YORK — Food is always very important for MaryElizabeth Warhol. And because Warhol, 17, is a national-class swimmer, she cheerily admits she burns so many calories daily that watching what she eats the way many teenage girls do is unnecessary.
So, following her Saturday morning practice, you’ll often find Warhol at Pop’s in York County raising eyebrows by ordering $15 worth of food. She’ll start with a chicken biscuit, side of hash browns and a sweet tea, and finish with an order of French toast.
While in Christiansburg on Friday and Saturday to defend her 100-yard backstroke title at the Group AA state swim meet, Warhol might try to enlist some of her York High teammates in her favorite hobby: finding quaint local Italian restaurants. All the better if there’s baked macaroni or chicken Alfredo with mushrooms and broccoli.
Rigatoni D at a Maggiano’s or pasta at Carrabba’s is fine in a pinch; and, if not Italian, steak at Outback is just fine, thank you. The first thing Warhol mentions about competing in the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., last June is the sumptuous all-day buffet for the athletes.
The free massages, ready access to Xbox and free admission, between her own events, to watch Michael Phelps and the other swimming stars compete in the trials were nice, too. While in Omaha, Warhol renewed some of the many friendships she’s made during 13 years of competition.
Having friends, a sort of second family, Warhol says, is crucial in a sport that sends her on the road often for competition and to which she devotes 22 hours of practice time a week: three doing “dry-land” work at Tidewater Physical Therapy and 19 in the water.
“I share a lane with the same people every day and we share all the same inside jokes,” she said of Coast Guard Blue Dolphins teammates Trevor Jones, Ari Snyder and Athena Summa. “Swimming practice can be extremely boring or hard, so it’s nice to have someone there to make a joke or push you a little harder.”
Warhol enjoys one other perk from the sport, sort of a huge health benefit. Swimming probably saved her life.
Warhol nearly died two years ago from toxic shock syndrome, a rare illness caused by bacterial toxins, including staphylococcus and streptococcus. It struck while she was in Cary, N.C., for a swim meet.
The first symptom was her body released fluids at a rapid rate. Then she began fading in and out of consciousness.
Her parents, Laura and John, drove her to a nearby emergency room, where the doctors diagnosed the problem as a common stomach virus. Laura, a critical-care nurse, said she felt that it was far worse and arranged for her daughter’s admission to the Wake Medical Center Hospital in Raleigh.
Warhol remained there for the next seven days, fighting for her life.
The doctors were unable to diagnose the illness the first three days she was in the hospital.
“It was like a ‘House’ case,” Warhol said, referring to the popular television series in which a chaotic genius leads a team of medical detectives who diagnose symptoms and their causes. “I had a bunch of symptoms and they were like ‘Where does this fit?’ ”
Warhol’s life was in the balance as doctors sought a diagnosis.
Her blood pressure plummeted to 60/30 as her body went into septic shock because of the infection.
Her lungs filled with fluid, her heart beat irregularly (arrhythmia) as her pulse, normally 40 while resting, raced to 120. She could not remember her name or her age.
“I knew it was bad when the nurse said, ‘Sweetheart, we’ll do our best to make you better, so stay strong,’ ” Warhol remembered. “I must have been pretty sick for her to say that.”
A doctor later told her that probably the main reason she survived is that she is a fit athlete.
The diagnosis of toxic shock — a disease so rare that interns from Wake Forest, Duke and North Carolina universities came in to observe Warhol — was made on the fourth day.
Warhol, who says doctors are unsure how she contracted the illness, was treated with large doses of clindamycin, a bacterial-fighting antibiotic. Then the recovery began, and at first it was brutal.
“I was so dehydrated, they pumped me full of fluids,” Warhol said. “My body swelled up and I had cankles (ankles nearly the size of her calves).
“I said, ‘Mom, I’m so fat,’ ” said Warhol, who is usually a lithe and athletic 5-foot-10, 140 pounds. “I was so sad.”
Warhol says she virtually had to learn to walk again after the illness. Walking from her house to the mailbox proved exhausting for someone whose endurance as a middle- and long-distance swimmer was legion days before.
She attempted to return to school two weeks after getting home. But Warhol, who carries a grade-point average of better than 4.0, was failing tests 20 minutes after studying the material.
So she spent the last months of the first semester as a sophomore in 2010-11 studying at home. Soon her memory and strength returned, and sitting home studying, browsing the computer and watching television began to drive her crazy.
It was then, in early January 2011, that she resumed training. Doctors told her 2 1/2 months earlier that it would be six months before she could get back into the pool. Within six months of her return to training with the Blue Dolphins, she turned an Olympic Trials qualifying time of 2 minutes, 17.79 seconds in the 200 backstroke.
The thing is, Jack Bierie, her coach with the Blue Dolphins, brought Warhol along very slowly after the illness, letting her do little more than “float” in the pool when she first resumed training. The determination Bierie and Laura Warhol believe is Warhol’s defining characteristic helped her rebound to become better than ever.
“To come back as fast as she did is amazing,” Bierie said. “She works pretty hard on the dry-land stuff, and she is by no means as strong as she’s going to be.
“When she gets bigger and stronger, the sky is the limit for her.”
York coach Courtney Kelley said, “I think she’s going to be big-time. At the Olympic Trials, she swam a personal-best time (of 2:16.66) in the 200 backstroke and improved her ranking from about 150th to 80th.
“After she baby-sat for my kids, I told them, ‘Your baby-sitter is a future Olympian.’ ”
Warhol picked national power Auburn to help her advance toward that goal. She also considered Virginia Tech, whose football team she’s long rooted for, and Texas A&M.
Auburn coach Jeff Hawke landed her by appealing to her greatest loves: family and food. He brought her and several other recruits to his house to meet his wife and children, and fed them a meal catered by Outback.
“It felt like family, and family is one of the most important things in my swimming,” Warhol said. “All of the girls seemed really close and are a lot of fun.”
She’ll go for two more AA state gold medals, in the 100 backstroke and 200 freestyle, in Christiansburg. In a few months, she’ll leave York for Auburn with an appreciation for life that comes from her near-death experience.
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but I learned that life is short, so you basically have to live with no regrets,” Warhol said. “All the kids in my class like to joke with me that you only live once, but I actually understand what that means.
“One of my favorite quotes is from (musician) Dave Matthews: ‘Celebrate life, for it is short but sweet for certain.’ ”