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December 10, 2010

Through the pain - Sarah Milton has overcome serious obstacles along the way to becoming one of Virginia Tech's most successful divers

By: Matt Kovatch

It was an early morning in May of 2009. Sarah Milton remembers it well, and rightly so, because it almost ended her promising diving career.

As she awoke to get ready for class early in the first summer session following her sophomore year at Virginia Tech, she prepared to swing her legs from the mattress to the floor and get up to start another busy day. But something was wrong. Her feet throbbed with unbearable pain, so much so, that she was afraid to get out of bed. She had just worked out the day before, but sustained no injuries or felt anything out of the ordinary. But this was a pain she had never experienced.

It was the latest in a couple of health scares for the young diver, and now a year and a half later, the senior captain has finally recovered and is hoping to complete her final season by qualifying for the NCAA Championships in March. It would be a rewarding end to a career full of challenges.

Milton was born just outside of Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario in Canada, and then spent most of her youth moving from city to city as her father kept getting transferred in the ever-growing computer business of the 1990s.

The Miltons moved to Massachusetts when Sarah was 7, spending a year there before moving to California for five years. Five more years were then spent in The Woodlands, Texas, outside of Houston, before the family settled in the Dallas area when Sarah was a junior in high school. It wasn’t until the Miltons arrived in Texas that Sarah began diving, and she took to it rather quickly.

“I had originally done gymnastics when I was younger, so it was easier for me to pick up diving,” Milton said. “As the years went on and I was able to do the harder dives, I was scoring better at meets and beating people who had beaten me before. That’s when I knew I wanted to dive in college.”

Though Milton knew she wanted to dive in college, unfortunately for her, not many colleges were aware of whom she was. That’s because of a technicality in the rulebooks of USA Diving, which states that “Under no circumstances shall a non-U.S. citizen compete or participate in [among other things] Age Group National Championships or Junior National Championships.”

Despite living in more American cities that most Americans by her mid-teens, Milton was not yet a United States citizen when she was of age to enter those competitions. She has since gained U.S. citizenship in the summer of 2008, but back when she was trying to get recruited, the rules prevented her from ever advancing past the regional round of competition.

Despite battling health issues throughout her career, Sarah Milton has set the the school record in the three-meter diving event several times over.

“I guess you could technically say that I would always get last place,” Milton joked. “It didn’t matter what place I earned. I couldn’t advance and I didn’t even get a ribbon or a medal. I would still compete and do all the same dives that other people were doing. I would get the scores so I knew what place I should be in, but if I was third, then whoever was in fourth would be third. They would just have my name at the very end of the results. Even if my score was higher than others, it would still show up at the end.”

As one might imagine, Milton’s name got skipped over most of the time by recruiters. She tried to stay focused and always did her best, but she admitted that competitions were less stressful for her because she knew she couldn’t advance no matter how well she did. Luckily for her, though, Virginia Tech diving coach Ron Piemonte had some contacts in Texas who could see what the results weren’t showing.

“I knew some people who had coached her before and they just told me that she had a lot of potential,” Piemonte remembered. “They highly recommended her and said that she had a great work ethic and a great attitude. I didn’t get to see her dive very much, but she sent me a video of herself and we got to talking and the rest is history.”

Once becoming a Hokie, Milton immediately found success while diving in smaller competitions and dual meets, but larger meets like the ACC Championships proved to be more difficult because she had never been able to simulate the big-time pressure of those meets due to her Canadian citizenship.

“My freshman year, it was definitely a huge adjustment at the ACCs because it was really important,” Milton admitted. “They stressed how we were scoring points for Virginia Tech, and when you’re doing club diving, you don’t really have team points. I was definitely very nervous because I hadn’t been around that environment as much. I think it did hinder me a little bit in that perspective.”

“She could be in a dual meet against some of the top divers and dive great,” Piemonte added. “But once you put her in a meet that had 30 divers in it, she just couldn’t settle down and dive like she was capable of. However, I think she’s at the point now where she’s figured out how to deal with that. I’m really confident that she’s going to have a great finish to her career, and I think she has a very legitimate shot of making the NCAA Championships this year.”

