By Christopher Brooks
It was shaping up to be another normal semester for sophomore swimmer Taylor Shelley. In her second year at Rider, Shelley had found success in the pool as a MAAC Championship finalist and in the classroom with a 3.85 GPA. Although the considerable workload of a college athlete has defeated many students, Shelley had it all under control.
However, one October morning, everything quickly fell apart.
“I woke up with a headache and it wasn’t going away during the day,” Shelley said. “At night, it was getting even worse. It was really hard for me to focus in class and do my homework. I had never experienced headaches like this before.”
As the week progressed, Shelley’s headaches continued, becoming worse with time. Although headaches tend to be quite common, with 47% of adults experiencing a headache at least once within the last year, according to the World Health Organization, Shelley was beginning to worry.
“It happened for a little over a week before I realized it wasn’t going away,” Shelley said. “My coach sent me to the Health Center on campus and they treated me as if it were a migraine.”
Though Shelley experienced typical migraine symptoms, such as throbbing head pain and sensitivity to lights, the migraine medication given by the Health Center had no effect. What sparked further worry from the Rider medical staff was that Shelley felt pain while performing normal movements. After two days of the migraine medicine having no effects, Shelley went in for an MRI.
“After I had the MRI, my trainer called me and asked me to come see her right away,” Shelley said. “I could tell from her demeanor that something was there, the MRI found something.”
Shelley’s initial scan discovered a pituitary lesion that the doctors could not diagnose without a second screening. Shortly after, Shelley had a follow-up MRI specifically targeting the pituitary gland. The MRI revealed that the lesion was actually a brain tumor. Though the tumor was determined to be benign, it slightly touched Shelley’s optic nerve. Doctors feared the growth of the tumor could cause her to lose her vision. The athletic trainers and coaches immediately suspended Shelley from participating in any swimming activities because the physical strain could cause excess pressure in her brain, causing the tumor to press down harder on the nerves.
Though most people would be concerned about their health when diagnosed with a tumor, Shelley had another worry in mind — getting back in the pool.
“The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Oh crap, I’m not going to be able to swim in my meet tomorrow,’” Shelley said. “I know that isn’t the usual thought process for someone who just found out they have a tumor, but that was the big issue in my mind when I learned about it.”
More than 75 miles away in Wilmington, Del., Lisa Shelley, her mother, had bigger worries.
“We were shocked to hear the news and at first assumed the worst,” she said. “I was unable to make many of the doctor visits because of work. It wasn’t until we met with the neurosurgeon that I felt better and thought that things were going to be OK.”
For Taylor Shelley, the whole situation presented itself at the most inopportune time, in the middle of the semester and the swimming season.
“I’m very focused on my swimming and my school work and I just felt like I didn’t really have time to deal with this,” she said. “Unfortunately, I had to, but I was lucky to find out about it early.”
After worrying about how she would stay on top of school work and when she would be able to get back into the pool, the doctors made another discovery only 10 days after the initial diagnosis of the brain tumor.
It suddenly dissolved.
For her mother, there could be no better news.
“I felt such a huge relief,” she said. “It was like an enormous weight was lifted off of our shoulders.”
Being about an hour and a half away from the Lawrenceville campus, Lisa Shelley was thankful for the assistance her daughter received during this hectic time.
“I want to thank her coaches, athletic trainers and team for supporting Taylor through this ordeal,” she said. “I know some of the girls on the team were a huge help to her in taking her to some of the appointments and tests when I couldn’t take a day off of work. That was such a wonderful thing. Also, the doctors were wonderful to Taylor and us. The Princeton Brain and Spine Care center has great, caring doctors and we were very lucky to work with them.”
Though Taylor Shelley had many check-ups after the tumor disappeared, the doctors have found no ill effects and do not expect any further complications. Shortly after, Taylor Shelley was cleared for athletic activity.
“Those were the best results I could have asked for coming into my follow-up MRI,” she said. “I didn’t like being away from the team and out of the pool. Every meet is important and it was really hard for me to not compete. You always want to be in there competing and helping your team. It was hard not to be a part of that.”
After missing 10 days of practice and competition, Taylor Shelley felt she might have lost an edge, but was quickly back to 100%.
“I was definitely a little out of shape, but my coaches did a really good job bringing me back to where I was before,” she said. “I trust them. I learned that’s the best way to do it because they are great coaches and they know what they are doing.”
Taylor Shelley has since performed well, winning the 100-meter breaststroke on Nov. 16 against Marist and Dec. 22 against Georgetown. She also was a part of the winning 400-meter medley relay on Dec. 6 at the Big Al Open, where she also received the “Big Al” Inspirational Female Swimmer Award. The award is given annually to a swimmer who inspires her teammates and coaches, and provides a positive morale. The coaches at the meet nominate and select the winners. Taylor Shelley became the first Rider swimmer to receive the award.
With the MAAC Championship quickly approaching, Taylor Shelley hopes she can put all of the stressful times behind her and continue to swim at her highest level.
“I’m looking forward to the remainder of the season,” she said. “I want to help my team win in whatever way I can. Whatever events they need me to participate in, I’ll be there to help.”