At first, the words medically disqualified didn’t find their way into Enna Selmanovic’s heart. Her mind, in a frenzy, rebuffed them.

“Can we try more?” she pleaded. More would mean more injections. More therapy. Maybe even a scalpel.

Cincinnati senior Enna Selmanovic, an accomplished swimmer, injured her back during a workout in 2016 and was medically disqualified several months later. The emotional toll of losing her sport and her identity eclipsed even the severe physical pain of a spine injury. In the ensuing years, Selmanovic has devoted herself to helping other student-athletes address mental health issues and plans to build a career around that endeavor.

But Bob Mangine, Cincinnati senior associate athletics director for medical services, assured her that her options finally had been exhausted. Pressing on would pose too great a liability to the school and to herself. She would risk persistent pain, not being able to have children, not being able to walk — all for the sake of a few more years spent propelling herself through a pool.

Mangine, sitting across from her at his office desk, was a relative stranger to Selmanovic, a sophomore swimmer who had fractured vertebrae in her lower back eight months earlier, tearing muscle and ligaments from bone. He had just done to her what he told her he dreaded most about his job, what he has to do to a handful of athletes each year.

At last her mind relented, and her heart broke. She had just lost the sport she had devoted herself to since age 12, the one that may have soon delivered her to the Olympics, the one for which she endured a slew of sessions on training tables trying to make her body, and herself, whole again.

The end had not come after a spirited final practice or an adrenaline-fueled championship race or an emotional stroll on a pool deck flanked by her parents as her name and accomplishments boomed over a public address system. Instead, it had come on an unremarkable November morning in an unfamiliar office, shut away from the rest of the world save for a sliver of a window.

Still, she clung to the identity that had long defined her — after some tears, her next question didn’t pertain to medical outcomes or the spine’s inner workings. Instead, she asked if she would still be allowed to wear the sash that demarcates student-athletes from everyone else at graduation.

She spoke with Mangine for 15 minutes, then tried to hide her sobs as she slunk through a busy athletic training room, unsure of how to fill the new chasm at her core.

Selmanovic never would swim another competitive lap. But she has spent the past two years cramming all she can into that empty space, committing her present and her future to helping other athletes facing comparable sadness and uncertainty. She has dedicated her life to healing wounds.

Those who love her most, though, wonder if she will ever be able to mend her own.

Though being near the pool conjures conflicting emotions, Enna plans to devote her career to helping college athletes.

One of three Selmanovic children, Enna and her two brothers grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, just outside Toronto. Enna started swimming at 12 but had practiced ballet since she was 4 and, by high school, earned an opportunity to attend Canada’s National Ballet School. With her time split between the activities, she eventually realized she had to choose between the prestigious ballet program and the pool. Selmanovic chose swimming, dreaming of a college scholarship and, perhaps, donning Canada’s colors at the Olympics. “I really couldn’t imagine my life without swimming,” she says. “It brought me a sense of purpose.”

On the cover

Finding Her Reflection

When you walk into a plush college natatorium with lumber, a table saw and a half-dozen bulky bags of equipment, expect to draw some strange glances. That proved to be the case when the Champion staff ventured to Cincinnati for one of its most innovative cover shoots to date.

To pull off the reflection effect on the cover, Champion Creative Director Arnel Reynon dreamed up a homemade reflection pool that the crew could build on-site. The ambitious plan seemed to be going off without a hitch until the morning of the shoot, when everyone realized they would be building the makeshift pond between two diving boards — that happened to be in use for diving practice.

Fortunately, Cincinnati diving coach Kirtley Krombholz was understanding and, provided sharp objects were kept at a safe distance, permitted the crew to complete their construction work while divers bounded off boards around them. So, dodging splashes, the team began piecing together two-by-fours and tacking pond liner in place.

After putting in some elbow grease — and, in Reynon’s case, a few drops of sweat — the pool was ready for cover story subject Enna Selmanovic, who gamely posed in the not-quite-ankle-deep water for almost two hours. She was photographed in a pair of outfits: a swimsuit, reflecting her past before she suffered an injury and was medically disqualified from the sport; and a T-shirt, stopwatch and tights, reflecting her present, where she still contributes to the swim program by helping at practices and meets and, more importantly, by serving as a sounding board for teammates.

