Sarah Hammer-Kroening celebrates during the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on August 16, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
When you know better, you do better. For an athlete’s health and performance, it can be a huge advantage.
“What I know now and what I knew then, I would have done things differently,” handball player Laura Ryan Coenen said about life as a three-time Olympian.
One of those lessons is as simple as daily stretching. “I wish I had started stretching earlier [in life] — I wouldn’t be as sore now,” explained the veteran Olympian. “You can get ahead of all the aches and pains in your body if people would just stretch a little, 10-15 minutes a day. I can tell when I don’t do it and how my body feels different.”
And she’s not alone.
Sarah Hammer-Kroening, a three-time Olympian and four-time silver medalist realized a great many things after she moved on from her career as a track cyclist. Most of the lessons were about health and wellness.
Hammer-Kroening is America’s most decorated cycling track athlete, who officially retired from competition in 2017. She originally “left” the sport of cycling in 2003, but after watching the Athens Olympics on TV in 2004 she was inspired to make a comeback and work toward an Olympic team.
Going into her first Games in 2008 as a world champion, the spotlight was something she wasn’t prepared for. She placed fifth in her first event, the individual pursuit, but crashed out in the points race — breaking her collarbone and forcing her into a rest and recovery period.
“Having that high pressure pretty much my whole adult life,” she revealed, “I don’t think I realized how mentally exhausting that it was — and the toll it took on me — until after I retired.”
The injuries were something she would continue to deal with throughout her career. But it was the mental side of the sport that was new to her. “It was quite an adjustment. I went through some depression, the after-the-Games slump,” Hammer-Kroening said. “I felt a sort of new thing, like, well now who am I if I don’t have this? And that was something that I had to come to terms with.”
What helped was the passing of time and having a professional to talk with.
For Ryan Coenen, who competed at three consecutive Games starting in 1988, mental health awareness has come a long way. “It’s definitely a priority, which is different from back then.”
One of the things she thinks contributed to the shift is having more people talking about their battles with mental health, like the most decorated Olympian of all time, swimmer Michael Phelps. “It makes it less taboo and a part of everyone’s training. Instead of, oh my God I had anxiety my whole career, and now [that I’m retiring], I have to deal with it.”
In addition to finding someone to talk to, a good lesson in dealing with anxiety is to find something that calms you, Ryan Coenen said. What that thing is will be different for everyone, she said: “Maybe it’s getting away from your phone, or for others, it might be knitting or walking.”
“It’s important for the mental aspect — as well as the physical — that we have good trainers to help us.” She is someone who knows all too well after having had three shoulder surgeries. As professional athletes, “you want to get back to playing as quickly as you can, but it’s a delicate balance of not going in too soon because you’re afraid of losing your spot,” she said.
Hammer-Kroening said that for her, injuries were her biggest fear. The result is either you’re out of the action for a while or you’re done for good. “And it’s not like you can go on short-term disability,” she said. “So a lot of times we push through things that maybe we shouldn’t because we know that is what we have to do.”
Her crash in Beijing led to terrible back pain that followed her through Rio. It eventually led her to find more help with her physical well-being.
While living and training in Colorado Springs, she worked with providers at UCHealth, the Official Hospital of the Colorado Springs U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. Her caregivers were able to help her get back to optimum shape.
“Once I was able to work with the doctors and staff, it just got incredibly better,” she remembered. Before that, she was so fearful of doing anything that would make it worse that she ended up weakening the muscles surrounding her back. So talking to the therapists about what was going on and what strengthening work would help put her on the road to recovery.
“I have nothing but good things to say about all the doctors and surgeons who took care of me at UCHealth. And all the hospital staff.”
The knowledge she gained from that experience helped prepare her for the role that came next — one that she feels super lucky to have. “My official title is associate director of high performance for the Paralympic Cycling Team,” Hammer-Kroening said about the job that will take her to Tokyo next month for the Paralympic Games. “In a nutshell, I look across the board of how do we make our team fast and winning medals, so whether that’s working with their coaches to equipment to mental health providers, dietitians, strength training, recovery…just anything that goes into how do we have a successful team.”
One of the things she learned that she likes to share with her athletes to help them be successful is that “champions aren’t made on the days you feel great. It’s those days that you don’t want to get out of bed and you don’t want to go hard. It’s not just about showing up. It’s about making sure you always put in one hundred percent.”