After battling back from a broken elbow, Vanderbilt swimming star Mercedes Traba has her sights set on a strong performance at SEC Championships (Vanderbilt Athletics).
After battling back from a broken elbow, Vanderbilt swimming star Mercedes Traba has her sights set on a strong performance at SEC Championships (Vanderbilt Athletics).
Vanderbilt Athletics

Fighting through adversity: How Mercedes Traba overcame injury en route to becoming a Commodore phenom

After battling back from a broken elbow, Vanderbilt swimming star Mercedes Traba has her sights set on a strong performance at SEC Championships.

Mercedes Traba’s sophomore season got off to a flying start: At the team’s opening meet against LSU and Tulane, she took home first place in the 500-yard freestyle and second in the 1000-yard freestyle. Just two weeks later, she put on an even more impressive display against Auburn, setting the school record in the 1000-yard freestyle with a time of 10:04.12. Soon after, she added first place finishes in the 200-yard butterfly and the 800-yard freestyle team relay in a meet against North Florida and Georgia Southern. 

But just as Traba was finding the best form of her career, the injury bug struck. 

“When it happened, I didn’t really think anything of it,” Traba told The Hustler. “But then I woke up the next morning, and [my elbow] was pretty swollen. I decided I should probably get urgent care.” 

What followed was a slew of X-Rays and examinations that ultimately led to a crushing diagnosis: Her elbow was broken. Instead of wallowing in her misfortune, Traba turned her focus toward the long process of rehab and recovery. 

“You can’t cast a broken elbow, so I just had to freeball it,” Traba said. “I could go through the motions slowly just to keep the muscle in my shoulder from degrading.” 

Unfortunately, her check-up before the midseason swim meet revealed even worse news: On top of the break, Traba also had tendonitis from overuse which led her doctor to recommend shutting down the entire arm for a few weeks. Still, Traba was determined to get back in the water as soon as possible. Through a combination of one-armed weight lifting and innovative training techniques, she continued to work toward that goal.  

“It honestly made me kind of creative in the water because I figured out that my shoulder didn’t hurt when I moved it through the motions, [and] it was mainly when I pulled,” Traba said. “So, if I swam with a fist, I could do a full stroke just fine with no pain.”

By the time the team’s first meet of the second semester rolled around, Traba had worked herself back to 100% and was ready to compete. She won two races on Jan. 21 against Iowa. The next week, in the team’s final regular season meet, she won a race against Arkansas and Little Rock. These two meets — along with all of her hard work — prepared her for the team’s culminating event, the SEC Championships. 

But Traba’s journey towards the SEC championships began long before her injury, back when she first found herself in a swimming pool. Her earliest experience with the sport came while taking after her older sister, Isabel, who stood out in swim lessons and was asked to join the Sarasota Sharks swim team. 

“My mom enrolled me so that I wouldn’t drown at a birthday party in Florida,” Traba said. “The same thing [that happened to Isabel] happened to me… and once I joined the team, I never really really wanted to do anything else.”

By the time she got to middle school, Traba realized that swimming was something she could pursue at the collegiate level. Her coach, Sherwood Watts, had been with the Sharks for almost 30 years when she joined the team. He knew that the path to becoming a swimmer at the next level began early, so at the start of sixth grade, he sat down with Traba’s parents and those of her teammates to have an important conversation.

“He said, ‘If your child goes through this program to the very end, there will be a spot for them at any collegiate level,’” Traba said. “[From then on] we all went through the process together with the end goal being that I can get my college paid for and done with if I stick with this.”

The next five years saw Traba invest countless hours into training, competing and doing whatever she could to build the best possible recruiting profile for herself. Her hard work finally paid off during the summer after her sophomore year on the first day of the recruiting window, when she received a slew of emails from schools that were interested in her.

Traba spent the following weeks and months in constant conversation with a number of schools, including Vanderbilt, where two of her former teammates, Lara Hernandez-Tome and Kristen Nutter, were attending. However, her heart was set on one school in particular: the University of Miami.

“It was close to home and that coach knew me. He knew my sister [who was committed there]. He knew my family,” Traba said. “He was my first ever college call, and in my mind I was like ‘This is probably where I’m going to end up.’”

