Division I athlete suffers stroke after the swim of her life

Guest blog by Nicole Salzano, stroke survivor and advocate

2018 was my senior year of college. I was an exceptional student majoring in accounting and set to graduate summa cum laude. Prior to the start of the school year, I accepted a full time position with Big Four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Outside of the classroom, I was also an accomplished competitive swimmer for the Bryant University Division I Swimming and Diving Team. As a captain, I was certain that we would win our first Northeast Conference Championship that February. This championship meet was going to be the end of my 17 year competitive swimming career.

February 22, 2018.
That date feels like it was decades ago and yesterday all at the same time. In the morning, I swam an amazing 500 freestyle (20 laps) dropping 19 seconds from my previous season best and placing 3rd for finals that night. In between the morning session and finals, our team went to the hotel for lunch and to rest up before heading back to the meet. My roommate and I finished our lunches, headed to our room, and started to fall asleep. Little did I know this nap would change my life forever.

I woke up suddenly. I thought I needed to go to the bathroom, so I tried to get up. My roommate woke up to the sound of me falling to the ground next to our two beds. The right side of my body was numb. The only word coming out of my mouth was “UM”.

I didn’t know this at the time, but I was having a massive stroke. I was able to get help and the ischemic stroke turned to a hemorrhagic conversion due to the tPA that was administered after I was rushed to the hospital by ambulance.

I was told by doctors that I would never be able to walk, talk, or use my right arm again because my brain was ⅓ dead. I attribute being an athlete, especially in the sport of swimming, as a significant contributor to my success in recovery. Hard work and dedication were key factors I knew very well, and it was needed to “rewire” my brain.

Six years later, I am coaching for the Wyckoff Family YMCA swim team where I am walking, talking, and using both my hands. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying; I have a limp, I have mild aphasia, and I can’t use my right fingers…YET. The “power of yet” mindset is imperative to stroke survivors.

With patience and practice, you have the power to work as hard as you can to make the future you want become a reality. I also started speaking on social media about my journey as a stroke survivor. I want the world to understand that strokes can happen to anyone at any age. I firmly believe talking with other stroke survivors is the best therapy possible.

In honor of American Stroke Month, I want to share my experience to encourage you to be your own advocate and never be afraid to ask questions!


Nicole tracks her recovery journey on her Instagram account: @nicole.salzano