Neely Heilman is a brown-eyed fourteen year old who loves pizza, family, and time with her friends. At just three years old, she started competitive training for soccer which quickly became the focus of her young life. But this past year, everything suddenly changed. When soccer was no longer an option, she found herself in the pool at BSAC.
Last October, Neely landed a severe concussion during a national training camp. Full head gear didn’t prevent yet another injury to the back of her head. After partially losing hearing and missing a full week of school, her doctors advised she take a few months off to recover. Only four months after returning to the field, she suffered another concussion which led to unfavorable MRI results.
Neely has chiari malformation, a condition that causes her cerebellum to extend below the base of her skull. Continuous hits to the back of the head caused severe inflammation resulting in headaches, nausea, and dizziness. To avoid long term damage from concussions, she could never play contact sports again.
“It was kinda rough because soccer was basically my whole life from when I was three to thirteen.” Said Heliman. “I had all my friends there and I was looking forward to a future there in colleges.”
Walking away wasn’t easy after already receiving verbal offers to play soccer at USF in the future. Despite the devastating news, Neely immediately began looking for a safer sport. Her mother suggested something individual like swimming or tennis.
“Swimming is a lot of strength and mental stability. I’ve done a few triathlons before and loved the swimming part,” said Heliman. “I think that’s why I chose swimming.”
Neely found the Blue Wave swim team at BSAC after a recommendation from her pediatrician, which was based on the individualized training plans and excellent leadership offered by Coach Rich Rogers.
“Coach Rich welcomed me and immediately put me in BSAC swim camp. The rest is just history,” said Heliman. “He makes sure you feel comfortable, and he makes your training schedule prioritized to what your goals are. Whatever you want to do, he will help you get there.”
It has been almost eight months since her big change from land to water. The more she swims, the more she enjoys her new-found sport. Her favorite feeling? The relief of finishing a hard set and the satisfaction of self-improvement. Neely learned how to overcome anxiety, expand her comfort zone, and make new friends that have turned into family.
“Just the essence of all the people at BSAC. It’s one big family. I love having that family away from my family because you know, you spend a lot of time with them. It’s just great for support,” said Heliman.
Despite having chiari malformation and an immune deficiency, Neely maintains a positive spirit and a big smile. She has applied for Make-A-Wish and dreams of going to London, England to visit the original set of Harry Potter. She fell in love with the idea after having an incredible spring break experience at Universal Studios with her grandmother, father, and 11-year old brother. Neely’s mother was unable to join because their sister Hally was in the hospital. Hally was diagnosed with the same conditions as Neely and their little brother, in addition to polyneuropathy. She passed away at age 15.
“When I’m in a race, I feel like nothing can touch me. I’m invincible. Everything else in the world, all the scary stuff, all the medical issues, all the family stuff; it’s just you. And the water. And nothing else matters,” said Heilman.
Neely already has aspirations to swim at college on a Division I team. She envisions herself at the Olympics representing the United States, just like BSAC diving coach Chris Colwill. In her eyes, no goal is too big if you’re willing to work for it. Very few young adults find themselves in Neely’s shoes, but she offers advice to any who are.
“If you have to switch sports like I did, it’s going to be hard, but you can get through it. If you want to do something, you’re gonna get there, you just have to have confidence,” said Heilman. “I struggle with confidence because I’m not as good as other people, then I realize they’ve been swimming for a long time. You have to believe you’re gonna get there and not worry about what other people are doing. You just have to focus on yourself.”
Whether it’s on land or water, Neely Heilman is already a champion at life and continues to be an inspiration to us all.
By: Carli Walko