Brothers behind him: Swimmers rally around their captain after a collapsed lung
Eric Welle sat on the end of a diving board at the Discovery Middle School pool on Feb. 28 as six of his Alexandria teammates swam warm-up laps before practice.
Welle would have given almost anything to be alongside them, to feel the rush of diving into the water that he's felt so many times since he joined swim club in the third grade.
Instead, he could only watch in blue jeans and a Patagonia sweatshirt. It's not the way he envisioned spending the week leading up to the Class A state meet at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center during his final season as an Alexandria distance swimmer.
"I really, really wanted to go to state," Welle said. "That was my main goal in the 500 (freestyle). I was training really hard for that. I was right on track for it, too. I said, 'OK, I want to get a five minute flat at sections because that would be a state cut. Just getting to swim at state was my main goal. I hadn't gotten to experience that yet."
A SEASON CUT SHORT
Welle, his teammates and his head coach Kathy Walker believe that could have been his fate if not for a collapsed lung that cut short his senior year.
Welle suffered from spontaneous pneumothorax, where small sacs of air in the lung tissue form and rupture, causing air to leak into the pleural space. That air creates pressure on the lung and can lead to its collapse without any other trauma.
For Welle, it was his left lung. He was watching TV during Alexandria's homecoming week this past fall when it happened for the first time. At least the first time it took him to the hospital.
"It was the worst pain I've ever felt in my life," Welle said. "I think it had happened a couple times before because it was the same pain. Not quite as bad, and it was able to fix itself. At least that's what they think because I remember feeling that same pain."
Welle went to school for a couple days after that episode during homecoming week. He was short of breath and says he couldn't walk too fast, but it takes a lot to get an active and otherwise healthy 18-year-old to the doctor.
"Initially, I kind of thought he was having muscle spasms, so we took him to a chiropractor and the chiropractor said, 'You're not OK. There's something else going on,'" Eric's mother, Tammy, said. "I said, 'Well, I'm going to take you in in the morning' and he said, 'No, I can't miss school. I have two college classes.' The next morning he was walking up the stairs and was winded and I said, 'This is it. You're going in.' Looking back, we're wondering how he did school with one lung."
'IT FELT LIKE I WAS BACK TO NORMAL'
The family got their answers to what was going on as Eric spent a Friday through Sunday in the hospital. Doctors inserted a chest tube to remove the air from the chest cavity and reinflate the lung.
"It felt like it was back to normal," Eric said. "The only thing I had was a scar on the side of my chest. I thought, yeah, no problem. I can go into a normal swim season and never have to worry about it again."
Welle was focused entirely on making this his best season in the water. His personal record in the 500 freestyle was a 5:17 he achieved last year at sections. His season best this winter was 5:24 at a meet in Fergus Falls on Jan. 5.
Every practice plan the swim team does is designed to have their athletes cutting time throughout the year until they are swimming their fastest at the state meet. Welle was wearing down his body early so he could push for that five-minute mark when it was time to taper near sections.
"I felt good about it. I've always been really focused, but this year it was more like, 'I'm going to hit this.' If we had options for what workouts to take, I would take the harder one. I wanted this bad."
Teammates saw that too.
"I feel like he was well on his way," junior swimmer Nic Chromey said. "I remember the Fergus Falls meet specifically. He had a great breakthrough race that race."
A SECOND SETBACK
It was almost two weeks later, though, when Welle's left lung collapsed unexpectedly again. He was sitting in school this time on Jan. 18.
"I was just writing a paper in my study block and I felt it and I knew right away," he said. "I know what this is, I know this pain."
Welle went back to Douglas County Hospital where they again tried inserting the chest tube to fix the problem.
"They pulled the tube out and did an X-ray a few hours later and then it collapsed again," Welle said. "So then they told me I needed surgery."
Welle was transferred by ambulance to St. Cloud Hospital where they performed surgery to remove the parts of his lung that were leaking and to create scar tissue on the inside of his chest wall to hold up the lung if he ever suffered another episode.
Welle spent a total of 12 days in hospitals the second time around. The painkillers often caused him to vomit as he lost 15 pounds.
"Probably the hardest part was accepting my swim season was over and accepting the fact that I was going to be in the hospital for another week when they told me about the surgery," he said. "It was really hard to come to grips that I was done with swimming."
'PROBABLY THE MOST EXCITED I'VE BEEN IN MY LIFE'
Welle's teammates saw that disappointment and were determined to make sure that his role on the team didn't change outside of the pool.
They had voted him one of their team captains before the season and were getting daily updates from Eric's brother, Nicolas, a seventh grade swimmer on the team, as they continued to practice without him.
"It was tough," senior Brady Wolkow said. "It is his last year, and we saw it in his eyes. He was disappointed he was out. We tried to be behind him and keep him happy through the season."
Welle had to catch up in school when he got out of the hospital, so his time at practice was limited. On Feb. 11, he was ready to travel with his team for the first time since the second collapsed lung as they competed in the Central Lakes Conference meet at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School.
Walker, who is in her first season as Alexandria's boys and girls swim coach, said Welle was one of the first people she ever met from the boys team after she was hired.
It was evident from the get-go how invested he was in this program. Because of that, she wanted to show how much he was still a part of this team.
Walker had shirts made for everyone to wear leading up to the CLC meet. They featured Eric's picture on them with a favorite pose of his — head tilted, two fingers pointing as if to say, "You got this."
With everyone on the bus ready to head to Sauk Rapids, Walker stood up and commented on how hot it was before taking off her jacket to reveal the shirt. All his teammates jumped up shouting and did the same.
"Eric was just overcome with emotion and it was just really cool," Walker said. "He knew. We had told him how important he was to us all the time, but this was just another step to let him know."
If Welle questioned if he still had a role on this team, those doubts were erased in that moment.
"That was probably the most excited I've been in my life," he said. "It was the coolest thing, probably the best thing they could have done for me just to show their support."
ENCOURAGEMENT ON THE DECK
Welle responded by being there for his teammates in the biggest meets. He cheered them on to a third place finish at the CLC championship and a runner-up finish at the section meet.
"I was kind of sad thinking I could have been in there, but thinking back I'm just happy I'm with the team now," he said. "I'm supporting them. I'm still with them."
Welle was there in Minneapolis for the state finals on March 4 as the Cardinals finished seventh as a team. He was their biggest cheerleader as they gathered three top-eight relays and a state title from Chromey in the 100 breaststroke.
"I would say this brought us closer together," Wolkow said, who swam in those three state relays. "His struggle, we got behind it and tried to team up and all get through it, to the point where we became better teammates."
GETTING BACK IN THE WATER
Welle described the entire experience as one of the rockiest roads of his life but one that won't define him going forward.
Everything is fine, he says. The surgery after the second collapsed lung is expected to prevent this from happening again.
The hardest part now is being patient and letting his body heal when all he wants to do is run, bike, and more than ever — swim. Welle has already committed to competing in a triathlon with his friends this spring.
He could watch from the pool deck late in the season knowing it won't be long before he can put this all behind him by getting back in the water.
"It's going to feel great," he said. I don't know when I'm going to be able to get back in because I have to wait for the wounds to fully heal, but as soon as they do I'm going to go do a lap swim and just jump in the water. It won't be with my team, but it will feel so good to get back to that because it's been so big in my life."