as terrible as I am right now.’”

Ten days after Jamie’s surgery, a driver ran a red light and hit Joanna’s car. A concussion and whiplash were not the only ramifications; migraines Joanna had suffered from for years suddenly intensified.

A couple days later, Jamie returned to school. Together again, the twins sat in a dark dorm room; light made their heads hurt. Bending over caused Jamie considerable pain, so Joanna picked up anything Jamie dropped. Looking at her smartphone increased Joanna’s headache, so Jamie answered emails and texts for her. They couldn’t do much, but they did a lot of laughing, which hurt them both.

“We were together,” Joanna says. “Finally, I was able to share at least some of that pain.”

But while Jamie began a slow recovery, Joanna’s pain increased. A couple months after Jamie’s surgery, Joanna told Turner she had symptoms similar to her sister’s.

“It was this moment of, you know what’s going to happen,” Turner pauses as she remembers. “And we just move forward. That was the thing we talked about the most: We trust the doctors, we trust the procedures, and we keep moving forward.”

This time, the referral and tests were quickly given, and diagnosis received: Chiari malformation.

“It wasn’t even a shock,” Turner says. “They do everything together. It was almost like, ‘Well of course you have it, too.’ But it was also a moment of, ‘Oh gosh, how are we going to do this? We’ve barely got Jamie through. How are we going to get Jo through it?’”

Dread and relief intermixed in Joanna. “I finally had an explanation for the worsening headaches I’d had since I was a child, and there was a way to fix it,” she says. But Jamie had gone into depth explaining how she felt during recovery, and no one looks forward to pain like that.

The Zucker twins underwater swimming towards the camera

Trusting in God and letting go of dreams

With surgery slotted for summer, Joanna kept swimming. Jamie, still recovering, came to every practice, every meet, and cheered from the stands.

“It took me a while to become at peace with that,” Jamie says. “At first it was really hard, but then I learned to be like, ‘Hey, this is my situation; might as well make the most of it,’ you know?”

Turner understood the struggle and purposely kept her involved, handing her camera to Jamie at a four-day conference meet. “It was really fun,” Jamie says, “running across the pool deck, trying to take awesome photos just in the perfect moments. You can see their emotion, all that hard work, in those photos.”

Turner took awful circumstances and tried to make them fun. “Rock that shaved head!” she told each twin after surgery. “Show off your scars every chance you get.” She used the surgeries to take the team deeper, too.

I know them and they know me so much more than the realm of swimming. We’ve become a huge part of each other’s lives.”

“I always encouraged J & Jo to talk about their experiences,” Turner says. “Part of the culture on our team is hard work, showing up, accountability between teammates. They never wanted to stop a set when they were in so much pain. We had to push them to share what’s going on. That opened up a lot of vulnerability on the team.”

Another school year ended, and the twins went home for the summer – 25 miles away in Salem – only to return weeks later to meet Natalie’s newborn first child. They spent time looking at pictures from the past year, but all Jamie really remembers is holding the baby. “And Natalie not wanting me to take a picture of her!” Joanna adds, laughing.

After Joanna’s surgery that summer, both twins were back in the water their junior year, rebuilding their strength and looking forward to achieving those goals.

But halfway through junior year, the COVID-19 pandemic ground the world to a stop. Eventually practices and meets returned, but the end-of-season championship meet their senior year, where finalist standings and record times are determined, did not. Like so many student-athletes at George Fox and across the globe, Joanna and Jamie had no opportunity to meet the goals they’d worked toward for a decade.

Letting go of those goals wasn’t easy. “I can tell you for a fact that if I had not relied on God for strength, I wouldn’t have made it,” Jamie says. “There would have been so much more anger and resentment, because, why is this happening to me? You know – why? I could have chosen to be angry at God, but I didn’t. I don’t think I could have recovered as fast if I didn’t feel that way, because I would have pushed people out of my life. I chose to trust God and his plan, and know I can get through anything with him.”

Turner was a constant reminder that God’s plan is trustworthy. The twins joked with each other about failing their senior year so they could remain students. And, more to the point, to keep Turner as their coach – a coach who was tough with them, cried with them and laughed with them.

“I remember one time my junior year, I walked into her office, almost already in tears,” Joanna says. “I didn’t know what my future would look like. I wasn’t confident I had the skills I needed for what I wanted to do. She would just listen and then give advice. How to deal with it mentally, how to fix it. She would tell me to trust in God, trust in his plan, and in the gifts he’s given me. ‘Nothing is going to be easy,’ she said. ‘Everyone has doubts and everyone is just figuring it out. Enjoy the now. Enjoy the community. We’re never going to have a time like we have now.’

“She helped me see my gifts. She made me feel that I mattered, and the path I was on was for a reason. She said that though my path is uncertain right now, I was experiencing and learning a lot, and God would help me find my way. Then she went over the strengths I had. She gave me strength.”

This fall, Joanna will begin the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at George Fox. Jamie is applying for biochemical research jobs, with an eye toward a PhD for teaching or ongoing research. Maybe they’ll join masters swim competitions in the future, maybe not. But their ongoing friendship with Turner is certain.

“I know I am their swim coach,” Turner says. “I know them and they know me so much more than the realm of swimming. We’ve become a huge part of each other’s lives.”

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