While Selmanovic has spent the past two years devoting herself to overcoming the loss of her identity as a swimmer by helping other student-athletes battling their own mental health issues, she admits she can’t quite escape the reflection of herself depicted on the cover. On occasion during the shoot, particularly once her teammates arrived and leaped into the pool for practice, she gazed out at the water solemnly, yearning to join them. The makeshift pool beside it, though, would be as deep as she would go that day. “It hurts so much to look at that pool,” she says. “I’m much better for it, but will always wonder what could have been.”

— Brian Burnsed

So she and her brother Din, 14 months younger, spent high school mornings and nights in the pool, pushing and practicing. When she made cuts for national competitions, he would follow suit weeks later. Enna, a breaststroke specialist, drew attention from several American and Canadian colleges. She was accepted to Dartmouth, but the bond she forged on a visit to Cincinnati’s campus with its swimming coach, Mandy Commons-DiSalle, made her decision simple. Enna craved the family support she was accustomed to at home, and Commons-DiSalle, who took over the program in 2014, hoped to cultivate a nurturing environment, not a cutthroat one.

The trappings of being a Division I athlete delighted Enna. Sure, a full scholarship was a nice perk, but she relished sporting the mundane gear — branded backpacks and water bottles — given to the school’s athletes. Her goals were clear when she arrived as a freshman in 2015: Become an All-American, qualify for the NCAA championships and make Canada’s Olympic team. Before she left for Cincinnati in 2015, she recorded her country’s fourth-fastest time in the 200-meter breaststroke in her age group.

Enna capped an uneven freshman season, plagued by soreness and injuries, by failing to make the finals of each of her three events in February’s American Athletic Conference Championship meet. A week later, with Canada’s Olympic trials only two months away, Enna rose in the dark for practice, as she had on so many other mornings. She hopped out of her lofted dorm bed, which stood about 6 feet above the ground, but her hand missed the cabinet she usually used to brace herself on the way down and she careened toward the dorm’s concrete floor, covered only by a thin layer of carpet.

She woke up after the fall, back sore, head throbbing and unable to see out of one eye. She spent three weeks recovering from the concussion, itching to return to the pool as the Olympic trials neared. When she was finally cleared, her back ached throughout her first practice, but she and Commons-DiSalle attributed it to routine soreness — expected fallout from so much time off. Later in the day, she ventured to the weight room, essential work for a breaststroker — a discipline that requires powerful hips and legs. To build that strength, she began doing cleans, pulling 135 pounds from below her waist to atop her shoulders. She felt a twinge in her lower back after the first rep. The pain worsened after the second, but a teammate encouraged her to finish. After the third, she felt a pop, dropped the bar and fell forward to her knees, crying. She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t lift her arms above her head.

An X-ray revealed a hairline fracture in the L3 vertebra in her lower back, initially suffered during the fall from her bed. It hadn’t fully healed, and the exercise had worsened the damage and pulled muscle off her spine across her three lowermost vertebrae, even causing one of them to shift. She was able to walk soon after, but doctors told her she would miss two months of training — and Canada’s Olympic trials.

She wore a back brace for two months and went through a slate of injections, including powerful anti-inflammatories. Still, the pain wouldn’t abate. She remained on campus through the summer so she could stick to her rigorous rehabilitation schedule. By July, Enna slipped back into the pool, but still couldn’t shake the pain. Spend another month dry, the medical staff told her. After the setback, the hurt in her body started to creep into her mind. “I don’t want to lose my spot on the team,” she thought. “I don’t want to lose my friends.”

More than anything, Enna didn’t want to lose what made her Enna.

When the condition hadn’t improved by November, she scheduled an appointment with a surgeon. She had hidden the injury’s severity from her parents but invited her father, Saud, to attend the appointment with her while he was in town on business. The surgeon’s words made him tremble. The only fix, he said, would be spinal fusion surgery, a tremendously risky endeavor that might not even work. In Enna’s case, he worried it might even further complicate her injury. Given the risks, the surgeon advised her against the procedure. Blindsided, Saud hurt for his daughter and for her dreams. “I was in shock,” he says.

The next morning, Enna received a text from the athletic trainer who had been by her side through months of rehab and hope and misfortune. Then she walked into a solemn man’s office, and he closed a door behind her.

