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High School Swimmer Sets Sights on College After Overcoming Three Major Sports Injuries

Seeing Olivia “Liv” Slivinski walk with difficulty into Cleveland Clinic Richard E. Jacobs Health Center in Avon, Ohio, Kelly Kinsey experienced a déjà vu moment that elicited a devastating feeling.

“When I heard Liv was injured again, my stomach dropped because I knew how much effort it took to get through recovery after her first knee injury,” recalls Kelly, who is a senior physical therapist with Cleveland Clinic Sports Medicine. “When I saw her limping from her second knee injury and with her arm in a sling, she still had a big smile on her face. I knew she was ready to go to work.”

Liv has loved the water and playing sports since she was 6 years old.
Liv has been playing sports since she was 6 years old. The sport she loved the most was swim. (Courtesy: Slivinski family)

A competitive swimmer on her Avon Lake High School and club teams, and a lacrosse athlete, Liv tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee during a March 2021 lacrosse game when she was a freshman. Following surgery, two follow-up procedures and extensive rehabilitation, she was finally cleared to resume competitive swim training a year later.

Not long after, Liv faced another setback. While attending a swim camp in North Carolina in April 2022, Liv tore the ACL in her left knee while playing a recreational game of beach volleyball. To compound matters, the next day she slipped and fell while watching a swim event and dislocated her right shoulder. Those injuries required two more surgeries and lengthy rehabilitation. In the process, she missed out on two full seasons of athletic competition. She finally returned to high school and club swimming as a senior during the 2023-24 school year.

An ACL tear is an injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in your knee.
An ACL tear is an injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in your knee. Anything that puts enough force on your knee to bend or twist it farther than its natural limit can tear your ACL. (Courtesy: Cleveland Clinic)

“She really rose to these challenges. I don’t ever recall her acting like she wasn’t going to get through this,” marvels Kelly, who conducted more than 140 rehabilitation sessions with Liv in the two-and-a-half years following her three injuries. “We’ve seen her grow so much, as a confident young woman and as an athlete. Liv has been an inspiration to our medical team and other athletes.”

Liv underwent more than 140 hours of rehab at Cleveland Clinic.
Liv experienced her first major sports injury when she tore the ACL in her right knee during a lacrosse game. (Courtesy: Slivinski family)

For overcoming significant orthopaedic injuries to continue competitively swimming, Liv was honored with the 2024 Cleveland Clinic Sports Medicine Courage Award during the 24th Greater Cleveland Sports Awards ceremony at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. Kelly nominated her for the award, which was heartily endorsed by Lutul Farrow, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon who has performed all of the procedures required to repair Liv’s three injuries.

Liv’s odyssey began during a high school lacrosse game in 2021. Normally she played goalie, but on this day, she was playing another field position when she fell while pursuing a ground ball.

Liv plays lacrosse at Avon Lake High School in Avon Lake, Ohio.
In addition to swim, Liv also plays lacrosse at Avon Lake High School in Avon Lake, Ohio. (Courtesy: Slivinski family)

“I felt a pop in my knee and some pain, but I didn't understand what was happening,” Liv recalls. “We thought maybe I just sprained a ligament in my knee. I never thought I had torn it.”

When the pain persisted and her mobility worsened, a visit to an orthopaedic specialist and an MRI revealed the extent of her injury. She tore her ACL, and the doctor referred Liv to Dr. Farrow. That’s when he gently explained the extent of her injury and said she would need surgery, followed by months of intensive physical rehabilitation.

Dr. Farrow recalls telling Liv and her parents, Dale and Nicole Slivinski, “Surgery is the easy part. We spend an hour-and-a-half in there, fixing your knee. But after that, the work really begins.”

After surgery, Liv met Kelly and began hours of rehabilitation therapy. She worked hard, but recovery progressed slower than expected, which ultimately led Dr. Farrow to perform a laparoscopic procedure to remove scarring and lesions, followed by a tenotomy to alleviate pain in her patellar tendon.

Liv tore the ACL in her right and left knees and dislocated her shoulder.
Liv experienced three sports related injuries over two-and-a-half-years. (Courtesy: Slivinski family)

While these setbacks delayed Liv’s recovery, it didn’t slow her down. She diligently continued therapy sessions with Kelly and worked with Cleveland Clinic athletic trainers Matt Yonkof and Julie Lemma. In the meantime, Liv attended her teams’ practices and meets to cheer on her teammates and served as a volunteer assistant coach to Vince Colwell, her coach on the Lake Shore Swim Club team.

Finally, a year after her injury, Liv returned to swimming and lacrosse full-time. Weeks later, she injured her other knee and right shoulder in less than 24 hours.

While Liv may have forced a smile or two when meeting with Dr. Farrow to assess her latest injuries, she remembers all the emotion she felt throughout most of the session. “I was devastated. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was so close to getting back to where I hoped to be, and now I faced more surgeries and rehab.”

Liv is the Cleveland Clinic Sports Medicine Sports Courage Award Winner for the 24th Greater Cleveland Sports Commissions Sports Awards.
Liv's family, coaches and care team have been extremely proud of the hard work she continues to put in to get herself back into playing sports. (Courtesy: Slivinski family)

Nevertheless, Liv persevered. After undergoing her left ACL repair surgery, and a few weeks later, a procedure to repair and stabilize the labrum in her right shoulder, Liv was back in the care of Kelly and other members of the Cleveland Clinic Sports Medicine physical therapy team. She also consulted with Matthew Sacco, PhD, a sports psychologist, to help her overcome her fears and doubts as her recovery slowly progressed.

Liv had matching scrub tops made for her and Cleveland Clinic orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Lutul Farrow.
When Liv arrived for her final surgery she had matching scrub tops created for herself and Dr. Farrow. Liv's top read, "Doc's here because I tore something again." Dr. Farrow's read, "Here to fix Liv again." (Courtesy: Slivinski family)

As Kelly says, “It was never a question of would she get back to swimming. It was more so a question of when.”

After missing two full seasons, Liv is back to competitive swimming with her high school and club teams in her specialties, which include long distance endurance events. While her race times aren’t yet up to her standards, they are improving as she gains strength and confidence. Liv recently accepted an offer to swim collegiately at PennWest California, a Pennsylvania college where she plans to major in health studies and then pursue a career in physical therapy – inspired by the team who has helped her along her courageous road to recovery.

Liv recently accepted an offer to swim collegiately at PennWest California, a Pennsylvania college where she plans to major in health studies and then pursue a career in physical therapy.
Liv is fulfilling one of her dreams by swimming collegiately at PennWest California. She plans to major in health studies and pursue a career in physical therapy --inspired by the team who has helped her throughout her road to recovery. (Courtesy: Slivinski family)

Kelly and Dr. Farrow plan to attend some of her meets and look forward to following the progression of her swimming and medical careers.

“Liv is a determined young lady. If I had to describe her with one word, I'm going to say ‘driven.’ It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to keep going and not give up,” says Dr. Farrow. “Each time, she really went after rehab with diligence and thoroughly followed all the guidance. I think that's what led to her success in overcoming these challenges.”

Related Institutes: Orthopaedic & Rheumatologic Institute, Cleveland Clinic Children's
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