Islander finds swimming a healing passion
How many people are fortunate enough to make that statement?
Islander Diann Uustal, for one.
Uustal, 63, founder and president of the educational consulting firm, Educational Resources in HealthCare Inc. and a U.S. Masters Swimmer, is living proof that anything is possible.
After suffering an extensive injury in October 2008, tearing out her rotator cuff and all three hamstrings off her hip, Uustal underwent a surgery that had never been performed in the U.S. – leaving doctors hoping she would one day be able to walk again, and with the expectation that if she did walk again, it would most likely be with an obvious limp.
But Uustal not only met the hopes of her doctors – she completely stunned them.
This past May, less than two years after her accident, Uustal competed in the U.S. Masters national swimming championships in Atlanta, Ga., winning four events, placing second in two events and breaking four national records in the 60 to 64 age category.
“It was really a pretty awesome meet,” Uustal said. “What’s neat about it is that other people that have been injured need to really know what an incredible rehab potential you have when you get in the water.”
A member of four generations of swimmers, including her mother and beloved grandmother, Uustal has found joy in the water since she was eight.
“My grandmother taught me how to swim,” she said. “I’ve been all over the country with her. She has been the most wonderful, incredible woman in my life. I am more like her than any other human being on the planet. The day my grandmother won her last trophy, I won my first – that was in 1955.”
Following her accident, Uustal looked to swimming to regain her physical strength and freedom.
“I wanted to get back into it because I needed that to continue to help me heal,” she said. “Swimming for me has been a huge turning point.”
Uustal said it was the support of her husband and close friend that got her back into the water shortly after her accident. She competed for the first time since 1982 in March, 2009 at the New England open championship meet at Harvard. She won every event she swam in and broke six New England records.
“My goal at the time was to simply swim as best as my body would allow me to, and to see what I could do,” she said. “I’ve always loved the competition, and it gave me a very specific goal to get in shape for, which was beyond the rehabilitation goal, and I needed that.”
Uustal went on to win eight events at the YMCA national masters championships in April, 2010, breaking six YMCA national records and three U.S.M.S. records. She was also named U.S.M.S. All American 2010.
“It’s life fitness,” Uustal said of the sport. “For me, swimming is body, mind and spirit. It’s as deeply a spiritual activity as it is a physical activity for me. It always has been. There’s serenity in hearing the water going by your ears. There’s elegance to an elite swimmer. I love the sport, but I also love to swim more than just about anything. I’m more at home in the water than I am on land. I was made for the water, there’s no question.”
Uustal, who despite receiving co-ed swim scholarships to several accredited swimming universities through the country, said that due to the intense nature of her program, she chose not to swim for the majority of her undergraduate college life – until, that is, the last six months, when she and several friends got a team together and placed second in New England – with no coach and no pool.
Earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Rhode Island in 1968, Uustal went on to earn a master’s degree in nursing and a doctorate in ethics from the University of Massachusetts, as well as a post-doctoral degree in bio-ethics from Georgetown.
Her career, a true culmination of her degrees, is one she said she feels extremely passionate about.
A clinical ethicist who spends the majority of the year living in Chattanooga, Tenn., Uustal comes home to Jamestown every May. She consults with hospitals and clients all over the country, specializing in end-of-life care.
“I help people make good decisions about end-of-life care and life support,” she said. “I help the person go through a really horrifi c transitional time in their life, right before they die.”
The author of five books and co-editor of three, Uustal is well known in her profession as an author, educator and consultant, and spends the majority of her time traveling, conducting workshops and teaching all over the country.
“I’ve had a very rich, very exciting career,” Uustal said. “My focus right now is doing consulting and being on the road teaching. I have a national campus as a professor.”
In addition to her career and swimming, Uustal is deeply invested in her family, which includes her husband, Tom, two daughters, Kristy and Katie, her two sons-in-law, and five grandchildren.
“Right now, my biggest hobby is being available to my grandkids,” Uustal said. “Being a long-distance grandmother is a hard thing, so being home in the summer – that’s a gift. And for us to be able to be together, that’s pretty awesome.”
She looks forward to training this summer for the 2010 long course national championships. She currently ranks in the 2009 international governing body for swimmers, FINA, as second in two events, and third, fifth and eight in three others.
Uustal is also a certified Total Immersion swim coach, working with swimmers who want to improve their performance for triathlons and fitness.
Uustal also enjoys boating, kayaking, gardening and needlework, and loves nothing more than jumping off the dock in Jamestown with her grandkids.
“I am blessed beyond measure,” she said.