By Michael Comodeca
As a child, Madisen Tretter’s favorite toy was a stuffed animal, a golden retriever that she pretended was real. The reason she liked it so much is because she did not get a real dog until she was 10. When she did it was a chihuahua named Mercedes, now Tretter has another chihuahua named Dox. She named it after her first medication (Doxycycline) which she was prescribed to help her overcome Lyme disease.
Growing up in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, Tretter came from a loving family. She has two siblings, an older sister and a younger brother who is also a swimmer at Cleveland State. Tretter’s father was a salesman while her mother stayed at home to care for the children.
Tretter got involved in swimming when she was young, she got her first taste of the water while taking swimming lessons and her love for the sport grew from there. Sports are part of her DNA. She has a cousin in the NFL, her mother was a cheerleader and her father participated in high school and college sports.
Other than swimming, Tretter played basketball until the eighth grade, but her true passion was being in a pool. While attending Seneca Valley High School in Harmony, Pennsylvania, she qualified for the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) Championship every year and the state championships during her senior year.
As Tretter prepared for college, she was being recruited by multiple schools with her final two choices coming down to Akron University and Cleveland State. What helped her make her choice was falling in love with the city of Cleveland, the team, the facilities and the coaches.
Her first semester on campus was tough, but as an athlete, it helped her because of how incredibly busy she was. It aided her from not dwelling on the fact that she was so far away from home. Being part of team and having such wonderful teammates helped Tretters’ adjustment period.
While on campus Tretter has accomplished many things in the pool, which started in her freshman year. Tretter “shocked” herself almost immediately when competing at the Magnus Invitational with her times in the 100 and 200-meter breaststroke. The times she had in those races were good enough to qualify for the USA Nationals and broke the 200-meter breaststroke record time.
She competed at the USA Nationals in her sophomore season as well. Tretter is very proud and excited about what she has been able to accomplish thus far in her career. During her sophomore year, she re-broke her 200-meter breaststroke record at The Horizon League Championships and she achieved an NCAA B-time standard.
Around this time, things started to change in Tretter’s life and she did not know what was wrong. Like many student athletes, she thought the pressure of school, being overtired and trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials were causing vertigo, panic attacks and nausea. This went on for a couple months until the symptoms she was having continued to worsen.
When the symptoms increased and Tretter started to have headaches and a stiff neck, she realized it was time to see a doctor. The doctors ran a battery of tests on her, which is when she found out she had been diagnosed with Lyme disease. After seeing a specialist, who confirmed the original diagnosis, it was time for Tretter to battle for her life.
After the original diagnosis Tretter was not too concerned, as she figured she could take some medicine and she would be as good as new. However, her doctor told her that she would get worse before she got better and that she needed to stop swimming for the year. The doctor also said it was a possibility she might have to quit school if the treatment was too much. This left Tretter emotional and unsure of the severity of her diagnosis.
“I was extremely emotional, scared and heartbroken. I also wasn’t fully aware of how sick I was going to get, so in the back of my mind I was thinking I could take a few weeks off to rest and then start training again,” Tretter said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease in the United States every year. Over 96 percent of cases come from 14 states, which are Northeast and Upper Midwest states. The disease is spread through tick bites that usually go unnoticed until it’s too late. Over the last 15 years the CDC reports that about five to 10 people die annually from Lyme disease. In addition, the CDC says the number of people affected could be much higher due to patients being misdiagnosed.
Because Tretter did not see her doctor immediately when she first started to have symptoms, it is now something she will have to live with for the rest of her life. Tretter has accepted that and continues work towards getting back to 100 percent. With her family, friends, Dox and her support group, she will be there in no time.
When Tretter made her return to the team, she felt a wide range of emotions. She was excited and proud, but had to remember that her times were not going to be the same as they once were.
“Coming back to the team was an emotional roller-coaster. I was excited and so proud of myself for getting well enough to swim again,” Tretter said. “I was also faced with realizing I had to start from square one and would have had a hard time not comparing myself to before I got sick.”
Fellow players experienced a variety of diverse feelings themselves, including Tobie Zeller, another swimmer who has been with Tretter since they were both freshman practicing together. Those two have raced together many times, however, the first time they raced together when Tretter came back is something they will both remember. Zeller recalls being proud of Tretter, and her other teammates were extremely supportive throughout her struggle that the moment turned out to be special.
“When Maddie made her return to the team, I was filled with an enormous amount of happiness. I remember last season when we finished our first 200-meter breaststroke back together and all we did was hug and cry,” Zeller said. “She gave up so much to be able to come back and swim for these last two years, so seeing her healthy enough to finally be able to complete in a race was an amazing experience and I have never been more proud of her. Everyone on the team had such amazing and supportive reactions, we were all just extremely excited to see her finally be able to swim with all of us again.”
All her hard work, courage and persistence did not go unnoticed, Tretter was awarded the James La Mastra Award in 2017. The award is presented to someone who demonstrates unyielding courage and class in the face of adversity. Tretter said she was truly humbled when she received the award, especially with her coach talking about the struggles Tretter had getting back into the pool.
“Words can’t truly express how honored I was to achieve the 2017 James La Mastra Award,” Tretter said. “It was another emotional moment last year and to have my coach talk about all of the things I had gone through to get there.”