It found me.
For much of last year I was gliding along, smugly brimming with experience and wisdom, expertly dodging all of the most annoying and tiresome pitfalls of the post-Olympic year. It was my third one, so I knew everything I needed to know about how to not have a bad post-Olympic year. 2009 and 2013 gave me all the tools I needed to take a casual stroll through 2017 and come out the other side smiling. And I did. 2017 was mostly great. I picked up a new pair partner, we had a super break out season, and finished out the year with a silver medal — a pretty good place to start an Olympic campaign. When it was all said and done, 2017 had nothing on me, and I strode coolly in to 2018 feeling pretty pleased with myself, and dreaming bigger and feeling hungrier than ever.
Feeling extra optimistic in the fall, I asked Tracy to come train with me in San Diego before the US women’s camp started in February. To my surprise, our coach agreed, which meant Tracy and I would get an extra six weeks of water time in the pair and singles to prepare for the 2018 season. We spent the time challenging ourselves to confront some of our major technical weaknesses, getting really strong, and generally growing a lot as a combination. I was feeling really good about our progress, and about our chances at the NSR in the spring. And then, on a perfectly ordinary day, with flat water during some beautiful, easy rowing, it found me: The post-post-Olympic year.
For my entire career, I have been really lucky to have whatever X factor it is that has kept me from having any season-ending injuries. Until this year, I have never missed a competition due to injury. I never really thought much about it–my body has always been really honest with me, and I have always tried to listen to it to know when to back off, get treatment, or stop in order to heal. Most things that have come up over my time as an athlete have been minor, and have resolved themselves with a combination of physical therapy, rest, and self-correction during training (aka adaptation and/or compensation). This summer has been very different.
When I first had symptoms–electric zappy zingers up and down my back during easy rowing–I assumed it was what any ailment I’ve ever had has always been: something minor that would take care of itself. I have never had “back problems” so didn’t worry too much at first. I ended up resting for a few days, but within a week I was back to full training volume and eagerly looking forward to traveling back to Princeton in order to start racing the pair, as the first NSR was only a few short weeks out at that point. However, after I arrived in Princeton it was only a few days before I had another spasm in my back and had to take a few more days out. Then I was in, and out, again and again in a really weird, frustrating cycle. When I was in, Tracy and I were doing well in the pair and the speed was good. When I was out, I was afraid to row, erg, or lift weights because my back and pelvis felt so alien and unstable I was never totally sure what was going to happen when I loaded my posterior chain on the drive, or in a back squat. Everything seemed like it was happening too fast with the racing approaching, and with this new, weird injury cycle that I had never experienced before. I didn’t know what the triggers were, or what specifically was causing my relapses. Everything was completely new and unfamiliar and I was hanging on one practice at a time hoping my back would make it through the workout. When it did, it was a huge relief. When it didn’t, I felt embarrassed and disappointed that I didn’t know my own body well enough to understand what it was trying to tell me.
Ultimately, when we were a week out from the NSR and I had a back spasm during an afternoon erg, I made the decision to take myself out of racing so I could figure out what was going on with my body. I had been too inconsistent up to that point, and still didn’t know what the signs were that would tell me that a relapse was coming. I didn’t think it was fair to Tracy to line up not knowing if I could finish the regatta, and certainly not at my best. If she and I had any hope of rowing together in the future, I needed her to trust me completely, and racing injured is a great way to lose that trust. It killed me to miss out on racing the NSR, and to open the door for some other athletes to take the seats that Tracy and I had worked and hoped so hard for all year (see any of my writing from 2015 for thoughts on messing up the NSR). But, it was a long term decision, not a short term one, and there was always still a small chance that the pair would go to Trials at the end of the summer, and it was possible I would be ready by August.
Even after taking the immediacy out of my recovery process, things got worse before they got better. Nothing I was doing was helping me to feel better, or stronger, and no one could put a finger on what it was that was causing my pain. With back pain there are so many major players in the system, and things are all so deeply connected, it can be an endless blame loop between discs, hips, glutes, hip flexors, abdominals, nerves, bones, and everything else that exists between your neck and your knees. I was totally lost. I had pain, but there wasn’t a body part I could work on to make the pain go away. For someone whose life is a system of doing A to achieve B, this was not a satisfactory way for me to spend my summer.
And, cue the mental part of this.
I started thinking about all the things I could have done or should have to done to avoid getting injured. I started thinking about how I would probably never be healthy again, and be in pain for the rest of my life. I started thinking about how I probably had hip cancer or diabetes or some radically obscure condition that my PT and team doctor weren’t seeing and I was probably going to die because I wasn’t getting better right away. I thought about how all I was was just another cliche older athlete who was going to struggle to stay viable and then fade out without getting to leave rowing on my own terms. I thought about how much I let Tracy, and my coaches, and all of my teammates down, and this was my fault. And I thought, a lot: why now?