“Before that day, there was not a doubt. No one was worried. ‘Enna’s gonna get back in; Enna’s gonna do this; Enna’s gonna become that All-American,’” Enna says. “And it just — it ended.”

When Enna left Mangine’s office, an unfamiliar world greeted her. After years spent chasing clearly defined goals, she felt directionless. After she composed herself, Enna called her mother, Narcisa, who cried with her daughter and assured her she would find a new path. “One door is shut,” she told her, “but a second is opening.” Enna was confused. “You will see,” mother told daughter, leaning on wisdom only time can provide.

Enna’s brother Din had joined Cincinnati’s swim team a few months earlier, drawn to his sister’s school so they could once again measure themselves against each other in the pool and lean on each other away from it. After Enna broke the news to him over the phone, he found Commons-DiSalle and told her he needed to skip practice to be with his sister. There’s no way she can be alone right now.

Over dinner that night, the big sister he admired, the one who had dreamed of being an All-American, a conference champion, a role model for her younger teammates, revealed the depth of her despair and her inability to understand their mother’s words. “I’m never going to be able to do the things that I wanted to do,” she confided.

At their coach’s behest, Enna and Din stayed away from practice for a week. In the ensuing months, Narcisa joined her daughter in Cincinnati when she could, and Enna began to see a psychiatrist. Still, Enna, who had long dreamed of attending medical school, started skipping classes. She distanced herself from swimming for a few weeks and avoided people whose presence would evoke memories of her old life. Long, aimless walks became routine. She often eschewed homework in favor of fun, spending late mornings in bed and late nights out. Din saw her linger in bed for days, certain class wasn’t worth the time because she could no longer pursue the only dreams she ever had — ones she was incapable of recalibrating.

Enna remembers a trio of mornings when she simply didn’t want to wake up at all.

Distinct height difference aside, Enna and her brother Din have remained close in college, providing support in good times and bad.

As her sophomore year crawled to a close, Enna stopped hiding under a duvet. Maggie McKinley, Cincinnati’s executive senior associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator, spent hours urging Enna to peer inward, encouraging her to take the hard lessons she was learning each day and use them to help others. Enna often sat and talked and cried with Commons-DiSalle, the coach who strained to help her understand that decades of good health were more important than a few years of college glory. After granting her as much time away from the team as she needed, Commons-DiSalle reminded Enna that she could return in whatever role made her comfortable. She could help her teammates achieve what she no longer could.

Even glancing at the water still made Enna ache, but so had the time away from friends and teammates, when she was unable to revel in their accomplishments or console them through failures. To heal, Enna decided to do what hurt the most: Return to the pool deck.

Because Enna had been medically disqualified, she was permitted to keep her full scholarship. By her junior year, she began lending time to the team as an assistant volunteer coach, which enabled her to attend practice, shout encouragement from the pool’s edge, offer advice on technique, even help manage timing and announcing at meets. “She could have easily just said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go to school and be a student and finish and do my thing,’” Commons-DiSalle says. “But she did not. She was determined to continue to help.”

More vitally, she lent her newfound free time and energy to Cincinnati’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and, at a teammate’s urging, applied to represent the school at the conference level. She was awarded the role, and when she attended her first American Athletic Conference SAAC meeting in May 2017, she relayed her story, which prompted other athletes around the room to share their own struggles with mental health. Together, the committee decided the subject would become their new focal point. “She has this presence to her,” says Morgan Ferrara, a former American Athletic SAAC member and University of Central Florida soccer player. “She demands your attention, and she knows what she’s doing.”

The group, which Enna would later go on to chair, eventually conceived the Powerful Minds initiative, designed to reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health help and to make college athletes aware of what services are available to them. The effort has since trickled down to campuses throughout the conference. At Cincinnati, Enna spearheaded the work of spreading the word, all while nudging the athletics department to do more. McKinley has seen the number of student-athletes who use available mental health services spike in recent years. The athletics department, which long employed only one licensed mental health professional, now has three. About half the Bearcats football players have dropped in for a session. “She really holds us accountable here in the department to ensure that we are providing those resources,” McKinley says, “and that we are trying to create an environment where there’s not a negative stigma attached to a student-athlete that needs some help.”

