13:33 PM

Building a Swim Team

There is not a lot of “ordinary” among the Shepherd Sharks, Shepherd Center’s swim team.

The injuries and illnesses that led the team members to Shepherd Center aren’t common. The success of their leader, Curtis Lovejoy, 54, of Atlanta, is anything but typical. And the commitment it takes to succeed in competitive swimming is, well, extraordinary.

For years, the Shepherd Sharks has mostly been a team of one – Curtis, a multiple gold medal Paralympian and world-record setter. But now, with Curtis serving as swimmer and coach, there is legitimate hope that the team is on the verge of something special.

“In the past, we’ve had a few pretty good swimmers come in and out of our team,” says Matt Edens, coordinator of Shepherd Center’s 11 sports teams. “Swimmers aren’t easy to come by. Competitive swimming isn’t for everybody. I’ve been wanting to see us build a program for a while.”

Curtis readily admits that swimming isn’t for everyone. It takes a greater commitment than just about any other sport, he says. And the Sharks team is comprised of only those who are willing to spend significant time in training.

“Training to be a competitive swimmer is an everyday occurrence,” Curtis explains. “We have some swimmers who I think can take it to the next level, but they have to will themselves to do it. Once they taste that success, once they start traveling to some international meets, I think it’ll be an eye-opener for what they can achieve if they are willing.”

Curtis is a demanding coach. He knows it. He likes it that way.

But some of his most talented teammates say his tough approach is balanced by his tender heart.

“Curtis is fantastic, very inspiring,” says swimmer Kelly Blake, 37, of Dunwoody, Ga. “He is a good leader and a good coach. And he’s a great friend and very inspirational. What he’s achieved is unbelievable. To some of the younger kids on the team, he might be seen as tough, but it’s like a coach should be. He pushes you harder, and he’s diligent. He reminds me of my first PT assistant at Shepherd. We called her The Terminator. But it’s what was needed.”

Kelly sustained an L-1 spinal cord injury in a skydiving accident in 1996. She also broke her hip, ankle and heel.

Kelly takes a quick break during practice.

“I grew up as an athlete, doing every sport,” she says. “I was always on teams, and now, being around people like this, it is inspiring. It’s very gratifying to compete after all these years.”

Swimmer Devin Lenz, 41, of Decatur, Ga., contracted West Nile virus two years ago and is paralyzed from the waist down because of the virus.

“After two weeks in Emory University Hospital’s ICU, and then some time at DeKalb Medical Center, I came to Shepherd and was weak and paralyzed from waist down,” Devin recalls. “I never lost sensory nerves, though, and was put in inpatient rehabilitation at Shepherd for six weeks, where I was slowly recovering. But that’s ongoing. I can move my legs a lot more and I’m on an upward trajectory. But I’ve got a long way to go. Being on this team is a real asset in that process. Plus, it’s fun.”

Devin learned about the benefits of swimming from outpatient program physical therapist Clare Hartigan. So he began swimming every day he could, hoping to enhance his recovery.

“It felt weird at first, but I was on a swim team as a kid and grew up around the water, so it was not a big leap to do it,” Devin says. “I feel fortunate that Shepherd Center is just a few miles down the road from where I live. I was getting in the pool all the time, so Matt Edens was tipped off that I might be interested in the team. I was honored to be recruited by Team Shepherd.”

Matt and Curtis think the Shepherd Sharks will participate in at least six swim meets throughout the country in 2012.

“Curtis is going for his fifth Paralympics this year, which is unheard of,” Matt says. “Two other athletes are close to meeting national standards for their classification, and may recruit another athlete to make us stronger as we continue building this program toward excellence.”

For more information on Shepherd Center’s swim and other sports teams, see or contact Matt Edens at or 404-367-1287.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.