South Charlotte

Senior swimmer: 'I've never been one to just quit'

Growing up, Jack Bloom was always active. When he watched television, he would jump up and down on an exercise trampoline.

He started swimming when he was 6 after moving to Charlotte from Maryland. He ran, played football in middle school and wrestled.

Despite how active he was, Bloom, now a senior swimmer at Providence Day, noticed he was always just a bit behind everyone else.

"I would just be running sprints and I would be slower than everyone else, and I was always wondering, 'Why am I slower than everyone else? I run cross country and do all this other stuff, why am I so slow?'" said Bloom, 18. "It just never made sense."

He had a condition called pectus excavatum, a deformity that caused his ribs and sternum to grow abnormally inward, producing a caved-in look in his chest. The condition progressed when he hit puberty, to the point where it was limiting lung function and his rib cage was getting close to his heart.

He had his chest examined at Carolinas Medical Center, and on a scale of severity from one to five, Bloom was a four.

"The way that the pulmonary (test) looked, it was as if I had asthma," said Bloom. "I would be a typical kid with pretty severe asthma."

CMC doctors recommended surgery, but the procedure they wanted to perform - which involved breaking bones and putting permanent mesh in his rib cage - was too invasive for Bloom and his mother, Sally Shorb. Then Bloom found out about the Nuss procedure, developed by Dr. Donald Nuss at the Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk, Va.

The procedure is much less invasive, with incisions made on both sides of the chest and a concave bar slipped through the chest and under the sternum. The bar is then flipped, pushing the sternum out.

"It's pretty equivalent to braces, I'd say," said Bloom.

On Halloween of his freshman year at Providence Day, Bloom had the surgery.

"That week was not fun, after I got the surgery," said Bloom. "To be honest, that was the weakest point of my life."

Despite Bloom's pain, Shorb, 57, said she saw the effects of the surgery immediately.

"When he looked at himself in the mirror and he saw himself, it made it all worthwhile, because even though he never complained, he was proud of how he looked," she said.

Bloom wasn't allowed to play contact sports, but he could swim.

"Jack has a desire to compete," said Shorb. "The surgery took him out of all the contact sports. He loved wrestling, he loved football. ... It kind of boiled down to 'I want to do a sport and this is all I can do.' He happens to have a nice talent for it."

Bloom said he believes everything happens for a reason.

"I saw an opportunity for swimming that I didn't see with anything else," he said. "That's what I should be doing."

He wasn't supposed to get back in the pool for three months, but he was back in about 10 weeks. He had been swimming at SwimMAC for three years after Leslie Berens, his coach at the Olde Georgetown neighborhood pool and mother of Olympic gold medalist Ricky Berens, got him involved.

But after the surgery, swimming year-round was hard. He noticed an improvement in his breathing, but his arms, chest and back would be in pain as his body tried to get used to the stainless steel bar in his chest. Some days in class, he couldn't leave when the bell rang because back spasms would keep him from moving.

"Most of the times where I thought I was going to give up was that first week after surgery," he said. "It was just awful. I never wanted to swim again at that point."

Bloom stopped swimming SwimMAC and focused on high school swimming, but he wouldn't quit the sport.

"To be honest ... I've never been one to just quit. I've never wanted to be the guy that said, 'I can't do it,'" he said.

Bloom made it through freshman and sophomore year on the team, but it wasn't easy. The pain was still there.

"All the high school meets, I can remember just thinking in my head before the race, 'It's just one freestyle race. You can make it through this. You can do it. It's going to hurt a little bit, but you can do it,'" said Bloom.

In his junior year, the pain got worse. The bar that was installed was too small. As a freshman, he was 5-foot-9. By junior year he had grown three inches and gained 20 pounds.

He couldn't practice regularly because of the pain, which hurt his performance in meets. He iced his chest every night and used a heating pad before swimming. The low point, he said, was last year at the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 3A state meet, when he finished one-hundredth of a second out of tenth place in the 100-yard backstroke. He knew he should have done better and felt he let his team down.

Last October, three years after the bar was put in, it was taken out in a simple 30-minute procedure. He noticed a difference almost immediately.

"As soon as we got the bar out ... I was just running way faster than I could," he said. "It was fantastic. It was like Christmas morning."

Without pain and able to breathe normally, Bloom is focused on his senior season. He was named captain of the Chargers' swim team and is competing in the 50 freestyle, 100 backstroke, 200 freestyle relay and 200 medley relays.

He hopes this year he'll be able to help his team at states.

"All my hopes are set towards this year," he said. "I've trained my butt off."

"I feel like I deserve something for all the work I've put in."