While Enna is making a departmentwide impact, she still devotes herself to helping on a smaller scale. A Cincinnati diver was recently on the cusp of medical disqualification; Enna spent hours lending perspective and support. She often takes teammates out to dinner to probe their feelings and to serve as a confidential sounding board. When Ferrara’s days as an athlete were over and she moved to a coaching role at Eastern Kentucky, Enna routinely checked in with her friend, once even offering to drive to her through the night when Ferrara was struggling to cope with the transition from the field to the sideline. Jackie Keire, Enna’s former swimming teammate, still gets a flood of specific questions about how she’s acclimating to her new professional life. “Really meaningful texts,” Keire says. “Not just, ‘Hey, what’s up?’”

“I wouldn’t be able to achieve the things that I have achieved if it wasn’t for her being there right behind me.”
 — Din Selmanovic

Nowhere is Enna’s impact more evident than in Din’s life. After his freshman year, he was diagnosed with depression and panic disorder. Just as Enna was emerging from her most trying year, her brother was poised to face his. She used all she had learned to help him find the resources he needed. Today, their eight-hour drives home to Mississauga still double as therapy sessions, each coaxing anxieties and problems out of the other.

In 2017, Din was stricken with a bout of rhabdomyolysis, induced by overtraining. Enna stayed by his side for his nearly weeklong stay in the hospital as his body healed, slept on the chair by his bedside, fetched him food from outside the hospital and reminded him, even at his lowest, that he would still be able to achieve the goals she couldn’t. As his performance dipped when he returned to the pool, her encouragement kept his doubts at bay. At the conference meet in February 2018, Din broke the school record in both the 200- and 500-yard freestyle. In the latter, he dropped more than 20 seconds off his time and finished second overall. “I wouldn’t be able to achieve the things that I have achieved if it wasn’t for her being there right behind me,” he says.

After the benchmark in the 500, Din bolted to Enna on the pool deck. He hugged his sister and told her the truth: “We did this.”

Before her string of injuries, Enna already had intended to go to medical school. Now, though, after hours spent in athletic training rooms and counselors’ offices, she wants to parlay that medical education into a career as a sports psychiatrist who works with college athletes every day. She wants to help them with the transition from the only life they’ve known to one they don’t, whether it be abrupt or planned. She wants to guide them through insecurities and worries and maladies.

To prepare for that path, she now devotes her spare time to working with Cincinnati neurologists, helping administer concussion assessments to athletes and assisting in a study on postconcussion symptoms. She now is co-vice chair of the national Division I SAAC and parlayed that role into a spot on the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, where she takes part in meetings that help shape policy at the nexus of medicine and college sports. “I want to make sure that no one ever in their life experiences the sadness that I did,” she says. “I want to make sure that from now on, I take care of every athlete I encounter.”

Before a meet against Kentucky on Feb. 1, Enna will get the senior day she once fretted would be relegated to her imagination. She will run through a tunnel of her teammates on the pool deck, their arms raised over her, as her accomplishments boom over a loudspeaker. Her parents will stand at the end of the line, smiling. They will wrap their arms around their daughter. Together, they will cry. At graduation, she will wear the same sash as every other Cincinnati student-athlete, still gladly ensnared by her old identity.

The pain in her back has persisted — she contorts her body into stretches if she has sat or stood for too long — and so has the pain of glancing at the pool and knowing who she can no longer be. At the beginning of the few practices she still attends, the teammates standing beside her slide into the water, leaving her to perch in silence on the starting platform, alone, clutching a stopwatch, as they splash and churn away. Her face goes slack as she stares at their wake.

McKinley still sometimes spots that anguish. Narcisa knows her daughter isn’t yet fully healed. Saud wonders if she ever truly will after losing the memories she never got to make. “A personal tragedy,” he says.

Late last summer, Enna summoned a photographer to the school’s pool for a private session. She never had swimming portraits taken like so many of her teammates had. After a long hiatus, she again donned a swim cap, wrapped goggles around her forehead, and dipped herself back into the water. On Nov. 24, she posted a photo from the shoot to her Instagram account, accompanied by a terse caption: “missing it quite a bit today.”

In the photo, Enna gazes upward, hopeful, eyes fixed away from the camera. Her body is submerged and out of frame, but her arms are draped over the pool’s edge. She clings to it, not quite ready to let go.