Biloxi swimmer heads to college after serious injury

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Michael Pickich followed a family tradition of attending Biloxi High School. His father played football there and his mother was a cheerleader.

He'll be attending Henderson State on a swimming scholarship next year. His sister and brother were swimmers, so Michael was destined for the water.

Sylvia Pickich, who is Michael's mother, knew not long after Michael was born that his future would involve swimming.

"It's hard to believe he's graduated when you watched him as a little baby," Sylvia Pickich said. "He used to come to the Biloxi Natatorium when he was little and the lifeguards would let him jump off that high dive. You're supposed to be a certain height to be able to do that but whenever the director of the pool wasn't here, the lifeguards would let him jump off the high dive. So my little three year old would climb up that ladder, jump off the high dive, and the lifeguards would be in the water waiting for him to jump into the water and then take him to the side."

But the path to the next level was anything but straight and easy.

Your toes are things that help you propel into a jump. In Michael's case, it was the only way he could walk.

In third grade, Michael found out he had a form of scoliosis. His was a lateral curvature in a normally straight spine.

"Dr. [James] Thriffiley said, 'Well, I don't really have a problem with him walking on his toes but, by the way, he has scoliosis," Sylvia Pickich said. "He was eight years old. It was an incidental finding."

Michael was forced to wear a back brace for about a year and a half and was able to take off the supportive brace when he wanted to swim. However, as his condition continued to decline, he needed to make another trip to the hospital.

"When he started rapidly growing in that time period when they get into junior high school, his scoliosis got worse," Sylvia Pickich said. "Then he had to have surgery."

Michael's family decided to have that surgery. While it's not typical among someone who has scoliosis, if not treated over time, it could become serious enough to cause paralysis.

The Pickich family was only on the hook for $4,000 of the $240,000 surgery thanks to a solid insurance plan. Afterwards, Michael was stuck in the hospital for a week.

"It really devastated me because I really wanted to swim and it set me back a little bit," Michael Pickich said. "I've had to work my butt off to get to where I am now."

"He's been through some issues in his life, and to bounce back from what he has done, is just unbelievable," Biloxi swim coach Jamie Lee said. "He's been one of the best I've ever coached. He's driven, determined and an extremely hard worker. It's been an honor to coach him."

Michael graduated from Biloxi High School as part of the 2014 class. He begins orientation at Henderson State University in Arkansas soon and plans to major in computer science. However, he admits that his major could change.

While Michael's spine has been corrected, and his education plan could be altered, his heart persists.

"It's just a thing where you have to get over it. You can't let it defeat you."