Roy Burch was a celebrity in Bermuda, a headline-making Olympian featured in roadside advertisements across the picturesque island.
In the pool, no one could catch him. But against the world’s best, Bermuda’s greatest swimmer was outmatched.
“As a Bermudian,” he says, “I’ve always been made to feel small, and I don’t like that.”
So in 2011, he moved to Charlotte to discover how good he could be.
Here, he saw an elite swim club on the rise, Olympic medal-winners to train with and a coach who could push him.
Burch’s plan paid off. By early 2015, he was on track to represent Bermuda in his third Olympics. This time, perhaps, with even a chance to medal.
His newfound speed was the result of hard work, of constantly trying to outdo his teammates – even in warmups. That’s what he was doing in March, dunking basketballs in the Queens University of Charlotte gym before practice. He felt especially strong that day.
Then, he went up for a dunk, his legs buckled and everything changed.
The grace he’s shown through even the darkest of times has probably been the key to his amazing recovery.
Friend Harshada Rajani
Like other international athletes, Burch trained in the United States but represented his home country. Born in Bermuda, he came to the U.S. at 16 to attend a New Jersey prep school and then Springfield College in Massachusetts, where he starred on the swim teams.
At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Burch was eliminated in the early heats in his only event, the 100-meter freestyle, and spent the rest of the games as a spectator.
He watched Cullen Jones, another black swimmer in a predominantly white sport, win gold alongside Michael Phelps in the 400-meter freestyle relay – one of the most thrilling races in the sport’s history.
Burch approached Jones, who said he was swimming for coach David Marsh in Charlotte. Burch, looking for a new training team, asked for an introduction.
But when Burch called Marsh months later and asked to join his team of U.S. and international swimmers, the conversation didn’t go well. Burch mainly remembers Marsh saying: “I coach medalists. That is what I do here.”
Burch looked for other coaches. He trained in Germany, Bermuda and back in Massachusetts. But he wasn’t getting the results he wanted. In 2010, he called Marsh again with a new pitch: I’ll work harder than anyone.
Marsh relented. But added a condition: You can practice with the top high school group, not with the elite swimmers, he told Burch.
So in early 2011, Burch, along with his wife, Lauren, and their daughter, moved to Cornelius. Burch earned only a small stipend from Bermuda, along with some income from sponsors. His wife would seek work as a rehabilitative nurse.
His attitude was, ‘You know what? Everything you give me I appreciate.’ He showed up early and afterward, he thanked us.
Assistant coach Peter Verhoef
For more than a year, he trained hard with SwimMAC Carolinas, sometimes more than four hours a day, six days a week. He switched to a new freestyle technique suggested by Marsh.
Again, Burch represented Bermuda in the Olympics. At the 2012 London Games, in July, he swam a lifetime best time of 22.4 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle.
But again, as in Beijing, his time was not fast enough to advance beyond the preliminary heats.
‘Beat the best guy’
By the fall of 2012, Burch decided to go for a third Olympics.
He was the first to show up to practice in Charlotte. This time, he convinced coaches to give him a shot with the elite swimmers.
“His attitude was, ‘You know what? Everything you give me I appreciate,’ ” assistant coach Peter Verhoef says. “He showed up early and afterward, he thanked us.”
By then, SwimMAC’s reputation was spreading. Ryan Lochte, the biggest name in U.S. swimming behind Michael Phelps, joined the team. And Marsh was developing a core of female athletes whose achievements would help him be named the head U.S. women’s coach for the 2016 Olympics.
Given a chance, Burch made strides. By January 2015, at a competition in Austin, Texas, he even beat Cullen Jones.
With the games a year away, Burch had a chance to get his medal.
Besides the hours they spend daily in the pool, elite swimmers cross-train in the weight room and the gym.
Burch was one of the most athletic members of Team Elite. He climbed ropes faster than his teammates and lifted more weights than anyone else.
On the morning of March 27, warming up for practice by playing basketball in the Queens gym, Burch was feeling especially strong. He leaped and dunked with ease. “Effortless,” he recalls.
Burch ran back out past the free-throw line for another dunk. But this time, as he jogged forward and planted his feet, his legs gave out and he crashed to the floor.
He seized both knees and rolled to his side, frozen with pain.
A coach, who happened to be shooting video on her cellphone, screamed.
My heart hurts for him.
Coach David Marsh
In an exam room at OrthoCarolina several hours later, Burch waited for the doctor.
He was in a wheelchair. Both kneecaps had snapped upward atop his thighs. He hoped he’d only hyperextended his knees and the doctor could push his kneecaps back in place. In a couple of weeks, he thought, I’ll be back in the pool.
