Duluth East swim coach battles rough watersAfter spending the last week hospitalized during the latest round of her battle with kidney disease, Lindsay Byrka was glad to be back coaching the Duluth East girls swimming team Tuesday and preparing the Greyhounds for this week’s Section 7AA meet.
By: Rick Weegman, Duluth News Tribune
Lindsay Byrka enjoys nothing more than spending time on the pool deck with the Duluth East girls swim team.
So after spending the last week hospitalized during the latest round of her battle with kidney disease, Byrka was glad to be back coaching the Greyhounds at practice Tuesday and preparing them for this week’s Section 7AA meet.
“I’m back in the pool now and it’s good to see the girls again,” she said. “It’s been tough being away from the team and trusting that the other coaches are taking care of business and getting everything set up.”
Byrka spent last week at St. Luke’s hospital, undergoing surgery and taking antibiotics for an infection — one of several she’s had in recent years — in her lone remaining kidney. The 34-year-old had her right kidney, along with part of her colon, removed years ago due to complications from Stage IV endometrial cancer. Though detecting cancer that late in the process meant doctors gave her a 10 percent chance of survival, Byrka recently celebrated five years of being cancer-free.
She missed East’s opening home meet at the new middle school pool and one other meet this year due to surgeries to replace internal stents that allow her kidney to flow at a more consistent rate. As her condition worsened, she’s had to spend two to three days every few weeks since June at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Doctors at the world-famous facility advised her to undergo a radical surgery to prolong her kidney’s lifespan, but that would have meant missing East’s season and limited Byrka’s active lifestyle.
“Their decisions are based solely on medical facts, and I’m making decisions based on how I want to live my life,” she said. “We don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but they understand my active lifestyle and the things I wouldn’t be able to do if I followed their advice.
“I made the worst possible decision in their mind, but in my mind it’s the best.”
No matter what option she chose, Byrka says, the end result will be the same.
“It will never get better, it will only get worse,” she said. “No matter what I do, I will end up on dialysis. My plan is to experience a normal lifestyle for the next few months and then re-examine my options in six months.”
Meanwhile, the Greyhounds have gone about their season as best they can. Phil Peterson, who met Byrka when both were volunteer coaches with the Superior boys team, took on the role as co-coach; Ben Riley was elevated to assistant coach; and Judy Seliga Punyko has helped out in a volunteer role.
“We’ve had a tremendous of amount of support for Lindsay from the parents and the swimmers,” Peterson said.
The others have allowed Byrka to focus on coaching and not on administrative matters.
“It was getting to be too much for me — my health wasn’t able to handle all of that,” she said. “I couldn’t keep up with the demands of being a full-time coach for 65 girls.”
Due to those health problems, the former Wisconsin state champion from Rhinelander and four-year swimmer at the University of Missouri had to tone down her activities. Byrka stopped competing in masters races and stopped rock climbing last summer and finds it difficult to exercise more than five or 10 minutes at a time.
“It’s even tough to get up in the morning and find the energy to walk my dog because I know I have to save up the five hours I have to spend on the pool deck,” she said.
That time spent at practice and meets is therapeutic for Byrka.
“Practice is a positive for her,” Peterson said. “It’s something that she loves, so it takes her mind and puts it to work in a positive manner.”
Byrka agrees with that assessment and acknowledges she derives energy from those swimmers to make it through the day.
“My whole life up here revolves around the swimming community,” she said. “For five hours a day, I can focus on 65 other girls and try to improve their swimming. I don’t have time for those five hours to think about anything else. It’s an opportunity to do something that I love and sideline these problems that I’m having.”
And the swimmers enjoy having her there.
“Sometimes it’s hard during practice when you look for her and she’s not there, and then you worry about her,” said junior Meghan Friske, a butterfly and freestyle specialist. “She’s a very motivated person and likes to get us psyched up.”
Byrka expects to be given the go-ahead to travel to Coon Rapids, Minn., for the section meet, and, potentially, to next week’s state meet in Minneapolis.
“I have six to eight weeks of normal life and then I spend a week in the hospital,” she said. “For me, I prefer that to living my entire life by being limited to what I can or cannot do. At least I get those six to eight weeks of normal life and forget about the problems.
“Right now, I’d settle for about six days so I can get through sections and state.”