Thursday, September 16, 2021

The meaning of a tattoo and a broken foot that tested a unbreakable will

March 9, 2021
Phillip Meffert prepares for one of his events during a swim meet while in college. Meffert is a senior, the tattoo on his left shoulder is a long-time tradition for members of the Swim & Dive program to get while competing for Michigan State. (Credit: Phillip Meffert / Courtesy)
Phillip Meffert prepares for one of his events during a swim meet while in college. Meffert is a senior, the tattoo on his left shoulder is a long-time tradition for members of the Swim & Dive program to get while competing for Michigan State. (Credit: Phillip Meffert / Courtesy) —
Photo by Courtesy Photo | The State News

Phillip Meffert walked into the tattoo parlor on Grand River Avenue just 20 yards from the edge of MSU's campus.

He wanted a logo representing the school that taught him so much to be needled onto his shoulder, of course.

He had come all the way from Virginia on a visit to MSU in the fall of 2015, looking for a school with swimming and engineering programs, but nearly six years later he would end up a redshirt senior who would be leaving this university with more life lessons and bonds made than he could have imagined.

Meffert’s visit in 2015 left him in awe of the campus and school pride that exudes from East Lansing. His Spartan pride permanently tattooed on his body is part of a long-standing swim and dive tradition started by the late John Munley, who wore a Spartan shirt in a weight room in Ann Arbor and when he was told not to wear it, he went and got the Spartan head logo on himself permanently to carry on its legacy.

“My official visit here to Michigan State was a mind-blowing experience. It was just everything that I could have possibly dreamed of, but actually come to life,” said Meffert. “The big school, the big-time sports atmosphere. One of the things that really stuck out to me was the people. I always feel like the people here in East Lansing are incredibly friendly, and that was something I was attracted to.”

“The main reason I have gotten it (the tattoo) is (that these) teammates are my brothers and these people I love and care about. They mean so much to me,” Meffert said. “You see the Spartan head on people at Big Tens and it shows the pride that we have, the love and support for each other.”

Being part of Spartan swim and dive is not limited to just being an athlete — it is a brotherhood/sisterhood that doesn’t provide teammates, but instead brothers, sisters, and mentors who shape who you become, Meffert said. Meffert’s even going to be the best man at his former teammate Nehemiah Mork's wedding. 

“He (Mork) would work tirelessly to make sure that he could be at his best in the classroom as well as in the pool, but also just another outstanding character who was always there for anyone who needed it,” said Meffert.

Meffert said that his teammates were exceptionally dedicated outside of the pool, varying in degrees and interests ranging from music to engineering. Each time they returned, they re-connected like siblings that hadn't seen each other for some time, a shining example of the bond they all have as members of the swim and dive program.

“The class of 2020 especially, we were very fortunate. We had a fantastic recruiting class, but then you had no idea you were going to get these fantastic individuals with fantastic attributes that really help the team move forward as people in general,” said Meffert.

It's those bonds with those people that helped him through one of the hardest times in his athletic career.

A broken foot tests an unbreakable will

Meffert would need the support of his MSU swim and dive brothers and sisters more than ever during his junior year when he faced the biggest challenge of his life: Meffert suffered an open fracture on his left foot in a weight room accident.

This would cause him not only to redshirt but to go through a long rehab process that lasted almost five months.

“It was my first major injury I’ve ever experienced and it was also the first time I took two months off of swimming since I was 11-years-old,” said Meffert. “It was hard to deal with, just knowing I couldn’t be at practice, I couldn’t keep bonding with like the freshman coming in.

Needing two surgeries and a pin in his foot, Meffert decided to take a redshirt year and put his all into rehab, determined to return to his team and continue to make his mark on the Spartan swim and dive legacy. “My mindset after I had my second surgery was to give it every single thing I possibly have,” said Meffert.

Meffert said one quote defined his rehab experience; “Give 100% of whatever you have every single day.”

“Every day you won’t be functioning at 100%, you might only have 50% one day, but if you give 100% of that 50%, then that’s a success,” said Meffert.

Meffert even had to relearn how to walk after being in a boot for so long, but nothing would stop him from getting back in the pool. It was only fitting that while at the usual training trip to Del Ray, Florida he re-learned how to walk in a pool, taking the first step towards recovery.

Nearly nine months after his injury, Meffert returned to competition and was posting better times than he did before his injury. The senior knows the incredible amount of work he put in to return, but he also gives credit to his coaching staff and teammates that supported him through the whole process. 

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“It was through my own determination, but also the determination of the coaching staff to get me back where I wanted to be,” said Meffert.

The support Meffert had during his difficult times is not only the exact reason he chose to attend Michigan State, but is the very thing uniting people right now as the final season of MSU swim and dive nears an end. 

It's stories like Meffert's, he said, that make some think of the cutting of the program at the university to not be like losing a sport, but closer to them cutting a fraternity or a sorority. The bond that comes with being associated with MSU swim and dive is priceless, no matter what amount of money is stopping the program from existing in the future.

“Many people have helped me on my journey at Michigan State, many people who have inspired me,” Meffert said, reflecting on each thrash through the pool lane that became his college experience.

Even with what he described as hypocrisy by the athletic department, Meffert has lost no love for the university. The swim and dive teams may be ending, but the experiences and memories that Meffert has gained while being a part of it will never be forgotten.

“I’ve had my highest highs and my lowest lows at this school and it helped me define me as a person and I wouldn’t trade that for the world,” said Meffert.

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