MINNEAPOLIS — Chelsea Reynolds’ goggles are at once the vexatious reminder of missed opportunities and the inspiring omen for an optimistic future.
They travel with her for every workout. They haven’t touched water for a decade, but these days they symbolize what could have been and what could still be.
The 24-year-old planned to sport them in 2004, to peek through the azure lenses on the Athens starting blocks, ready to swim for gold in her Olympic debut.
Sitting in her one-bedroom Burnsville, Minn., apartment, Reynolds wipes away tears as she pulls out the goggles, still in their original View Sniper case. She hasn’t worn them since she was 14, around the same time tumors formed inside a bone in her right foot and the pain took swimming away.
In her mind, Chelsea Reynolds was headed for Olympic glory until her foot — that stupid foot — changed everything.
The pool is the sanctuary to which she has returned.
One week before she races in the sprint event at Saturday’s Life Time Fitness Triathlon, Reynolds wades into the four-lane Burnsville LA Fitness pool, where conversation from a nearby whirlpool bath reverberates off the walls.
Reynolds is oblivious to the noise. She has come here to work. A sign overlooking the pool has the phrase, “Before you can accomplish something, you must expect it of yourself.”
For a while, the expectations were low. A burgeoning swimming career that took her to train at elite clubs with Olympic coaches in Washington and Florida seemed over.
“I was watching the Olympics in 2004, and that was the one I thought I was going to be at,” Reynolds said. “I love watching swimming, but at the same time it’s incredibly painful to watch. Everyone wants it to be them. It’s just frustrating that it’s not me.”
Her outlook is now brighter. Calm and focused during her hourlong workout, Reynolds at one point does a “no-breath 50,” a down-and-back sans air.
After finishing, she pops out of the water with both thumbs up. “We did it!” she said, smiling before reflecting on the task. “A lot of it is knowing you’re in control of what your body is doing.”
The pain started in ninth grade. Losing control bothered her the most.
“It was so frustrating,” Reynolds said with a sigh. “I had created this body that did exactly what I wanted it to. One day it didn’t, and it was like someone pulled the rug out from under me.”
She had four MRIs, a bone scan — “the most painful thing I’ve ever done” — and was put in a walking boot for 12 weeks.
Then through a chance encounter in February 2003, Reynolds met Dr. J. Chris Coetzee, who later diagnosed her with osteoid osteoma. She had two benign tumors in her right foot.
“I never thought that I would be able to run. Ever,” she said. “I spent so many years being angry at my foot and at my body because I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do.”
Surgery that March stalled a promising swimming career that once had her ranked in the top 15 in the Pacific Northwest region, and forced Reynolds out of the water for her senior season and throughout college at the University of Minnesota.
After moving to Vermont to study environmental law, Reynolds went swimming at a local college on a whim. The competitive edge grew back, until she did the swimming leg in the Life Time Triathlon short relay in 2006. She got hooked on the new sport.
“I went to the expo the day before, and the people there were asking if I was an athlete. I was like, ‘Yeah. I’m an athlete,'” Reynolds said. “It was so fun. I thought then that if I could ever run, I had to do a whole one.”
That day has come.
The T-shirts are glimpses into the past. Her husband, Jake, thinks she should dispose of the disintegrating shirts. But doing so would mean ridding her wardrobe of the memories that give her strength to swim on.
“It would be very easy for someone to steer away and choose something easier,” said Courtney Eronemo, a childhood friend and teammate from Seattle. “But she loves to be active, so she’s choosing to ignore what happened to her.”
But nothing will compare to the moment when Reynolds, buoyed by faith and determination, begins competing once again in front of her family, who will be in attendance.
“We were a swimming family for so long,” she said. “My sisters and I were together swimming for four hours a day, and after swimming went away, so did the time spent together.”
Reynolds paused, wiping away the tears. “It’ll just be nice for everyone to be there,” she said.
The equipment is for the journey ahead.
Driving back from Urban Tri, a triathlon store in Minneapolis, Reynolds looked at her purchases: sunglasses, a triathlon suit, an anti-chafing stick, energy gel and some electrolyte powder.
She has done competitions before, like the 5K earlier this year, but nothing approached what it will mean to race again, to be who she used to be.
“It’s part of her nature, and being without competitiveness, she hasn’t been her full self, so I’m seeing her blossom into who she really is,” said Jake, her husband of four years. “She’s an athlete, that’s who she is. It’s just a part of her.”
After surveying the goods, Reynolds leaned back in her seat before turning to Jake, that familiar giggle bubbling over.
“Now I have to do it,” she said. “There’s no turning back.”