Neely Heilman, at 14, has faced more adversity than most her age. With a positive outlook on life and a passion for sports, she has truly turned lemons into lemonade. “I don’t just stop when I fall down or when something bad happens, you just have to keep pushing forward,” Heilman said.

Two and a half years ago, Heilman’s older sister, Hally, passed away at the age of 15. One year later, Heilman had a second severe concussion while playing soccer, and was later diagnosed with Chiari Malformation, a condition that causes her cerebellum to extend below the base of her skull.

Numerous hits to the back of the head while playing soccer caused Neely severe inflammation, resulting in headaches, nausea and dizziness. To avoid long-term damage from concussions, doctors advised her to never play contact sports again.

Two weeks later, she was diagnosed with the same life-threatening immune deficiency that Hally had and her younger brother Ben has.

Heilman, who had been playing soccer since she was three, was considered an elite soccer player for Tampa Bay United. She was a national pool player that had been invited to national training camps, and had dreams of playing division 1 soccer at USF. Naturally, she was devastated. Her mom, Jillian Heilman, said that her daughter was on her phone looking up possible non-contact sports as soon as they were leaving the doctor’s office. Playing sports was the only way for her to fuel her competitive fire. “Neely just has a competitive drive and an athletic mentality, and she needed something to focus that energy on that she had always put into soccer,” said Jillian Heilman.

Heilman had done several triathlons when she was younger. She really enjoyed the swimming aspect of the three events. She decided that she would adopt swimming as her new sport. Eight months ago, she joined the BSAC Blue Wave swim team, which her coach, Rich Rodgers, characterizes as a swim family, or “swamily.”

“It’s meant a great deal emotionally and physically, to not only develop strong bonds with the girls on the team and the coaches, but I’ve been able to do something besides soccer that has allowed me to have a lot of fun and stay physically active,” Heilman said.

Heilman hopes to become a part of the Durant High School swim team next year.

She will also compete in her first triathlon in years, next month in Gainesville. Her ultimate goal is to go to college for swimming and she hopes to one day, compete in the Olympics.

“I like the feeling of the water,” said Heilman. “You feel almost invincible when you are swimming your fastest. It’s just something that is totally different from anything else that you can do in the world, and it gives me a feeling of relief and happiness.”

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Nick Nahas
Nick Nahas has written for the Osprey Observer since 2016. He has lived in the Valrico area since 2002 and has his bachelor’s degree in mass communications from the University of South Florida. He is dedicated to covering sports in Hillsborough County at every level.