But when physician assistant Courtney Phillips entered the room, Burch could tell from her expression that the situation was much worse.
“You have ruptured both patellar tendons,” she said. “You’re going to need surgery.”
Surgeon Donald D’Alessandro explained what happened: When Burch leaped to dunk, the force first snapped his right tendon, already damaged from a lifetime of training. Then, his left tendon broke under the added strain. It was a rare injury, D’Alessandro said.
“At that point,” Burch says, “ I realized it was all over.”
D’Alessandro scheduled surgery for the next day.
He told Burch he could expect to regain 95 percent of his leg strength if he was disciplined about his rehabilitation. In six months, by September, he could resume his regular training. That would leave him 10 months to qualify for the Olympics in Brazil.
After surgery, Burch was bedridden. At times, he wondered if he would ever walk again.
His story, meanwhile, spread throughout the swimming community. SwimMAC parents formed a meal train to help the Burch family, which now also included a son. One parent paid for a housekeeper in the weeks when Burch was barely mobile and his wife worked full-time.
In April, once he could limp through his house with a walker, he worked to regain his upper body strength. On his own, he worked out with heavy ropes, a pullup bar and weights in the garage.
When Burch’s Pilates instructor, Laney Abernethy contacted him about resuming his workouts, it inspired him.
“In a lot of ways I felt set aside or disregarded,” he says. “I knew that I was just written off by pretty much everyone, that I would never come back. But she believed in me.”
Often, he also drew from another well of strength, thinking of his mother.
When Burch was 8 years old, in 1993, Karen Burch was diagnosed with breast cancer. Doctors gave her one year to live.
Instead, she endured a long series of treatments and lived 10 more years.
He remembered what she said to him as she lay dying: “Keep swimming. It will open doors for you that you will never imagine.”
He remembered watching her fight. During rehabilitation, Burch called on her strength as he learned to walk again.
“When this happened to me, it wasn’t terminal, it was something I could get past,” he says.
“Step, step,” he’d repeat to himself, placing one foot in front of the other. He increased the range of motion in his knees faster than expected, but his leg muscles had atrophied beyond what he anticipated.
Finally, after eight months of recovery, Burch was ready to compete again.
On a November afternoon at the University of Minnesota, he stepped up to the blocks to swim in one of the slowest heats of the 50-meter freestyle.
Burch’s start was quick, but his legs dragged too far underwater, still weak from the lack of muscle. He finished in 24.6 seconds – the slow end of what he’d hoped.
He’d still need to drop just over a second and a half by June in order to be considered for an invitation to the Olympics.
Marsh, who had originally rejected Burch, this time was waiting at the end of the pool. He knew how hard Burch had worked to recover, and how far he still had to go.
“My heart hurts for him,” Marsh remembers thinking.
On the return flight to Charlotte, Burch looked at photos from the last year on his phone. About 30 minutes before landing, he began to cry. Just before the descent to Charlotte Douglas, he was so noticeably upset that a flight attendant checked to make sure he was OK.
Now, he has six months left to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.
Even more of a long shot: Winning a medal.
But along the way in his recovery, Burch’s perspective has changed.
“The challenge now is in the quest,” Marsh, his coach, says.
Whatever happens, Burch’s tenacity has inspired others.
At one practice this past summer, 10-year-old Avery Lester, a swimmer, walked past Olympic gold medalists Ryan Lochte and Cullen Jones as they practiced at Queens University. She was there, she told a coach, to meet Burch, whose recovery she’d followed ever since he was in a wheelchair.
Burch removed his swim cap, handed it to her and shook her hand.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
He’s been invited to speak to groups about his recovery, including a charity event at Piper Glen in the fall for young adults recovering from catastrophic injuries.
In the audience, Harshada Rajani, 31, of Charlotte listened. At age 23, she had suffered a massive brainstem stroke. It left her completely paralyzed. She is mostly confined to a wheelchair. But after seven years of daily physical therapy, she is learning to walk again. She can speak, but that, too, is a challenge. Her need for air has made her once vibrant voice faint and halting.
Burch talked of how he considers Rajani a friend, a mentor and an inspiration. She says Burch has also been an inspiration to her.
“The grace he’s shown through even the darkest of times has probably been the key to his amazing recovery,” she said.
That day, Burch spoke about how his first Olympics didn’t go so well. How he dreamed of winning a medal, worked hard, seemed to be on his way, then found himself starting over.
As he left the podium, the room erupted in applause that continued long after he returned to his seat – a swimmer in Charlotte still discovering how good he can be.