After back surgery, Liza Murtagh seeks sweet redemption in final swimming season

By Jackson Fuller, Wilmington StarNews

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Liza Murtagh can trace her passion for swimming all the way back to a desire for candy.

It wasn’t love at first sight for the Cape Fear Academy senior. Murtagh at first didn’t enjoy her time with the Pine Valley Country Club Summer League, but if she didn’t swim, her mom wouldn’t let her have dessert from the concession stand.

That sweet tooth shaped her future. As she begins her final season with the Hurricanes, Murtagh is already a four-time state champion, with countless more titles at the club level. She plans to swim in the ACC with Boston College next fall.

But this journey hasn’t come without the occasional challenge, and in June 2019, Murtagh underwent surgery for scoliosis. The road to recovery was difficult, but when Murtagh wants to accomplish something – like snagging the last Twix bar – she gets it done.

“Once I had the surgery, it was just time to move forward and winning state was the goal I would have had either way,” she said. “It’s really cool and I am proud of myself, but in the moment I was just glad I accomplished my goal of winning a state championship.”

Racing the recovery
Murtagh received her diagnosis in eighth grade, and she and her family knew it was just a matter of time before back surgery would be required. She decided on the summer before her junior year, so there would be no ill effects when she got to college.

Back surgery wasn’t a foreign concept to Murtagh. Her brother, Henry, also needed an invasive surgery on his back while at Cape Fear Academy. Henry is now a sophomore on the lacrosse team at Division III Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

“I think watching him go through that and still being able to go play college lacrosse made that goal feel easily attainable for Liza,” said Jean Murtagh, Liza’s mom. “It wasn’t always easy, but she always felt she could do it too.”

Liza attended the StarNewsVarsity Awards Banquet on June 17, 2019. The next day, she was driving to Durham to undergo surgery at Duke. The surgery was only supposed to take two hours, but her parents nervously sat in the waiting room for eight hours. Doctors later told the family it took longer than anticipated because Liza had so much muscle around her core, it was difficult to reach her spine.

The rehab process quickly began, and doctors told Liza she should expect to be swimming again in a year. That timeline was unacceptable. She wanted to be back in the pool in six months, and capable of winning another state championship in February.

“I hold myself to high standards, and it was just a way to push me,” Liza said. “It was just something that I knew I was going to have to do.”

It wasn’t easy, but Liza stuck to her timeline. She said the hardest part was the baby steps required in the process to recovery. Her parents thought it would be the two screws in her spine.

When she finally did get back in the pool, she spent workouts focusing on normally-trivial things like doing a flip turn, and how many kick outs she could get under water.

By the time swimming season started in November, only five months after surgery, Liza was on the Hurricanes roster. She once again dominated during the regular season, and Murtagh claimed individual titles at the NCISAA state championships in the 50-yard freestyle (25.43) and 100 breaststroke (1:05.80), a race she won by nearly eight seconds.

“I really wasn’t sure she would even be able to compete coming into her junior year,” Cape Fear Academy swim coach Megan Green said. “But I should have known better. She looked great once the season arrived and it was awesome to watch.”

One final goal in Wilmington
Liza’s been a winner throughout her swimming career. She started her club career with the Waves of Wilmington, and she won her first sectional championship when she was 10 years old. Two years later, she won two state club titles.

When she arrived at Cape Fear Academy as a freshman, Liza knew right away she would be one of the school’s better swimmers. She didn’t realize how competitive she would be at the state level.

She finished third in both the 50 freestyle and 50 butterfly at her first state high school championship. It set the tone for the rest of her career. 
The next season, Liza won two state titles. She narrowly touched the wall first in the 100 breaststroke, and helped the Hurricanes’ 200 freestyle relay team win a gold medal.

“Looking back, I think the relay win was definitely the most fun thing I’ve done in high school swimming,” Liza said. “Just winning a state championship with your teammates, it’s hard to describe how much fun that is.”

Liza committed to Boston College on July 1, and it’s a win for the entire family. Her dad, Gary, is from Boston and, in non-coronavirus times, still travels there for work. She has a cousin that lives in the city, and her brother isn’t too far away.

But before she leaves, there’s one big goal left.

“Of course, I want to win two more individual championships, and hopefully another relay,” Liza said. “But the thing I want to do the most is get a team state title for the girls. We’ve been working so hard for it, and I know they all deserve it just as much as I do. That’s the plan.”

Knowing how Liza likes to stick to plans, it’d be foolish to count the Hurricanes out.