St. Joseph swimmer Wygonik completes long road back from elbow surgery

Saturday, January 16, 2021 | 6:52 PM

Sam Wygonik hoped for the best when he stepped up to the block for the boys 200-yard freestyle Thursday during a dual meet between Fox Chapel and Woodland Hills at Fox Chapel High School.

The St. Joseph junior, swimming in a high school meet for the first time since the 2019 PIAA championships at Bucknell, was about to complete his journey back after an elbow injury led to a pair of surgeries and nearly seven months of rehab.

It wiped out his sophomore season.

“I had class throughout the day (Thursday), and I was trying to distract myself from thinking about my swims,” said Wygonik, again St. Joseph’s lone swimmer who also is a member of the Fox Chapel Killer Whales club team. “Once I got (to Fox Chapel), I started to feel so anxious. When I got on the block for the 200, my legs were shaking. I was afraid I was going to get disqualified.”

But Wygonik was ready. His swim went as planned.

He completed the four laps in a time of 1 minute, 51.76 seconds. The WPIAL, facing potential championship location changes, had released lowered qualifying standards just two days earlier. Wygonik’s swim was faster than the standard of 1:54.00.

It was slightly slower than his ninth-place 200 free time (1:51.31) at WPIALs two years ago, but, Wygonik said, it is solid for a first swim.

“Once I got the first 50 in of the 200 freestyle, all the stress went away,” he said. “This is what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years of my life. I’m normal at this. I was so excited to see that time. It was an amazing feeling.”

Wygonik also swam the 100 breaststroke Thursday. His return brought him back to his first experiences in swimming at the high school level.

He placed eighth in the 500 free at the 2019 WPIAL meet with a time of 4:59.99 and earned a spot at states. At Bucknell, Wygonik placed 29th.

“I found something I am really passionate about,” Wygonik said. “Making states in the 500 really pushed me to try and get as good as I could and to really improve myself. It made me excited for where I could go. I saw who I was racing. Those guys were going to really good colleges and were swimming in all of these crazy events. I was really excited to be right there with them.”

But mixed with excitement was the concern of discomfort in his right elbow, something he had experienced for several years. It prevented him, at the time, from swimming the breaststroke.

Also a baseball player, Wygonik said the injury had been developing since seventh grade.

“I kept going, and we thought it was just tendonitis,” he said. “So I went through physical therapy to try and make it better. It just wouldn’t get better.”

Wygonik went to a doctor in the summer of 2019, and he was diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans, a breakdown of bone and/or cartilage in the elbow.

A first surgery in July 2019 ended didn’t the problem, so a visit to Children’s Hospital and additional consultation a couple of months later resulted in a different type of surgical procedure.

This time, it was successful.

Rehab, from sessions on a stationary bike to abdominal workouts, kept him as physically fit as possible while the elbow healed.

He soon returned to the familiar feel of the water. He was just kicking with no arm movement, but it was a start.

Wygonik was given the all-clear to return to workouts in May, but the covid pandemic and the resulting shutdowns delayed his return.

“I did online workouts during the lockdown so I would be ready,” he said.

The Killer Whales were permitted to resume workouts in July. Those practice sessions led to a meet in August at the Greater Pittsburgh Aquatic Center in Penn Hills.

He swam the 100 and 200 frees and the 100 butterfly among a busy set of events.

“I did better than I was expecting,” Wygonik said. “That really gave me confidence that I was on the right track. It gave me motivation to keep doing more. At that point, I hadn’t swum competitively for nearly 17 months, and it was hard to go that long without being in a meet and racing.”

Thursday’s meet at Fox Chapel was his first since the event at GPAC.

“One thing I’ve learned with the injury and covid and all the shutdowns is that if things are going to happen, they’re going to happen,” Wygonik said. “I couldn’t change my injury or how long I was going to be out with it. I just had to work with it and make the best of it. I had to treat the shutdowns the same way.”

Swimming only against the clock as an independent, Wygonik followed his 200 free swim with a time in the 100 breast that was just four one-hundredths of a second shy of the WPIAL qualifying standard.

“Sam worked extremely hard to get back to a sport he loves so much,” Fox Chapel Killer Whales coach Dan Taylor said.

“We’re talking about over a year of rehab and having to deal with setbacks because of covid. We expected nothing less than his best effort in wanting to return. He kept pushing through all the adversity, both the mental and physical parts of it. It was all worth it for him, and it was great to see him swim so well (Thursday).”

Wygonik said he is grateful for all the support from his friends and teammates through the injury recovery process. He said he felt that support and excitement during both of his swims Thursday.

Wygonik returns to competition Jan. 25 during Fox Chapel’s home meet with Hampton. He will continue his pursuit of WPIAL cuts in the 100 breast and 500 free.

“I’ve really missed racing alongside my teammates,” he said. “That’s the best part of the sport. It’s great to be back.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at


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