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Saving a Swimmer's Season with 3D Printing

“My season was absolutely saved because of the PROTECT3D cast.”

- Olivia Tighe, Duke University Swimming & Diving


Recovering from a fracture can be a difficult and disruptive process for anyone, especially for an athlete.

For a swimmer, it can be devastating.

Traditional fracture fixation techniques such as fiberglass casting restrict an individual from returning to full activity for weeks or even months. Even worse for a swimmer, most casting methods are non-waterproof and keep you out of the pool.

For Olivia Tighe, current senior and a captain of the Duke Swimming and Diving Team, the limitations of these options became real when she was faced with a 12 week window to recover from a scaphoid fracture: “I was very upset, because that is an entire semester and with traditional healing methods, you can’t really be in water.”

"The 3D printed cast was a game-changer for this pathology”

In any sport, practicing in the environment where you will compete is the best way to prepare yourself to perform at a high level. Likewise, recovering and healing in such an environment can facilitate a much smoother transition back to full activity. For swimmers, this means continuing to spend time in the pool:

“In the sport of swimming, it is so important that you’re in the water. You could run, bike, and use the elliptical as much as you want and be in physical shape, but you wouldn’t be able to hop in a pool and just perform like normal.”

With Tighe’s Junior season on the line, Aleah Kirsch, Duke Senior Associate Athletic Trainer, turned to PROTECT3D to find a better bracing option. This new solution was a Short Arm Cast: digitally-fabricated to match Tighe’s anatomy with millimeter-level precision, 3D printed in medical-grade material, and designed specifically with her recovery and rehabilitation in mind.

“The 3D printed cast was a game-changer for this pathology,” Kirsch said, reflecting on the experience. “It’s tricky to get an immobilization device where an athlete can still participate in sport, practice, and train. [PROTECT3D] was able to scan Olivia and have a product ready within a couple of days.”

Tighe had a similar reaction to the new cast: “[The PROTECT3D cast] was absolutely the light at the end of the tunnel. I found out that I’d be able to wear it in the pool. I could kick, I could work on flip turns – it opened up so many possibilities for training and having that feel for the water that is so important.”

"Without [the PROTECT3D cast], I wouldn't have been able to compete at all."

Just a few days after her injury, Tighe was out of a plaster cast and into this innovative alternative.

“The PROTECT3D cast fit perfectly like it was intended to. The fact that I was in the pool, potentially swimming, in four days all the while having a broken hand – it honestly gave me a sense of relief.”

For any athlete competing at a high level, injury recovery can be just as taxing mentally as it is physically. The feeling of being incapable of performing an activity that is so central to one’s identity is incredibly difficult to process, especially in a collegiate environment.

For Tighe, having access to a protective solution that facilitated a more natural recovery was critical: “Swimming is a huge part of who I am, so it was a little bit of an identity crisis. In hindsight, using the PROTECT3D cast felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I was so devastated, because I knew the implications of being out of the pool for an entire semester: my season was going to be over.”

About 14 weeks after her injury, Tighe was feeling back to normal. Thanks to the cast and her athletic medicine team, she was able to stay in swim shape throughout her recovery and was ready to compete confidently upon returning.

As a highly competitive athlete, Tighe described this experience of injury and recovery perfectly:

"Being told your season is over when it's just beginning is heartbreaking. It's devastating. Not only does it feel like a letdown to yourself, it also feels like a letdown to your peers. My season was absolutely saved because of the PROTECT3D cast. Without it, I wouldn't have been able to compete at all."

Hear more about Tighe and Kirsch's experience with PROTECT3D through this interview.

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