Watching Brandan Hagen dive into the Earl Mah Aquatic Centre’s pool is a lot like watching a recently-snared trout released back into its watery home from whence it came.
One would never know that while swimming his laps, the 16-year-old’s body is, at times, internalizing and enduring more than two types of pain that will hinder but not break his drive for aquatic success.
Every six months, Hagen boards a plane bound for Vancouver. His destination is the B.C. Children’s Hospital and he’ll stay there for a couple days to monitor a case of juvenile arthritis and osteochondritis localized in the chest. The osteochondritis condition separates Hagen’s ribs from his sternum.
“I try hard, but [the pain] limits my mobility and [my ability] to keep pushing myself,” said Hagen, standing on the wet, tiled floors of the pool last week.
“[Sometimes] I would have to stop and take a few lengths out, but hop right back in when I feel good to go.”
The arthritis, diagnosed at age nine, flares up in Hagen’s achilles tendons. The medication for it at one point did its job, but is now banished from the 16-year-old’s medicine cabinet thanks to its lurking side effects – bleeding kidneys.
The Rupertite lived with it for awhile. But eventually it wasn’t worth sacrificing one part of his body for another, especially with the extra trips to the hospital down south to keep a watchful eye over a third condition that could be avoided.
“I was on and off medication the whole time trying new things. Different medication that didn’t work except for the one that made my kidneys bleed,” said Hagen.
The wondrous part of the Grade 12 student’s journey through the chest and foot pain is that Hagen is an unbelievable talent in the water.
This year alone he achieved three new age-group national times, which have enabled him to go to Winnipeg this past week to compete against the country’s elite 16-year-olds. And while senior national’s was his goal that he fell just short of, Hagen eclipsed any sort of limits his doctors or anyone else imposed on him. Hagen swam the 50, 100 and 200 breaststroke national races and had alternate races of the 100 and 400 freestyle.
“I would say breaststroke is my favourite. That’s my best race,” he said.
Hagen’s older sister, Amanda, works at the aquatic centre as a lifeguard and runs summer civic centre programs for tots and kids to have fun in the water before the pool shuts down in August.
His dad, Hans, drives the zamboni at the ice rink and has helped paint a new coat of colours on the walls of the ice rink as part of its rejuvenation to coincide with the Prince Rupert Minor Hockey Association’s involvement with the arena’s upkeep, so Brandan’s pretty familiar with the confines of the rec complex.
“He’s just taken to it and his rate of improvement at this age; I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Prince Rupert Amateur Swim Club (PRASC) head coach and Hagen’s mentor, Chris Street.
“[The swim club] plays a big role [in my life]. Chris is like my extra dad,” said Hagen.
And the arthritis and osteochondritis aren’t even the end of the story for Hagen’s tumultuous health battles. In 2012, during a routine swim, Hagen felt a piercing pain in his lower back. He finished the practice to the best of his ability, but later bone scans revealed a hairline fracture from a muscle strain.
Hagen went on to compete in the Surrey B.C. Summer Games and age-group competitions that year, despite various doctor recommendations against it.
Now they sing a different tune, but still a reserved one.
“The doctors told me I should be swimming but … I told them my goal was to go to age group nationals this year and they just said ‘good luck’ like I wasn’t going to be able to get it with all my conditions. But I proved them wrong.”
With his PRASC family, Hagen feels at home and he’s found his position puts him at an easier place to identify when a swimmer’s having a bad day and how to handle them as he’s one of the older members of the group.
“Overall, with all my problems, it seems like I can accomplish more and I know if someone’s hurting I can take it easy and let them do their own thing,” he said.
While wanting to swim competitively for as long as he’s able, Hagen is also planning on training to take an industrial electrician apprenticeship after graduating from Charles Hays Secondary School.
“It’s a college program,” he added.
Hagen will return to PRASC this upcoming fall after the pool shutdown has completed and the maintenance work is done.
As for the pain, the student says it’s more randomized while being off medication.
“It varies. Like one day I’ll have a good day, the next I could have a bad day or a couple bad days,” he said.
“If it hurts, I just push myself harder. The pain doesn’t limit me.”