In recent years the topic of sport-related concussions has been amplified with the increase of research and media coverage, especially in sports like football. People who don’t know synchro don’t think that it’s much of a contact sport, but we all know that it definitely is, and we’ve had our fair share of concussion incidents. I have had two - each one happening during my two Olympic seasons. Although I’m certainly not an expert, I do want to share my concussion experience and hopefully help someone who may find themselves in a similar situation.
**Disclaimer: I am simply sharing my story from my perspective. I am not pointing fingers or putting blame on anyone. I am also not a medical professional so I recommend doing your own research and/or seeing a doctor if you have more questions about concussions.
We were in Beijing, China in December 2011 for the FINA World Trophy when my teammate’s heel slammed into the back of my head during a training session in the competition pool. The impact hurt quite a bit but I didn’t think much of it. However, by the end of that practice I started feeling pretty cloudy and felt like something was off. I was progressively feeling worse by the hour. Luckily we had our athletic trainer there and after evaluating me and calling our team doctor back home, she told my coach that I had a mild concussion and that competing could put me in serious danger.
As you can imagine, I was devastated. I was supposed to swim four programs, including the duet, and I wanted to show everyone that I deserved to be in the Olympic duet with Mary. But the doctors were relentless and I was allowed to compete in only one program but not the other three. After negotiating with the doctor, I swam the highlight routine because it was the easiest routine of the four. Because the combo requires ten people, we would have gotten a penalty if I didn’t swim. I ended up diving in, eggbeatering on the side for the entire routine, and joining in for the last lift and last arm stroke so that we didn’t get disqualified.
At this time I was sleeping approximately 15 hours a night. I stayed in a dark hotel room all day trying to have as little stimulation to my brain as possible, which is actually really hard! As soon as I would get to the pool to watch my team compete, I would immediately get a headache from the bright lights and loud music. When we returned to the U.S., I immediately saw the team doctor and took the Impact Test, which is a computerized test that evaluates your brain’s function with exercises related to response time, attention, and speed. The results showed that my brain function was not at all where it needed to be. I was out of the water for another week and after re-taking the test I was allowed to slowly start building up to a full practice. It took about three weeks for me to fully return to training and to be in pattern. Luckily I didn’t have any lasting effects from the impact.
After our combo swim at the 2011 World Trophy in Beijing.
Visiting the Great Wall of China a few days after my concussion.
One week after Anita and I were selected to be the 2016 Olympic Duet we were choreographing our free duet and during a partner lift Anita hit my head with her arm. It felt like a hard hit but I felt okay during the rest of the practice. That evening I went to class for my grad school program and that’s when I started to go downhill. Headache, nausea, foggiest, the whole bit. Since I had had a concussion before I immediately recognized the symptoms and called the team trainer. He said to come see him the next day, but I was still expected to be at practice in the morning even though I didn’t feel well.
The next day I took the Impact Test and it showed I had a mild concussion. I took two days off of practice and was told that I should try to get back in the water if I was feeling better. I was starting to feel better but still had a headache for the majority of the day. I was too nervous that I would lose my spot in the duet if I asked for more recovery time, but when I tried to get back into practice my headache would immediately get worse. I did that for a couple of days before I decided to take a stand and say that I was not okay. The team doctor advised that I needed a few more days off to recover. However, I felt pressure to return back to practice before I was ready, which stressed me out and probably didn’t help my recovery. I was told to go to the land training at the gym (at 7am, where there were bright lights and very loud music) and to watch practice from the pool deck. From my perspective, this was the opposite of what I should have been doing, since after a concussion you should have as little brain stimulation as possible. My headaches improved slightly but progress was slow, which was frustrating.
About two weeks after the initial impact I was told that I needed to sign a contract saying that if I was not back to full training by a certain date (about a week later) that the duet alternate would permanently take my spot in the Olympic duet. I was pretty hurt that instead of being given the proper time to heal, my spot was being threatened. We were still months away from the Olympics and I had no doubt that I would be 100% healthy in a few weeks’ time.
Long story short, I refused to sign the contract. About six weeks later we went to Italy for a training camp. During that camp I kept getting hit in the head in the same part in the free duet, probably 5 or 6 times in total. Every time I got hit, I would get a headache and start feeling the symptoms all over again. I’d get so nervous that I could have life-long damage to my brain, but at the same time...it was Olympic year! I had to keep training, and if I wasn’t able to, there was another person waiting in line to take my place! After each hit I would sort of shut down during practice and get quiet because in my head I was thinking of all the worst possible “what if” scenarios. However, instead of feeling supported I was made to feel guilty about my attitude. I spent most of that training camp trying to sleep as much as possible and calm my anxiety over the potential consequences of another concussion.
Eventually the hits to the head stopped. I still occasionally had headaches on that side of my head but I was lucky that I didn’t have long lasting effects. I did feel somewhat depressed that season even though it was Olympic year, and I still don’t know if that was due to residual effects of the concussion or other things that happened that season.
Right after Anita and I were named to the 2016 Olympic Duet.
Anita and I sightseeing during our training camp in Rome in January 2016.
What I learned:
Concussions are no joke. If not addressed, they can change your life forever, and not in a good way.
As an athlete, you need to communicate to your coach if you were hit in the head and if you are experiencing any symptoms like a headache, dizziness, nausea, fogginess or forgetfulness. Stand up for yourself if your coach isn’t taking you seriously.
As a coach, you need to make sure your athlete sees a medical professional and if possible, takes the Impact Test. The hard thing about concussions is that it’s all based on self-reported symptoms. Especially with younger athletes it can be hard to tell if they are really experiencing them or if they just want to get out of practice. The Impact Test is one way to get a semi-objective evaluation on whether something is wrong.
As hard as it is to have a swimmer out of the water, it’s crucial that they have enough time to allow their brain to heal. Rushing them back into the pool will only prolong the recovery process and could lead to long-term health issues.
Show the athlete some support! They probably want to be back at practice as much as you want them to! Making them feel like they’re letting you or the team down will only make them feel even worse when they’re already not feeling great.