Swimmers seem to have a high tolerance for pain.
Muscle fatigue and soreness, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School junior Graham Baird said, is part of the game — he swims thousands of yards during training each week.
“You like a little bit of pain. It means you’re working,” he said.
But there was a distinct difference between the productive muscle burn Baird is used to and the pain that shot through his left knee early this winter.
The primarily middle distance freestyler who also is strong in the butterfly was diagnosed with Hoffa’s Syndrome. The condition, which has kept former top-ranked men’s professional tennis player Rafael Nadal sidelined since last June, occurs when the knee’s fat pad becomes pinched between the thigh bone and kneecap, according to orthopaedic.com.
“It’s kind of weird, when you swim, when you kick your knee hyperextends. I also was training breaststroke, trying to become more dynamic, stronger in the individual medley, and that irritated my knee. I realized it was something so I went to the doctor. I had a cortisone shot and all. It was not very fun,” Baird said.
But he had no intention of letting the injury prevent him from backing up last winter’s breakout season, he added.
In 2011-12 Baird established himself among the county’s best with a fifth-place finish in the 200-yard freestyle and seventh — up three spots from 2010-11 — in the 100-yard butterfly at the Washington Metropolitan Interscholastic Swimming and Diving Championships. He then set a meet record en route to winning the 200-yard freestyle at the season-ending Maryland 4A/3A championship.
After spending most of January out of the water — Baird said he has only been back in the pool for a week — he proved he is ready for championship season with a win in the 100-yard freestyle at Saturday’s Montgomery Division II Championship. Though it will take some time for Baird to build his endurance back up, he said he feels stronger now than he did before his time away.
“Luckily at B-CC I got to use the weight room a bit. I didn’t lift a ton, but I used the rower and stuff to keep my body where it was. I did a lot of push-ups and sit-ups to keep my core strength. When I got back in the water, I felt really strong. I feel like I actually improved my strength, and it’s helping me a lot, I feel a lot stronger than I was and once I get my endurance back, I (will) feel really confident,” Baird said.
Baird’s drive to get back in a position where he will be a major postseason contender in several events is not surprising.
It takes a special kind of internal motivation and a certain mindset to train every day in the Nation’s Capital Swim Club group Baird practices with, which includes 2012 Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky and talented Georgetown Prep sophomores Grant Goddard and Carsten Vissering, who are among the nation’s fastest in their age group.
“You definitely have to be motivated and dedicated to train in that group. You can’t train with that group of people and not have bigger goals other than high school swimming,” B-CC coach Jason Blanken said. “He’s one of those guys who understands the sport and cares about the sport more than just going to practice and going to meets. He is aware of what he’s doing at all times.”
Baird, who has already qualified for this spring’s Junior Nationals in five events and is within striking distance of a sixth, tends to rise to challenges, Blanken added. The team’s fastest sprinter, he is an integral cog in B-CC’s relays.
Baird has impeccable feel for the water and stroke efficiency, Blanken said. But he is also a tremendous strategic swimmer, an often overlooked aspect of the sport Baird said he is a “nerd” for.
It was time out of the water due to a stress fracture in his spine when he was 12 years old that helped Baird truly realize his passion for swimming. After a monthlong hiatus this winter, the Barons’ quiet leader is once again reenergized and ready to make his mark on championship season.
“I have been out of the water, which is kind of unfortunate, but it felt good winning the 100 (at divisionals). I feel like I’m in a good place going into Metros and states, and I hope I can do even better than last year,” Baird said.