It was a phone call that Brittany Bowe was expecting, but it still came as a surprise when her phone started ringing: Hockey superstar Sidney Crosby was on the other end of the line.
The four-time world champion Bowe, a long track speedskating Olympian in Sochi in 2014 and the world-record holder women’s 1,000-meter, needed advice. She was frustrated as she tried to work to recover from a concussion, and Crosby had some sage advice to pass on to her.
“I was pleasantly surprised that somebody of his stature would take the time to call,” a humble Bowe told reporters at the Team USA Media Summit in September. “We probably chatted for 45 minutes. We had a lot of the same symptoms and he told me… that (because) you really can’t see (the injury) you have to listen to yourself and listen to your body. And – don’t let anyone force you to do anything that you don’t feel comfortable with.”
Bowe heard Crosby – the NHL star who himself has missed over 100 games due to concussions in his career – loud and clear. She had first been injured in July of 2016, and after competing for part of 2016-17 season and gearing up for world championships to be held in February 2017, she had a fainting episode that brought her back to square one: She wasn’t completely over the concussion symptoms that she had worked for the months to overcome.
“It’s been” – Bowe paused – “the longest and most trying, the most challenging obstacle that I’ve had to face,” she said in describing the last 16 months. “But it is what it is. Here we are now.”
Where Bowe is now is back. Back on the ice, back practicing and training and competing, and still with her eyes set on the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 in February and – she hopes – an Olympic medal.
“(There is) still the expectation of leaving South Korea with a medal,” she said at the media summit. “Definitely.”
The Long Road, No… Long Track Back
As recently as this spring, that goal of competing in PyeongChang seemed like a long shot – perhaps even a miracle. Her July 2016 concussion had a much longer lasting impact on her body than she knew it would initially, and when the symptoms came back in December of last year, she knew she had to dig in for the long haul. And not just for her skating, but also for her overall health and well-being.
“One of the main things I have said through this period is that it’s been both a challenge and a blessing… We’ve taken it day by day,” said Brittany’s mom, Debbie Bowe. During Brittany’s recovery, Debbie took on the role of chief caretaker for her daughter as she split time between their home in Florida, the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, where much of the speedskating community lives and trains.
“As dark as things can get, I need my kids to see the light,” Debbie explained to TeamUSA.org. “There wasn’t a lot of light for Brittany from what she was seeing for a period of time. There was only the blessing in getting to wake up every morning and face the day.”
Things were looking up for Bowe after initially sustaining her concussion. Last fall she was feeling better and better, and when the world cup season came around, she entered the fourth event of the season in Heerenveen, Netherlands. She won the bronze medal there in the 1,000-meter.
In the days and weeks after, however, is when the symptoms returned and Bowe made the tough decision to hang up her skates for the rest of the season: She needed to get healthy.
“I was so upset because I had been battling with this for almost six months up to that point and finally thinking that I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and then it smacked me in the face again… everything gets stripped away from you that you know,” she said. “Skating, racing, competing… all of a sudden I’m stuck in limbo. It’s like, ‘What’s my identity now if it’s not skating?’ Because I worked so hard for this one thing for so long and obviously all of us as athletes are going to face that at one time or another. I was just hoping that wasn’t my time.”
Time moved frustratingly slow as Bowe tried to be patient with her recovery. She began 2017 in Florida with her family for nearly two months, then went to Colorado Springs for evaluations for a couple of weeks and moved back to Salt Lake City for three months to finish the process. Debbie followed her daughter west.
“There was self-doubt at times… I saw it,” Debbie Bowe said. “The thing that I thought was impressive was that it didn’t last. In any healthy environment you have to acknowledge what you’re feeling, how you’re feeling and when you’re feeling it. That’s one thing that she was able to express her concerns, her sadness, her frustrations, her hope…
“I really saw it as her wanting to get better first as a person. I remember her saying, ‘Mom, I just want to have a good belly laugh again.’ For me, that was a happy-sad moment; it brought contentment to me that she knew she wanted to get better first for herself and then as an athlete.”
The Little Things – With Big Goals
Bowe is undoubtedly one of the best and fastest speedskaters of her generation. Prior to a serious career as a college basketball player – she played at Florida Atlantic for four years – she also was an elite inline skater, winning world medals and (eventually) setting the stage for her on-ice speedskating career.
She won her first speedskating world medal in Sochi in 2013, then – after a disappointing 2014 Winter Olympics for Team USA as a whole – collected eight more pieces of hardware from the world championships, including those four golds earned in 2015 and ’16.
As the success continued to pour in, PyeongChang and 2018 became more and more of a rallying cry not only for Bowe but for the rest of a U.S. team that felt as though it didn’t show the world what it was capable of during the Sochi Games. South Korea would be a moment of redemption, and Bowe was hoping she’d be one of the skaters to lead such a surge.
Then came the concussion and the 16 months of uncertainty. At times Bowe had trouble being in rooms with lots of commotion, or places with too much light. Loud noises set her off, and days became less about her soaring splits on the ice and more about the searing pain between her eyes.
Recovery also became about the little moments meaning big things: Basic eye-motor tests, Brittany orientating her body to motion again, tracking with head motion and being able to stay balanced, all things she took advantage of prior.
It was in her first few weeks at home this winter that she and Debbie went for a weekend of yoga at the Amrit Yoga Institute in Florida, focusing on mindfulness and relaxation. Brittany would go back twice a week for the next month to continue the teachings. It was strange: Here was one of the fastest humans in the world and she was sitting on a mat, trying with all of her might to stay still – to find stillness.
“It was such a part of her healing,” Debbie said of the yoga. “Then when she got to Colorado Springs, she had this whole team that she was working with and everything was about the steps and the process… there was this whole holistic approach of, ‘How do we get you better?’”
A Better Bowe – And An Olympic Goal
This past weekend, back in Heerenveen 11 months after she made her initial comeback, Bowe had a fantastic weekend: She won the B Division of both the 500-meter and 1,000-meter. Her 1,000 time would have put her fourth overall. She was back – and happy to work her way in with the best in the world.
“I want to race for the top spot,” she said of moving up to the A Division in upcoming world cups, which include stops in Norway this coming weekend and Calgary, Alberta, and Salt Lake City in December prior to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
“When I moved out to Salt Lake City in 2010, my goal was to be on top of that Olympic podium,” Bowe said in September of a goal unchanged. “Everyone’s fighting for the same thing, so I just have to ask myself every day: ‘What am I doing more than what all these other people are doing?’”
She continued: “When I was 8 years old my inline skating coach said, ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.’ So I try and go into practice with that mindset every day, like, ‘Don’t just go through the motions; do everything the best that you can.’”
The process for Bowe, now 29, has been anything but perfect. She’s unbowed from all of it – as her name suggests.
“I wouldn’t say the expectations have lowered by any means, especially now that I’m back on the track,” she said of her Olympic expectations. “It’s me against the clock and I’m really happy with my progress and where I’m at right now.”
And Bowe has shown in the past she’s pretty good when it’s her against the clock. But, even better: Contentment with where she is right now – and the want for more in the months to come.