Arizona College Prep standout Ashlyn Tierney learns the ultimate swimming lesson through anxiety disorder

Ashlyn Tierney’s poster example of determination is added motivation for her Arizona College Prep swim team. “She’s one of the best swimmers on the team,” said teammate Grace Burns. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/Cronkite News)

CHANDLER – As clouds loom over Kerry Croswhite Aquatic Center, members of Arizona College Prep High School’s swim team jump in the pool and start their warmups on the kick boards.

Coach Kristine Nelson paces alongside the lanes, stopping her swimmers after a lap to help correct their breathing and their strokes.

Silently swimming her laps without interruption, freshman standout Ashlyn Tierney warms up with dolphin kicks and backstroke.

Tierney has already broken the 100-yard backstroke record for the school and hopes, along with the rest of her team, to bring home the first Division III swimming and diving championship for the Knights.

Just two years ago, however, Tierney wasn’t breaking records or chasing a title. She was in a wheelchair with a numbness in her legs and unable to walk.

She had been sitting in class when she started to feel sick and was sent to the nurse’s office. Within minutes, Tierney went from being able to walk and use her legs, to not being able to feel from the waist down. Tierney’s parents immediately took her to the emergency room.

Arizona College Prep swimmer Ashlyn Tierney holds the school record for the 100-yard backstroke. Now she sets her sights on helping the Knights win their first swimming and diving title. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/Cronkite News)

“The doctors did so many tests. And said, ‘You should be able to walk up,’ because there’s nothing wrong with my nervous system or my spinal cord,” Tierney said. “Three months kind of goes by … from being in a wheelchair to a walker.”

After undergoing every medical test imaginable, Tierney was diagnosed with conversion disorder. Conversion disorder is the brain’s physical manifestation of anxiety. Along with conversion disorder, Tierney has vasovagal syncope disorder, which causes her to lose consciousness and faint.

“I couldn’t feel my anxiety, or even recognize it to see that it was there,” Tierney said. “So my body kind of was like, OK, you’re not gonna listen to me, I’ll make you listen. And kind of just shut everything off.”

Tierney has been dealing with vasovagal syncope disorder since she was 3 and is able to recognize when she is about to faint. Twice Tierney was in the pool when she began to feel woozy.

“It’s scary just going unconscious in the water. I’ve kind of learned how to deal with it and to recognize that it’s happening,” Tierney said. “I get to the wall and let someone know, my teammates are aware of it, so it just kind of puts me at ease a bit more.”

Her teammates are so mindful of Tierney’s vasovagal syncope, they try to look out for her even while they too are swimming, heads down in the pool.

“I’m a certified lifeguard. It’s my job, I look for these things,” said Ethan Ruhl, Tierney’s teammate. “When I see her hit the wall, I look up to check and make sure she’s all right. She’s been an amazing teammate so far. She’s really excelled in everything that this team is about.”

As quick as Tierney’s legs went numb, it was just as fast when the feeling and the ability to walk returned. Three months after that trip to the nurse’s office, one of Tierney’s teammates poked her legs to see if she could feel it. Suddenly, the feeling came back and the numbness was gone.

Since then, Tierney has found healthy outlets to help deal with her anxiety. She finds fidgeting with jewelry and listening to music helps her stay centered and calm.

While Tierney is eager to win and is chasing her goals, conversion disorder has taught her to let go of the pressure she puts on herself.

“Something that I learned through the conversion disorder is so many things are taken for granted so easily,” Tierney said. “So getting the change in perspective, my validation, my happiness isn’t validated through winning or from a good race time.”

Tierney’s experience with conversion disorder and her grit in the pool inspires her teammates to give it their all despite their own circumstances.

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“I think she is such an inspiration to all swimmers because even though I’m older than her, she’s inspired me so much to push myself,” said Grace Burns, a junior swimmer. “She’s one of the best swimmers on the team. And even though she is one of the best swimmers, she has struggled in her own way.”

Tierney’s voice isn’t the one echoing through the aquatic center but, though she is only a freshman, her work ethic in the pool helps her lead the team. The undefeated Knights look to continue their winning streak Thursday in a home meet against Notre Dame Prep and Scottsdale Christian.

“It’s great when you have a freshman that comes in and they just completely integrate themselves into the team,” Nelson said. “She’s always smiling, always positive, very consistent. I think she’s humble. So it’s just really, she’s, she’s already a great role model for everybody.”

After learning how to walk again, Tierney’s strength is contagious.

“Having heard her story, I think there was an overcoming factor because she had to be in a wheelchair for a while, but any 12-year-old that goes through that has something that has to be inside of them,” Nelson said. “That’s strong. I think now as a 14-year-old, I think she’s got that inner strength, and it transfers over to other people.”

Madison Thacker mad-uh-sun thack-er (she/her/hers)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Madison Thacker expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Thacker has interned as a reporter with The Arizona Republic.

Brooklyn Hall BROOK-lyn hall (she/her)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Brooklyn Hall expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Hall has interned with the Amarillo Sod Poodles and is currently interning with the Arizona Diamondbacks on their DBTV crew.