Elisabeth Lundgren was selling Girl Scout cookies when she suffered her first injury. She was already experiencing mysterious pain in her leg, but it was when she bent down to grab a box that the pain sharpened. Her knee gave out.
Elisabeth underwent surgery for a bucket handle meniscus tear in her knee. That type of cartilage tear is most often seen in adults older than 30.
She was 8. The doctor called it a freak accident.
It took five years before Elisabeth finally received a correct diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue. Pain became a constant companion, something she often fights, and on most days, conquers.
Even as she battled pain and injuries and undergoing surgeries and physical therapy, Elisabeth maintained a 4.0 GPA through high school, became a champion swimmer and logged more than 200 volunteer hours in 2018.
Her success in the face of adversity helped Elisabeth, now a first-year biological sciences major at the University of California, Santa Cruz, win the 2019 Navy Military Child of the Year® Award.
“I want to be someone who motivates other people, either through my actions or accomplishments,” Elisabeth wrote in her application essay. “I want other kids either who are diagnosed with Ehler-Danlos or experience daily pain or are even recovering from an injury to know that they are not broken or weak. Keep fighting, keep smiling, and do the best that you can do in the moment because that is all you can ask of yourself.”
She credits her parents with the support she needed to succeed. Her mother, Connie, works for General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego supporting the construction and repair of Navy ships in the Pacific Fleet.
“I remember very vividly after my first major knee surgery, my mom carried me on her back so that I could play tag with my friends,” she said.
She calls her father, Kevin, her hero. Kevin, CMC EOD Group ONE retiring later this year, has served in the U.S. Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal community for 27 years with 29 years active duty, completing several international deployments—three in war zones—and 23 years on sea duty.
“My Dad taught me how to be a warrior, but he also taught me how to be a role model,” she wrote. “In the water, I became a warrior athlete. While I knew I could never play sports on land given the risk, swimming was an option. I trained hard whenever possible and swam with knee braces and taped up shoulders.”
Elisabeth was using a cane when she started swimming her freshman year of high school. By the end of the season, she earned the Freshman Swimmer of the Year award and moved up to varsity level. She graduated with 16 league titles, represented her school in 14 California Interscholastic Federation finals, became the 2018 team captain, won MVP titles and was named 2018 female Swimmer of the Year.
As captain, her toughest challenge was leading the team after her friend and teammate, Ellen Erickson, died of cancer. After Ellen’s death, Elisabeth helped grow the cancer awareness club from 20 to 250 students and helped raise $13,000 for cancer research. Her dedication and positive attitude earned her the Ellen Erickson Memorial Award from South Bay Aquatics.
Elisabeth now competes at the NCAA level and as a freshman recently broke a 19-year-old university record in the 200-meter backstroke.
Inspired by her dad’s military service, Elisabeth has helped him raise money for the EOD Wounded Warriors Foundation, and she has participated in local SUPERFROG and SUPER SEAL events to raise money for veterans. She became a USA Swimming athlete representative and private swim instructor to help address drowning prevention and mentor for other military children.
While the last decade has been filled with challenges, Elisabeth focuses on the triumphs — the times she beat the pain, her efforts to help others and the ways she has dedicated herself to making her family and community proud.
“As my Dad explained, you will be in situations you feel fear, you feel pain, you feel hopelessness,” Elisabeth wrote. “But never give up, because you can always do more than you think. That is what it means to be a warrior.”