TEMPE – The cheers of the crowd echoed around the pool as Xavier Prep sophomore Genevieve George crouched in position on the swim platform, ready to leap into the water at the sound of the starter’s horn.
It’s a sound that George rarely got to hear over most of the past two years.
And she is enjoying every moment she gets to be in the pool these days after missing virtually all of last season because of a rare condition that required her to live – and swim – with a feeding tube inserted through her nose down, down her throat and into her stomach.
Before arriving at Xavier, George was among the best age-group swimmers in the nation, and held the fastest time in the country in her age group in the 50-yard backstroke.
However, in August of 2020, she was diagnosed with median arcuate ligament syndrome, or MALS, which occurs when a person’s diaphragm is positioned too low, causing a band of tissue – the median arcuate ligament – to compress the celiac artery, a major branch of the aorta, the body’s largest artery.
The condition restricts blood flow to the organs in the upper abdomen, and the ligament also can compress nerves in that part of the body. The result can be debilitating abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, delayed emptying of the stomach and dramatic weight loss.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, it is an extremely rare condition that typically affects young women with thin builds. The diagnosis led to several procedures doctors performed on George to free the blockage.
“The first big procedure I had was in September of 2020 where they went in and tried to take all the little things that were blocking the artery out and all the compression,” George said.
She has had more procedures since then to help free up the artery so the blood can flow properly. She eventually needed a feeding tube to help her get enough nutrition and regain weight.
“It was a little bit hard at first, because it was really hard for me to keep down food or anything, before I got the feeding tube,” George said. “And so I’d be really tired throughout the day.”
As a result, George often could not practice. She only swam in one meet as a freshman, placing 24th in the 50-yard freestyle and second with her teammates in the 200-yard free relay at the AMDG Invitational last year.
However, her mindset never wavered. She was determined to return to form in the pool. In June, she pulled the feeding tube out and is currently working her way back up to eating solid foods.
“She accepted it as this being the stuff in the process, even though it could have been a permanent placement,” Matt George, Genevieve’s father said of the tube. “But she never accepted that something was going to actually stop her from swimming.”
George was determined to take initiative in doing what was necessary to recover and get back to competing in the sport she loves.
“She had to put the formula in every four hours so she would wake herself up in the middle of the night to put it in so she never wanted us to do it,” said Nicole George, Genevieve’s mother.
Her friends and family supported her through the tough times by helping her in any way they could. They wanted to make sure she knew they were supporting and pushing for her to get better.
“My friends have been unbelievably supportive even when I was in and out of hospitals with some of my best friends who came and stood outside the window,” Genevieve George said.
When it came to swimming, she was determined to do as much as doctors would allow her to do with a feeding tube. She impressed her coaches by doing everything that she could to help the team while she was out.
“Pretty much the doctors told us what we couldn’t do,” said Xavier Prep coach Glen Coy. “She would have a doctor’s appointment to say, ‘OK, maybe we can add five more laps,’ but each time the doctors would kind of guide us on what she could do and she couldn’t do.”
After spending last season recovering from MALS, Genevieve is competing in meets again and showing that she can again compete at a high level. She exceeded expectations almost as soon as she returned to action.
“She was instantly the fastest swimmer on the team during tryouts,” Coy said. “She had the fastest time in all but one of the events.”
She placed second in two events she entered at the AMDG Invitational and competed at the 2022 D-1 AIA Girls State Championships, placing 18th in the 100 butterfly, 17th in the 100 backstroke, and 16th in the 400 freestyle relay.
Her race against MALS goes on, however.
She still has to remain on a liquid diet for close to a year to give sufficient time for her stomach to digest solid foods properly again, and she is still trying to regain some of the approximately 30 pounds that she lost. Her body weight drifted down to as low as 90 pounds while she had the feeding tube in place.
While George is back in the pool and producing good results, she also has a greater appreciation for more than a fast finishing time. But the competitive spirit is still there.
“My goal for this season is to have fun with my team as well as push myself to be back to where I was before,” she said.