Minneapolis Southwest's no-quit swimmer

  • Article by: ANDREW KNEELAND ANDREW.KNEELAND@STARTRIBUNE.COM
  • Updated: November 6, 2012 - 4:55 PM

Suffering from a painful illness, Madison Kuznia begged to quit. Instead, without telling teammates, she dug in.

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Minneapolis Southwest swimmer Madison Kuznia, center was diagnosed with juveline rheumatoid arthritis in 2010 and has been in remission for less than a year. She will compete in an Ironman-distance triathlon in June to raise awareness of her illness. Photo by Marlin Levison • mlevison@startribune.com

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Every movement was painful.

Each bend of a joint and every flex of a muscle caused her body to scream at her to get out of the pool, but Madison Kuznia kept swimming. As her senior year with the Minneapolis Southwest swimming team nears its end, she is glad she swam through the pain.

Kuznia started swimming with Southwest in the fall of 2008. After one of the most physically painful and emotionally exhausting years of her life, Kuznia was diagnosed with a severe case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in May of 2010. She's been in remission for less than a year.

"I wanted to quit," said Kuznia, who will compete in the Class 2A, Section 6 meet on Thursday. "I would beg not to go to practice. My mom wouldn't let me quit, though. Continuing to swim, even when I didn't want to, probably helped me more than I even know."

Said Southwest girls' swimming coach Chris Aarseth: "The journey and road she has traveled [reveal] her character which separates her from your average high school athlete. At times the outcome is not what both she and her coaches desire, but her willpower to practice and compete with her illness means more to me than a time on the clock."

Kuznia tried basketball a few years ago, but spent most of her games trying to avoid the ball. Contact just wasn't her thing; she prefers a lane of water to herself. She was 9 years old when she started swimming competitively with the Richfield Swim Club.

"I wasn't that fast of a swimmer right away," Kuznia said. "It took me a couple years to realize I might be good at it."

In her first year swimming for Southwest, her team won the Twin Cities championship. She qualified for the section finals in two relays and the 100-meter backstroke, and helped to break the school record in the 400-meter freestyle relay.

But her future darkened when the symptoms started.

A sprained foot that never really healed. Knees and ankles that didn't bend without pain. Wrists and fingers swollen beyond recognition. Something was clearly wrong, starting Kuznia on a marathon of doctor visits.

"No one had any answers and I just continued to get worse," Kuznia said. "At the time I didn't know how bad things were but I learned afterward that everyone else was freaking out."

Juvenile arthritis is unfortunate enough as it is, but Kuznia's case -- polyarticular, rheumatoid factor positive -- is particularly severe. She was losing weight fast, and struggling to climb stairs and open doors. Movement was torturous, but Kuznia kept swimming, even though her times were slow. Exercise is recommended for those with rheumatoid arthritis, so it's a good thing she stayed in the pool.

Kuznia's condition wasn't an issue for her teammates. In fact, they didn't even know.

"Never at any time did Madison let her team know of the battle and road she has traveled dealing with her illness," Aarseth said. "She's the type of person that comes to practice every day and gives 100 percent no matter what."

After being diagnosed, Kuznia received cortisone injections and medication to drastically reduce her inflammation. Kuznia officially has been in remission since this spring and is finally starting to feel healthy again.

"I'm a very competitive person," Kuznia said, "especially when it comes to swimming. After years of losing and not performing the way I wanted to, it's really rewarding to do well."

As her final season with the Lakers draws to a close, she has twice helped lower the 400-meter freestyle relay record time and is one of the most talented swimmers in the conference. She will compete in the Section 6 swimming prelims, which begin at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Art Downey Aquatic Center in Edina. Section finals will be held Saturday afternoon.

To celebrate her recovery and raise awareness for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, Madison is joining her mother and grandmother to compete in an Ironman-distance triathlon next June in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

"I don't think any of us thought this would ever be a possibility," said Madison's mother, Danielle. "Certainly not three short years after her diagnosis. We're hoping our suffering will ease the suffering of others."

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