The twist here is that just like I’ll probably never know for sure if it was my hips that made my back go, or the other way around: I’ll probably never know for sure if it was my body that made my brain go…or if it was the other way around. There is absolutely a huge mental component to everything that happened this spring and summer, and even taking the season off, I am still recovering and working through a lot of it to get back to a state of general homeostasis. In all truth, there were some parts of 2017 outside of the boat that were really painful, and I made the choice to keep them to myself for a long time before sharing them with my family, teammates and coaches. I know now that that emotional compression took a huge toll on me and carried over in to 2018. Does emotional stress cause injury? It certainly doesn’t help.
So there was a while that wasn’t great. I cried a lot, just kind of whenever, even when I wasn’t thinking about rowing or being injured. And then, after a while, it was better. I found a cross training routine that worked to keep me focused, and I spent a lot of time confiding in, and listening to, the handful of other athletes who were also injured this summer. I stopped Googling things about hip pain. Instead, I started learning as much as I could about strength and mobility training, and applying it to my body and my experience. When I could, I started lifting — a lot. It was a gym bro’s dream: every day was skipping leg day. My arms have never looked better. The anxiety I was feeling about my future and my career didn’t go away completely, and I still had some days that were better than others, but I started to be more optimistic more of the time, and came to realize a few things.
- This is the first time I’ve taken any sort of extended break from training and competition since I started rowing in 2002. The longest break I have taken to date was the three months of sporadic/easy training I did after London. I took no time off after Beijing, and only a few weeks off after Rio. Most other rowing athletes who compete in multiple Games build rest into their training plans with the goal of longevity in mind. I never, ever thought I would be training as long as I have been, so building in rest was never a consideration. I have always thought I was training through the next Olympics and then moving on. I can’t be mad at my body for holding up as long as it has, and then finally asking for a break before we take a run at Tokyo. I’ve asked so much of it, and have been relentless for so long, a break is well-deserved at this point.
- The timing isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either. Racing in 2017 on home water was an absolute thrill and I am so pleased I got to do that. Getting acquainted with the group of women who will make up the 2020 squad has also been important over the past eighteen months. But this year is not the year to force things, or to rush. Next year is important, and the year after that is the big one. If I have to take a season to get myself right for qualification and the Games, this is the time to do it.
- There is no guarantee that I will make it back. But there is a chance that if I do, what I have learned about my personal strengths and weaknesses as an athlete will help me to be stronger and faster than I have ever been. And that. is. fucking. awesome. I am a subscriber to the belief that we are never done learning and growing as athletes as long as we are training and competing. No one knows it all–not about their sport, their teammates or themselves. I never thought I knew it all, but I didn’t expect to get schooled in personal anatomy and physiology the way I have this year. You can’t always guess where your challenges will come from, or how your depth and breadth of experience will grow over a given season. I had hoped it would be something nice and boring like more racing experience in the pair, but instead I got “mysterious back pain”. Nothing to do about that except learn as much as I can and become excellent at managing my body, my movement, and how I maintain those things.
- There are contributing factors that have been a part of my athletic experience that I probably could have addressed or considered more seriously, sooner. Such as: my right leg has always been significantly stronger and more stable than my left; I have no glutes and wouldn’t know how to use them if I did; random unexplained left knee pain; “Sunday morning back tightness” I would get without fail every Sunday around 8am if I didn’t go for a row; no discernible arch in my left foot; and so on. These are things I knew, and other people knew, but everything worked well enough for so long, there was no reason to majorly overhaul any of them. The truth is I got away with a lot of this stuff, until I didn’t. Now I have the time, the patience and the motivation to look at a lot of these issues and hopefully correct them. I wasn’t ready or prepared to do what I needed to do before. Now I am.
Now that the summer is over and I am steadily building back in to full time rowing training, as tempting as it is, I don’t feel like this year has been a loss. It didn’t go as planned, but I don’t feel like I wasted it, either, because for better or for worse, this was a new and unexpected experience that I have (fingers crossed) survived, and have now added to my Rowing Bingo board. Check. I would prefer not to have this be a recurring part of my rowing experience, but if it is, the next challenge will be having the self awareness and grace to acknowledge when my body is really done with rowing, even if it’s before my heart is ready. I am going to be relying on a lot of people to help me stay strong over the next several months, and it is not going to be easy (see: using your glutes if you don’t have any), but a spicy new challenge can’t be all bad for someone who might be getting a little too comfortable in her old routine.
So while the US women are on the hunt for medals in Bulgaria, I’m back to training on my own in Chula Vista for the rest of the fall. Just me, my single, and a few friends in the weight room. A good thing too, because my erg splits are terrible at the moment (see: skipping leg day). Good thing I have until January to get those numbers back where they should be.
Good luck to all my women living their Best Bulgarian Dreams.