The first thing he did was move his arms and legs and realize he wasn’t paralyzed.
It was a chilly early evening this past December, and Spencer Swick knew he was hurt. Swick, a junior track and football standout at Lawrence University who will compete in this weekend’s Midwest Conference Championships, was laying flat on his back in a Marinette County forest.
Swick had been deer hunting in a tree stand, but the light was fading so it was time to call it a day. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Swick had to climb down to the ladder using a couple of branches.
“Both of the branches I was holding onto broke, and I fell straight back, 18 or 19 feet. I landed right on my back,” Swick said.
“I felt (my back) crack. By far the worst pain I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
Swick said those few seconds he was in the air were a bit surreal.
“It’s such a blur, just falling,” Swick said. “I honestly didn’t think I was going to hit the ground at some point. It seemed to take forever.”
Getting over the initial shock took a few minutes, Swick said. He gathered himself and checked to see if all his limbs were working. The thought of paralysis immediately came to mind.
“The first thing I did was try to move,” Swick said. “When I could, I just put that out of my head.”
Swick, who received some cushioning from the backpack he was wearing, quickly found his mobile phone. He texted his uncle, who had been on his way to pick him up.
By the time his uncle arrived, Swick had somehow managed to sit up. He walked out of the woods under his power, but even a guy this tough knew he was hurt.
“The pain was so much, I had to go to the hospital,” Swick said.
They drove about 90 minutes to a hospital in Oconto Falls, and Swick was told he had a compression fracture of the L1 vertebrae and a herniated disc. Some of the first people he called were Lawrence football coach Mike Barthelmess and track and field coach Jason Fast.
“Right away when you hear hunting accident, you never think it’s a good thing. It’s never something minor, at least,” Fast said.
“I just hoped that he was OK. I wasn’t worried about him competing or anything at that point. You think of a guy his size falling from any height, there’s bound to be some major damage.”
Doctors told Swick the fracture was stable and he wouldn’t need surgery. He was told it would be eight to 10 weeks of careful recovery time.
“There wasn’t a whole lot to do other than not to do anything,” Swick said.
Fast said Swick was patient, quietly providing leadership as he watched his teammates work during the indoor track season. Throws coach Ellie Sitek took the lead with Swick when he began practicing again in late January.
“He did a really good job of taking the time he needed to take,” Fast said. “We didn’t rush things back. When he did come back, we got him back into things slowly. I think coach Sitek did a good job of bringing him back slowly so he could feel confident in what he was doing.”
Swick threw a personal record of 46-10.25 in the weight throw during the indoor season, and he was thrilled to be back.
“It felt amazing,” Swick said of his return. “I’ve had a lot of other sports injuries so I’ve missed time during the season and in the off-season. I just hate sitting there watching. It was awesome when I was able to come back and start throwing.”
The relief to be back practicing and competing was immense because one of Swick’s first thoughts when was laying in the snow months earlier was pure terror to a young athlete.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I might not be able to play again,’ ” Swick said. “I was a lot more concerned about letting the team down. I was more worried about that.”
Now that he has returned to the track squad, Swick has other thoughts on his mind. He’s thinking about Lawrence legend Ron Wopat and breaking a few of his records.
“My goal is to have all the school records in shot and disc and hammer so I have a lot of catching up to do,” Swick said.
Fast knows Swick will be motivated this weekend when the team competes in Grinnell, Iowa, and when he returns next season.
“I know he wants to be all-conference in every event he throws in,” Fast said. “He’s aiming for that, and I know he won’t be satisfied with anything less than that.”