Still, Traba kept her options open throughout her junior year, weighing the pros and cons of different schools. Vanderbilt remained on her radar but had fallen onto the back burner because the team was undergoing an assistant coaching change and her email to the school had gotten lost in the shuffle. That changed at sectionals, when newly appointed assistant coach Chelsea Bailey reached out to her following a strong performance. 

Bailey explained why the school had not been in contact with her and the two instantly connected, forming a strong relationship that would continue throughout the recruiting process.

“My phone calls with Chelsea were just so different,” Traba said. “When I was talking with all the other college coaches it was really strict [and] everything was about swimming… [but] she wanted to get to know me, what I like to do, and how I would fit on the team.”

From that point on, Traba had narrowed her decision down to Vanderbilt or Miami. While she still wanted to follow in her sister’s footsteps, her relationship with the Commodores coaching staff, in addition to the school’s academic prestige, made turning down Vanderbilt nearly impossible. 

The finishing touch came during Traba’s first trip to Nashville in the summer following her junior year. While she was unable to take an official visit during the COVID-19 pandemic, she received an impromptu tour from four members of the team: Tonner DeBeer, Lauren Thomas, Abby Burke, and Krislyn Porter. 

“Just their energy and how they were talking to me and the way they talked to my parents…they gave me the best tour,” Traba said. “As soon as I walked on campus, I was like, this is where I see myself.”

While Traba was thrilled with her decision, the initial transition to college life was difficult. It took some time to adjust from home life, where everything was built into a nice routine, to the ultimate independence of college life. However, the support of her teammates helped relieve some of the stress.  

“They’re the people that get me through the sense that I don’t think I can do it,” Traba said. “We are a family, we are each other’s sisters.”

Their support, as well as her experiences on her club team, helped her avoid any dips in performance during her transition to college-level swimming. In her first appearance as a Commodore, she earned a fourth-place finish in the 200-yard butterfly and a first-place finish in the 500-yard freestyle. That meet propelled her to a stellar freshman season that saw her meet the NIC B Standard in the 500 and 1650-yard freestyle, 200-yard butterfly, and 400-yard individual medley (IM). 

That final race, the 400-yard IM, is one that Traba has had a mixed relationship with throughout her swimming career. 

Even though it has never been her strongest competition, she has often been asked to participate in the 16-lap event because of her exceptional endurance.  Over time, she developed an affinity for it, and by the end of high school, she had gotten her time all the way down to four minutes and 21 seconds, just one second shy of her goal. 

Upon her arrival at Vanderbilt, head coach Jeremy Organ encouraged Traba to work on the specific strokes of the competition, rather than relying on her standard endurance training to carry over. That preparation paid off during her first trip to the SEC Championships last February, when she was disqualified from her primary event, the 500-yard freestyle. 

“I got up on the blocks for the [400-yard] IM and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m just gonna swim it and I can’t think about [the disqualification]’… Then I finished, and I touched the wall, and I won my heat, and I looked and it said 4:19,” Traba said. “It was just a euphoric feeling.”

Not only was the time good enough to break her personal goal, but it also broke the school record for freshman. Accomplishing such a significant feat in the most important competition of the season was the icing on the cake for Traba in her fantastic freshman season and an experience that has only been surpassed by one thing: Her school record in the 1000-yard freestyle. 

That accomplishment came this fall and, according to Traba, was one of the most unexpected moments of her life. 

“I remember calling my mom the day of the meet, and saying ‘I hope Jeremy’s not going to be mad because I’m not feeling too good right now,’” Traba said. “Then [after the race] I look up at the board and I’m like ‘How did that even happen?’”

Now, with a fully recovered elbow and two records in hand, Traba is ready to give it her all on her second trip to the SEC Championships next week. 

“I know everybody’s been training really hard… but I think it’s gonna be really fun once we get there,” Traba said. “I trust in my training, and I know that I’ve done everything I can to see what I can do.”

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About the Contributor
Luke Rollfinke
Luke Rollfinke, Senior Staff Writer
Luke Rollfinke ('25) is a student in the College of Arts and Science planning to major in mathematics with a minor in communications. Luke loves all things sports, so when he's not writing for The Hustler, he's probably either playing for a club or intramural Vanderbilt sports team. You can reach him at [email protected].
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Barbara Kerven
1 year ago

What a wonderful story and such a fine young lady !