The world of swimmer Michael Klim turned upside down by a rare disease


Michael Klim’s emotions were swirling when he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame earlier this month. In a ceremony in Florida, the huge Aussie joined a club with many of history’s most famous swimmers, divers and trainers, including Mark Spitz, Johnny Weissmuller and his former training partner Alex Popov.

Klim, Matthew Mitcham and Jon Sieben were the latest Australian winners, following in the footsteps of local luminaries such as Ian Thorpe, Fanny Durack and Murray Rose. Breakthrough trainer Ursula Carlisle also joined her late husband Forbes on the list.

Michael Klim after winning the 100m butterfly at the 1998 World Championships in Perth. He also broke the world record during the competition.Credit:Steve Christo

But despite his brilliant career and his collection of medals, Klim could not shake off a slight dose of impostor syndrome.

“I looked at the play and you have Rowdy Gaines, Mary T Meagher, Greg Louganis, Jon Sieben…you have these sports legends and I almost felt like I didn’t belong there, to be honest” , Klim said. “But it was an amazing night.”

It had taken some effort to get to Fort Lauderdale, but with partner Michelle and parents Ewa and Wojtek by his side, Klim savored the trip down memory lane. It was respite.

“There were a lot of things going through my mind, and for a couple of hours it was nice not having my illness at the forefront of my mind,” Klim said.

“I started deteriorating quite significantly, physically, this time two years ago. So I wanted to go because I don’t really know what the future holds. It’s a prospect pessimistic, but it’s the truth.

In 2020, Klim was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIDP. The autoimmune disease sees the body attack the myelin sheaths insulating and protecting the nerves, and has no cure.

With debilitating effects including muscle loss in his legs, sensory loss in his feet, and a struggle to perform daily tasks such as walking and even standing for long periods of time, Klim’s life in his home in Bali is now centered on daily treatment and rehabilitation routines. He struggles to play with his children, has strayed from business interests and – walking with a cane and splints – even trips to the shops are a marathon effort.

The 45-year-old, who lives on in most Australian minds as a muscular swimmer playing air guitar after that famous relay gold medal at the Sydney Olympics, could end up in a wheelchair.

Ashley Callus, Chris Fydler, Michael Klim and Ian Thorpe celebrate winning the 4x100m relay in Sydney.

Ashley Callus, Chris Fydler, Michael Klim and Ian Thorpe celebrate winning the 4x100m relay in Sydney.Credit:Getty

CIDP shook the world of Klim.

“My advisor and I have come up with a strategy where I give myself an hour a day to feel sorry for myself,” Klim said.

“I can complain all I want and feel down, but after that there’s still a lot I can do and be functional and still have responsibilities as a parent and a coach and as a partner, and I can still do them effectively. I try not to let it consume me completely. But it is difficult.”

The first signs that something was wrong came in 2019 after Klim underwent ankle surgery which had been a problem for almost 20 years. This had led to a skewed gait and associated back problems, but Klim assumed he could fix the mechanics and get rid of the aches and pains.

“But I noticed other things happening,” Klim said. “I couldn’t lift my calves, for example, and I had weird tingling sensations in my thigh and sometimes it felt like someone was pouring hot water down the back of my legs. legs. With the pin tests, I didn’t really feel good in my shins and feet, and my toes.

Klim sometimes found himself unable to stand, and at one point sat on the ground in an airport for hours, waiting for the sensation to return to his feet so he could exit. After a confusing year of denial, tests and scans, back surgery and health issues, a biopsy finally revealed the diagnosis: CIDP.

“I couldn’t believe how the one thing I identified with as integral to my identity – my strength, my athleticism – was taken away from me and there was nothing I could do to stop it,” wrote Klim on his website.

Smaller and stockier, Klim was not a pool-sliding superfish like Thorpe or Grant Hackett. He was more of a high-octane powerboat and for three decades the son of Polish emigrants boasted a crooked work ethic, pushing his body harder than any of his rivals. And it worked; Klim became a star at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, with seven medals in seven events and a butterfly world record, and he won six Olympic medals and 54 major international races.

But now that superpower was wearing thin quickly, and Klim admits it was just as hard to deal with psychologically as it was physically. He went through a “mourning process”, where Klim had to deal with his disability and the fear of a logical timeline now presented: he could end up in a wheelchair.

Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett and Michael Klim cheer on Daniel Kowalski to win the 4 x 200m final.  Swimming World Championships, Perth, 1998.

Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett and Michael Klim cheer on Daniel Kowalski to win the 4 x 200m final. Swimming World Championships, Perth, 1998.Credit:Craig Golding

“And to some extent, the fear is still there. I think I’m a bit better, in the sense that I’ve accepted – to some extent – ​​that these are the cards that were dealt to me,” Klim said.

“But I keep working on it. When we experience grief, you don’t just say one day, “I’m fine, I’m better now.” It affects you much longer, and especially because it’s in my face every day.

“There was fear because I got hurt very quickly. I am now in remission, stable. But if there’s a fear that I could come back at the same rate and if I deteriorate again that quickly, I’ll probably need help with walking and things like that.

People would try to elevate Klim saying that his decades as an Olympic athlete would help him overcome his struggle. But to begin with, he did not lift a glove.

“I went through a period where I was completely deflated. I wasn’t motivated, I wasn’t taking care of myself, I was eating junk food, I was drinking too much,” Klim said.

Klim aims to use her profile to help raise funds and awareness for CIDP research, and to help patients and their caregivers.

Klim aims to use her profile to help raise funds and awareness for CIDP research, and to help patients and their caregivers.Credit:Johannes P.Christo

“There was a period where I wouldn’t say I gave up completely, but it took effort. People close to me and my relatives, they saw that I was not really fighting.

Earlier this year, after the world reopened, Klim realized he had to lead by example and went public with his illness. He travels to Australia every six to eight weeks for intravenous immunoglobulin treatment and spends time each day doing physical activations, playing sports and swimming. He seeks as much reading and research as possible on treatments for CIDP.

“It’s a constant…I wouldn’t say a battle, but it’s a constant way of life for me now,” Klim said.

Unable to give enough time, Klim retired from his successful Milk & Co skincare business, which strained his finances, especially since insurance did not cover his condition.

But the “overwhelming” support from the swimming community has seen Klim commit to the sport more than ever. It works with Swimming Victoria in its course programs, has a swim school in Bali and is involved in rolling out World Series Swims events, which focus on popular open water swims.

Klim is also energized by his soon-to-be-launched foundation, which will help raise funds and awareness for CIDP research, and help patients and caregivers, many of whom Klim says are far worse off than him. .

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“It’s definitely a big motivator for me now and I put a lot of thought and effort into it now,” Klim said.

The Hall of Fame night in Florida, Klim says, marked the end of a chapter in his life. The rest remains to be written.

“I work hard to stop focusing on the things I can’t do anymore,” he says. “I have to focus on the things I can do.”

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