CHARLOTTESVILLE –– When Virginia’s first-team offense took the field at Scott Stadium for a recent intrasquad scrimmage, Ryan Swoboda lined up at right tackle. Nothing remarkable about that, many observers might have said. At 6-10, 305 pounds, Swoboda is a huge presence, and his background in basketball is evident in his footwork.
To those who know what he had to overcome to be in that position, however, the sight of Swoboda on the field alongside his teammates stirs strong emotions.
“It makes you so excited for him and proud of how hard he’s worked,” said Kelli Pugh, UVA’s associate athletics director for sports medicine. “We love all these guys, but because of what Ryan went through, he’s certainly always going to have a special place in our heart.”
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall said: “It’s gratifying. I love the change in people that occurs through struggle, and we think struggle is the law of growth. That doesn’t mean we want hardships or mishaps to befall people, but once it happens, then how you frame it and how you respond is everything, and Ryan’s done a really nice job of how he framed it and how he responded and how he worked through it and how he persevered. And it’s so rewarding to him and myself and the team to see him out there playing.”
On July 12, 2017, a typically steamy summer day in Central Virginia, Swoboda and the other freshmen in Mendenhall’s program gathered for a conditioning session on the practice field next to the McCue Center. About six weeks earlier, Swoboda had graduated from Windermere Preparatory School outside Orlando, Fla., and now he was ready for his third workout as a Cavalier.
“It was just a normal morning,” Swoboda recalled. “I drank my gallon of water [beforehand]. I did everything normally.”
But as the workout progressed, his core body temperature started to climb, and Swoboda began to feel unsteady, unbeknownst to the athletic trainers overseeing the session, Keith Thomson and Jeff Boyer. Swoboda said nothing to them, “because I didn’t know how serious it was in the moment. I just wanted to push through the workout.”
Eventually, he collapsed, and the athletic trainers rushed to him. A core temperature of 104 degrees or higher, Pugh said, is considered heat stroke. Swoboda was at 109 degrees.
He remembers little of what happened next, but UVA medical staff, while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, used ice and water to lower Swoboda’s temperature. Among those who treated Swoboda was Jeremy Kent, a UVA primary care physician.
Keith, Jeff and Dr. Kent saved his life,” Pugh said.
Back in Orlando, his parents, Kirk and Sophia Swoboda, learned of their son’s plight.
“As a parent the worst call you can get is that something has happened to your child,” Kirk Swoboda said.
He couldn’t get a flight out of Orlando until the next morning, so Kirk got in his car and left for Charlottesville immediately. What was usually a 12-hour drive for him took 10. When he arrived at the hospital, Kirk found several members of UVA’s athletics department with his son, including Mendenhall, who had postponed his vacation and stayed all night with Swoboda.
“My presence was the best way I could let the family know that we are here and we are supportive and we want to contribute, in any way possible, to his recovery,” Mendenhall recalled.
That recovery did not go as doctors hoped. Swoboda ended up staying in the hospital about three weeks.
“At one point they had 12 machines hooked up to him,” his father said, “keeping him alive.”
In an attempt to stabilize Swoboda’s temperatures, doctors finally induced a coma. Pugh was out of town when Swoboda collapsed, and he was unconscious when she returned and saw him in the hospital.
“It was absolutely terrifying,” she said.
When it was time to bring Swoboda out of his coma, his doctors were unable to do so initially, an excruciating experience for his family.
“At that point I thought he was going to die,” his father said.
Swoboda’s temperature eventually stabilized and slowly returned to normal, and his condition improved. But he doesn’t remember significant parts of his stay in the hospital.
“Where my memories start is a little blurry, I guess,” Swoboda said.
When he was finally released, there was no guarantee he’d ever be able to play football again. His doctors “told me if I wanted to play again, it would be a really long process, I’d have to be really patient, and I’d have to go and take certain tests and pass those,” Swoboda said.
He was determined to try, “but I think I started for the wrong reason,” Swoboda said. “I was frustrated when I first started, and it was kind of like this I’ll-prove-people-wrong kind of thing. But I learned quickly that I wouldn’t have the patience to do the whole process if I had that attitude. Later I just wanted to prove it to myself and become the best football player I could be for myself and not for other people.”
He did so with the blessing of his parents, who told him they’d support him no matter which path he chose to follow.
When his son was in the hospital, said Kirk, who played football at Pacific University in Oregon, “you’re like, Please just walk again and live and you’ll be fine. But afterwards, when he starts healing, you don’t want to take [football] away from him. It’s his goal.”
His comeback proceeded at a glacial pace. Swoboda, who lost about 40 pounds after the incident, was able to begin the fall semester at UVA as scheduled in 2017, and “once I started going to classes, Keith had me walk pretty slowly on a treadmill for about 10 minutes,” he said. “And then maybe after a week of that I’d do 12 minutes, then 15.”
Swoboda smiled. “But I remember that 10-minute walk on the treadmill was pretty hard.”
For his 19th birthday in September 2017, the athletic training staff gave Swoboda a present: They let him run for the first time since his collapse.
“I was real jazzed about it,” Swoboda said. “I’d do a 60-second jog and then go back to walking. Then a 60-second jog. I did that for about a month or so, and then slowly they’d let me do more running, and by about the end of the year, I’d run about two and a half, three miles [at a time] on the treadmill. That’s all I could do, run.”
As 2017 gave way to 2018, Swoboda’s workload increased, and he began doing pushups and planks under Thomson’s supervision. In January 2018, something more important occurred: UVA sent Swoboda to the Korey Stringer Institute in Storrs, Conn.
The institute, which opened in 2010, is named for the Minnesota Vikings’ Pro Bowl lineman who died of exertional heat stroke during training camp in 2001. In addition to educating schools, teams, athletes and others about ways to prevent heat stroke, the Stringer Institute tests people’s tolerance for heat.
In his first visit to the institute, Swoboda failed the heat tolerance test, “but they said my numbers were good enough that I could work out under monitoring.” The testing involves exercising on a treadmill in a heat chamber while vital signs such as heart rate, sweat rate and core temperature are monitored.
Rest of the Article can be found at: Virginia Sports By: Jeff White