Claire Schaef credits swimming for her survival.
The Richland High School junior, who will compete this weekend in her third state meet in Federal Way, battled a life-threatening E. coli infection when she was 8 years old.
During her three-week stay at Seattle Children’s Hospital, Schaef watched her heart rate drop into the 30s: “I was hooked up to a monitor because they were afraid I was going to have a heart attack.”
“I think swimming saved my life,” said Schaef, who was a club swimmer with the Tri-City Channel Cats. “I don’t think I would have survived that if I’d been in any worse shape.”
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She recalls her kidneys shutting down and the dire prospects that followed.
“Looking back,” she said, “I remember the doctor told my parents that there were three options: one, that I wouldn’t live; the second one being that my kidneys would never regain function; and then the third — which was the slimmest chance — was that I would regain full function.
“They were just amazed that I made it through and I was healthy.”
Now, Schaef is a thriving 16-year-old who hopes to swim in college and become a doctor. With a rigorous course load that includes Advanced Placement chemistry, calculus, and language and composition, she has a 4.0 grade-point average. She’s looking at schools in the University of California system, as well as Stanford, Northwestern and Texas A&M.
Schaef hasn’t had any lasting physical effects from her E. coli infection. She goes to her kidney doctor once a year, and so far, no setbacks.
But she had a different scare a few years ago, when salmonella sickened her for a week.
“I have an affinity for deadly bacteria,” she said with a laugh.
That ‘affinity’ has been disconcerting for Schaef’s parents, Heather and Todd. They don’t know how she got sick either time, but the memory of her hospitalization remains all too fresh.
“Often I look back on it, thinking at that time I never thought we’d get to bring her home, much less have something like this,” Todd said. “It’s wonderful seeing her get out there and do things we never thought she’d be able to do again, and also work very hard at what she does.”
This weekend, she will swim at state in the Class 4A 200- and 500-yard freestyle. The past two years, she placed in the top five in both events, including a runner-up finish in the 500 free as a freshman.
After setting district meet records in the 200 and 500 free last week in Kelso, Schaef is upbeat about her chances at state. She’s seeded second in the 500 (5 minutes, 5.23 seconds) and fifth in the 200 (1:54.83).
Whenever she goes to Federal Way, Schaef is reminded of her freshman year, when she helped the Bombers tie with Everett-area program Jackson for their first state team championship.
She would love to win an individual state title, but the euphoria of winning with her teammates is beyond compare.
“That’s definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” she said. “We were on top of the world that day. It was almost like a dream. We never thought that we could win. We came up from the bottom. No one ever saw us coming.
“It was such an incredible first experience at state. I was so happy after every single race. It’s a powerful memory.”
It’s also one for which she is grateful every day.
“Sometimes I forget what has happened to me,” Schaef said. “I don’t even think about it, but then it makes you realize there’s more important things in life than winning or losing. You need to appreciate being there.”
WIAA STATE SWIMMING AND DIVING CHAMPIONSHIPS
When/where: Friday-Saturday, Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center, Federal Way. Schedule: Friday’s preliminaries — 4A, 9:45 a.m.; 2A, 2 p.m.; 3A, 6:30 p.m.; Saturday’s finals — 4A, 9:30 a.m.; 2A, 2:15 p.m.; 3A, 7 p.m.
LOCAL STATE QUALIFIERS (w/seeds)
200 medley relay: 11, Walla Walla 1:54.52; 13, Richland 1:54.85; 200 freestyle: 5, Claire Schaef (Rich) 1:54.83; 19, Kjerstyn Jordheim (Hanford) 2:02.80; 50 freestyle: 4, Paige Gardner (WW) 24.16; 9, Hally Ruff (WW) 24.77; 18, Neomi Mennetrot (Rich) 25.19; Diving: 13, Alyssa Whittington (Rich) 335.30; 25, Eva Arm (Han) 200.10; 100 butterfly: 24, Megan Gelston (Han) 1:02.31; 100 freestyle: 9, P.Gardner (WW) 53.96; 11, Ruff (WW) 54.20; 500 freestyle: 2, Schaef (Rich) 5:05.23; 7, Jordheim (Han) 5:19.05; 200 freestyle relay: 5, Walla Walla 1:42.54; 19, Richland 1:46.15 (wild card); 100 backstroke: 16, Marcia Kim (Rich) 1:01.90; 100 breaststroke: 17, Katie Schroder (Rich) 1:09.89 (WC); 400 freestyle relay: 10, Richland 3:46.72; 15, Hanford 3:53.94.
200 medley relay: 24, Kamiakin 1:59.22; 200 freestyle: 24, Emma Hagner (Southridge) 2:09.49; 200 individual medley: 23, Lillian Thurber (Kam) 2:24.34; 50 freestyle: 10, Hilary Petersen (Sou) 25.13; Diving: 13, Abby Winstead (Kam) 328.00; 21, Piper Polanik (Kam) 291.55; 100 butterfly: 24, Natalie Burke (Sou) 1:08.56; 100 freestyle: 5, Petersen (Sou) 53.91; 14, Madison Thurber (Kam) 55.19; 500 freestyle: 27, Hagner (Sou) 5:43.24; 28, Courtney Lewis (Kam) 5:54.36; 200 freestyle relay: 23, Southridge 1:48.50; 24, Kamiakin 1:49.05; 100 backstroke: 5, M.Thurber (Kam) 59.82; 100 breaststroke: 24, L.Thurber (Kam) 1:13.24; 400 freestyle relay: 24, Kamiakin 4:02.23.
50 freestyle: 15, Kaylyn Sanders (Prosser) 26.52.