“If I sprinkled you with salt, you would actually be a pretzel” – quote from a GB Rowing team member when we were on our flight to New Zealand last week. She had not quite grasped quite how bendy I was and how it was an advantage when you are sat on a plane for two lots of 12hours! Yes it is a bit of a turn around that I was on a plane to NZ considering I retired owing to cardiac problems in March this year. Quite scary that in a week I will hopefully be racing in the World Championships final. Cutting a very long story short – I was doing “exercise for health”, very low intensity exercise on the instruction of my cardiologist, changed the drugs I was taking and gradually by the middle of the summer my heart problems started to settle. I slowly changed the intensity I was working at and eventually it could be called training rather than exercise. I considered maybe I could try to return to rowing next year or the 2012 year and decided to meet with my team manager. The night before I got an on indoor rowing machine and despite having not been on one in months I went as quick as I did before I was ill... so the meeting soon turned to talking about having a bash at this years World Champs but with no pressure to win, just the target of making the final (top 6). I saw this not as a case of how quick I was going now but more a sign of how long my heart had been sick for while I was trying to train. I had to win a selection race to gain my seat back in the boat, the race was my 9th time back in a boat so wasn’t the most technical row to be fair! My arrhythmia is still there and I have to be respectful of it. There was a day on training camp where it decided it was going to beat at 160bpm when I was sat still just as I was about to get in the boat so it was a quick return to the hotel and sleep for the rest of the morning and then I could do some light training in the afternoon. I am part of international drugs testing and I have to give UK Anti-Doping my exact location for one hour everyday of the year so they can carry out random drugs testing. It is something every athlete who wins an international medal is part of and although a bind to do it is important (if you miss a test then you can be banned from competition) and I want to know that I am competing with athletes who are there because they are the best in the country and not because they are taking performance enhancing drugs. GB Rowing asked me to stay on the programme just in case I got better and thankfully I did as if you come off it you then have to be on it again for 6months before you can compete.
Returning to rowing was not intentional at all. When I retired I started looking for jobs and the week before I saw my team manager I was successful at interview for a Public Health Specialist post back in the NHS. I put my career on hold the year before Beijing and I have desperately missed the stimulation of work. I have struck lucky again with a flexible Director of Public Health who is happy for me to work from home if I need to on those days when my body is not playing the game. I will have to make some difficult decisions post World champs if it goes well as training, working full time and finishing my neuroscience post grad is not going to be possible! I am desperate to get on with my career but there is a strong pull to a home Olympics in 2012.
I am not on a full training programme as clearly you can not throw someone like me straight back in the weights room or increase the training too quickly as I will break! Rowing is fully integrated so Olympic and Paralympic teams are here racing at the same World Champs. We are about 80 people (a bit smaller than usual) including coaches, boatmen, medical staff, physiologists and management. There are four physios out here with us and although I work with the Paralympic rowing physio near on every week day back in the UK the others have not seen me much and always are amused at my flexibility. We now have a different physio to the one I worked with for the two years prior to Beijing but thankfully this one has come from GB Swimming and although mainly worked with the Olympic team he had experience of a swimmer in the Paralympic team who had EDS (she went on to win Silver in Sydney Paralympics).
My hypermobility actually helps me in rowing.... I am only small (I struggle to build big muscles as my joints struggle lifting weights) and I have very short arms for a rower. The ability to extend my shoulders forward further than normal means I have a longer stroke (distance the blade is in the water) than I should be able to, plus the fact I can bend so far over the strap around my chest also gives me an advantage... although I am not actually sure that is such a good one physiologically for me in my spine longer term and why I will not row socially when I finish racing internationally. I am disadvantaged in other ways as my core stability is poor, very prone to injury and I can not push through my legs as some of my competition can. It is becoming the sport for those with hypermobility as the women who is ranked 3rd in the country has EDS!
This World Champs will not be about winning. I have only been back in the squad for three months and in that time I have had an op which didn’t heal too well so I had three infections which meant time out of training. At the moment I am carrying a nice bit of costochondritis, a possible rib stress fracture (very common in rowing) plus a very unhappy shoulder joint and neck. I am far from race fit and I am not doing much training out here either just to try to get through the next week! Siemens sponsors the team and they have given the team what looks like a docking system for a laptop but it turns the laptop into an ultrasound! So the Dr has been keeping a close eye on my ribs and shoulder. Really this year it is about turning up, hopefully making the final and proving to myself I have not let my heart problems beat me – something I really struggled with after I retired in March. 2010 worlds are very late in the year to account for the seasons here in NZ so I am trying to view this Worlds as a warm up race to next years Worlds.... the all important Olympic qualifying World Champs!
You can follow racing at www.worldrowing.com
and then the link for live race viewer... although you would need to be up at silly o’clock in the morning owing to what will be a 13hour time difference as of clock change this weekend. My category is WAS1X (stands for women’s arms only (WAS) single sculls (1X), to be fair the media come out with all sorts of inaccuracies so who knows what the commentary will be like!