By Todd Ceisner
The dining room at the lake house had mostly cleared out after lunch. The other anglers and outdoor writers had headed out for the afternoon session on Smith Lake at a recent T-H Marine Products media event.
Gerald Swindle was still lingering in his chair at the head of the table, his full beard noticeably dotted with streaks of gray. Maybe he planned it this way: Wait for everyone to clear out before he started his new daily routine. Or maybe he didn't want some of his peers to witness his vulnerability.
The man who can take over any room the moment he enters it was suddenly alone. Accolades and trophies didn’t matter now. It was time to grunt. It was time to work.
After riffing on a few more random topics as he’s apt to do, Swindle hoisted himself out of the chair and pep-talked himself into doing his stretching regimen, part of the rehab process as he recovers from a simple knee surgery gone wrong in the wake of capturing his second career B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year title.
“Mind if I take some photos while you stretch,” Swindle was asked.
“Go ahead, man. This is me now,” he replied, straining to get into position for the first set of stretches.
He made a crack about sending the photos to his wife, LeAnn (or Lulu as he calls her), to prove that he was on his best behavior and was doing his homework.
He loosened the Velcro straps on the brace that basically immobilized his right knee and slid the brace off. He gingerly stood up and moved around the back of the chair where he rested his hands while slowly going through a series of semi-squats. He winced and groaned, silently counting to 6 or 8 each time.
At one point, he let go of the chair and simulated the stance of a downhill skier in the tuck position, then mimicked the hypothetical play-by-play call of his run down the slopes, in his signature Southern twang.
The stretching lasted roughly 20 minutes and afterward it was clear Swindle was spent, but there was still work to do.
The writers attending the event had been advised Swindle would be present, but he would likely only have his boat tied off to the dock and wouldn’t be running around the lake. Here’s a tip: Don’t tell Gerald Swindle what he can and can’t do.
After sliding his brace back on, he used a single crutch under his left armpit to carefully navigate down the uneven shore to where his Triton was beached and before long, he was running wide open toward Rock Creek under a blue October sky in north-central Alabama.
Swindle goes through a series of rigorous stretching and flexibility exercises multiple times a day as part of the rehab process.
After he pulled into his desired area and deployed his trolling motor, it dawned on him that he hadn’t made a cast out of his boat since the final day at Mille Lacs Lake, where he’d claimed the AOY title 36 days prior.
“It kind of feels good, dude,” he says. “It feels good to get in the boat.”
Celebration On Hold
Swindle’s capture of the Elite Series AOY crown was supposed to be followed by a hearty celebration, one befitting the intense focus and discipline he followed in racking up six top-12 finishes and collecting checks in every tournament. Instead, whatever revelry he had planned immediately took a back seat to recovering from a freak medical scare that saw him undergo four surgeries on his right leg in a 6-day span.
“LeAnn and I have laughed about it,” he said while casting down a tapered clay bank with scattered rock. “We haven’t even taken time to celebrate. That didn’t happen.”
Swindle’s right knee had bothered him since June and he twice had fluid drained from it during the second half of the season. He’d considered having surgery during a lengthy break between events, but opted to put it off until after the season as he was in contention for the AOY.
When he arrived at the hospital at 5 a.m. on Sept. 27, the plan was to have an arthroscopic procedure done to repair a torn meniscus. By 10:30, he was told, he’d be cleared to head home and by 12:30, he’d be recouping at his home near Lake Guntersville.
The surgery went as planned, but after he got home, he started to experience swelling and tightness in his thigh and his upper leg became cold to the touch. He returned to the hospital and underwent a fasciotomy, a procedure that relieves pressure and fluid build up where the incision is left open for a time.
“I came out of that surgery and remember seeing it was 5 after midnight,” Swindle said. “I thought, ‘Lord, what a day.’”
After a day of rest, doctors attempted to close the incision, but the swelling returned and a second pressure-relief procedure was done.
“I figured at some point, I’d wake up and there’d be a team of people standing over me with two thumbs up letting me know things were all good,” he recalled.
Finally, the swelling subsided and his incision was closed. By Oct. 6, Swindle was back home in Guntersville, catching pond bass out of a golf cart.
“It’s not exactly how I envisioned this whole thing going, but I’m living with it,” he said. “When I got home, I put the AOY on the shelf and focused strictly on how to get through this. I suppose it may not be good to sit around and celebrate and maybe this is how it’s supposed to be, but I sure enough switched focuses real quick.
Swindle says he has no plans to shave or get his hair cut prior to the 2017 Bassmaster Classic, when he'll be boat No. 1 on day 1 at Lake Conroe.
“You can lay in a hospital bed and take fishing for granted, but about the fifth day in the hospital, I’d have given anything to go fishing.”
Swindle says his doctors have yet to offer an explanation for the post-op complications.
“Nobody knows how or why it happened,” he said. “I have the best doc in Birmingham. I just have to accept it and get through it.”
Since then, it’s been a slow road as he works to regain muscle and full use of his leg. Swindle says the physical therapy portion of his recovery has been rough, but he knows it’s vital to him getting back to where he wants to be.
“I have to stick with the therapy,” he said. “Once I get the bend back, I’ll be devoted to getting back to where I needed to be shape-wise.”
His estimated timeline is another four to six weeks until he’s “100 percent.”
Swindle said throughout the season one of the keys to his success was being able to shrink his focus down to each individual day of competition. Not once did he allow himself to get caught up in the points race or “the big picture,” as he calls it. He said taking that same approach during his recovery has helped.
“It’s all about slowing down and focusing more on one day at a time,” he said. “It’s helped getting through this. I go to therapy and focus on getting better that day.
“During a tournament, if I was in 20th after day 1, I’d push myself to move up five places the next day. Next thing you know you’re in 9th. It’s all about taking smaller steps and setting attainable goals.”
Swindle has worked with a sports psychologist in the past and one of the areas they touched on was the tournaments he performed well in. He noticed a common thread that he carried over to this season.
“In those events, I fished smaller areas and fished them slower,” he said. “It started clicking – the more I slowed down the more I caught. It’s like it was meant to be that way. That allowed me to fish where I’m comfortable. Sometimes, we think there will be some great revelations in practice, but most of the times guys who win don’t have it figured out – they fish their way to the win.”