Getting over the big-meet jitters was certainly a challenge, but it was nothing compared to what she was about to endure. Near the end of March in her sophomore year, Milton came down with what doctors originally thought was pink eye. She was prescribed some medicine, but after a week, the condition was getting worse. A trip to the optometrist resulted in a failed dilation, so Milton next visited the hospital. After almost four hours of trying to get her eye to dilate, she was diagnosed with acute iritis, which is an inflammation of the iris of the eye.

“I ended up wearing my glasses for a month after that,” Milton remembered. “I couldn’t really dive that whole time because I can’t see well without my contacts in and I obviously couldn’t dive with glasses on. There was a little scare there briefly that I could possibly go blind in that eye, but I was able to take all of my medicine and get rid of it.”

Though Milton could see clearly again, she was far from in the clear. About a month later was when she woke up that morning with the tremendous discomfort in her feet. Any pressure at all upon her feet would shoot pain throughout her body, and she was also having pain in her left wrist toward her thumb. Soon, it was back to various doctors again for more tedious, and ultimately inconclusive, tests.

“I kept asking myself ‘What is wrong? Why am I having this horrible pain?’” Milton said. “We took a bunch of X-rays and an MRI, but absolutely nothing was showing up. They couldn’t see any swelling or anything. I started to wonder if it was all mental.”

One doctor suggested rheumatoid arthritis, but it didn’t seem right because Milton’s pain wasn’t responding to the anti-inflammatories. Another doctor suggested reactive arthritis because they figured that the acute iritis was her body’s initial reaction to whatever was wreaking havoc. Finally, a bone scan revealed some flare-ups in her feet and left wrist. Though the cause of so many inflammatory reactions is still unknown, the bone scan at least proved to Milton that she “wasn’t crazy.”

The next challenge was to find a medication strong enough to help Milton deal with the continued pain that prevented her from doing anything but hobbling around.

“They put me on a weekly medication that, when used in a lot stronger doses than what I was given, is used for cancer,” Milton said. “My hair has thinned out a lot because of it. There was also a daily medication, Prednisone, which I had to be very careful with because it was very addicting. I was on that for almost a year because every time I tried to cut the dosage down, my pain would shoot right back up again.”

Once Milton was able to harness the pain at the end of the summer, she decided to get back up on the diving board. She had been coming to practice all along just to stay around the environment and to do what she could, whether it was stretching or abdominal work. But she taped up her feet and ankles as tight as she could – a process which she was just able to stop a few months ago – inched to the edge of the board and basically let herself fall off because she could barely jump.

“It was brutal,” Piemonte said. “It could have been career ending for a lot of other people who didn’t have the determination that she had to work through it. She couldn’t even push the diving board down at first. She was in tears, and for Sarah to be in tears, you know there is something really wrong. I was just thinking ‘Uh oh, this is it. She’s going to be done.’”

“I kept pushing through it because I wasn’t going to let it stop me from anything,” Milton added. “Coach would get mad at me sometimes because I would try to push myself as far as I could.”

Through stubborn grit and perseverance, Milton also decided it was time to stop depending on the powerful medication. Once taking as much as 40 milligrams of Prednisone a day, she slowly forced herself down by a little over two milligrams a week. Dropping the dosage too quickly can do serious damage to the body, so she was monitored weekly by doctors. Each taper downward would increase the pain for several days, but once it subsided even a hair, Milton would drop the dosage again. A little over a year after she began taking it, just this past summer, she was through with the medication.

Slowly but surely, Milton battled her debilitating condition throughout her junior year, all while battling her opponents. She has set and reset the school record in the three-meter dive many times over, and her journey back to health culminated in a third-place finish during the preliminary competition at the ACC Championships this past March. She’s come a long way from her days as a high schooler who finished last (wink, wink) in every meet, and Piemonte couldn’t be prouder.

“Diving is a pretty small sport – you pretty much know who everybody is,” Piemonte said. “But it’s funny because over the past three years, I can’t tell you how many high-level diving coaches have come to me and asked of Sarah: ‘Who is that? Where did she come from?’

“I don’t think anybody knew about her because they never saw her at the level where everybody was doing all the recruiting at. To see how well she has developed into the diver she is today, it just speaks volumes about her. She’s had to work for everything she’s got.”