Bree Schaaf blog two
Training in the rain -- the track flooded but
luckily my spikes still had traction to sprint!

The phrase “When it rains, it pours” was spoken to me recently when I strained my adductor and wasn’t sure if I would be able to race in our 2012 U.S. National Team Trials.  Yes I’ve had a string of bad luck per se, but I refused to see it as having anything to do with weather analogies.  My simple reply was that it’s the reality of rehabbing a major surgery.  Part of the reason I am blogging for is to give the inside perspective on a major reality for Olympic athletes - injury. 

In September of 2011, after a summer of pain-filled training, I learned that the labrum in my left hip was torn and would need complicated surgical repair, with questionable outcome.  This injury is extremely common in bobsled, where our lives are spent squatting and sprinting, putting the hip in so much loaded flexion and extension that if you have an impingement of the bone (which 80% of the population does), eventually that labrum will tear. I chose to put off surgery and compete the full season in order to maintain my rank and sled allocation, looking forward to having it fixed right after world championships. 

Now that season… that was raining-gone-pouring.  An injury certainly does not magically get better if you decide to bobsled the hell out of it. Some injuries you can work hard to keep functioning, but this was a deterioration that affected performance more and more each week.  It was a vicious cycle of enduring pain only to under-perform my potential.  I thought constantly about the book My Losing Season by Pat Conroy.  It occurred to me that though I had accomplished what was thought impossible by qualifying a third U.S. sled for the 2010 Olympics and finishing 5th, that perhaps my greatest challenge yet would be redefining my sense of self in dealing with repeated failure.

Somehow, some way, every week I believed I could win.  It was quite incredible actually, having the audacity to believe in myself and get fired up to race week in and week out, only to be devastated when for one reason or another the results weren’t there.  If something isn’t working, you make a change.  I tried every different approach I could think of.  The problem is, when you are an intense competitor, losing can hurt so bad it starts to manifest physically, further deteriorating the body.  The week of last season’s world championships, the culmination of our season and a win I had rehearsed in my mind since the day the location was announced, I spent in the hospital with severe dehydration and abdominal pain.  It was the perfect worst ending to the most physically and emotionally draining season of my life. 

Needless to say, surgery didn’t provide an instant magical fix.  It was a grueling rehab underscored with the constant worry that I wouldn’t be ready in time for trials.  I ended up racing that trials race this year, it obviously wasn’t the first time I gutted something out in the name of competition.  But when two females are trying to accelerate a 180 kilo sled as fast as possible, it is extremely evident in the push time when one of them isn’t healthy.

The thing about high-level athletics is that there will always be something.  ALWAYS.  When you test the body’s limits day in and day out in the name of getting better, you live like you’re treading water with a weight belt, trying to make just enough positive gain to offset the random breakdowns pulling the body down. One thinks of Olympic athletes as the picture of health, but the reality is that of pushing your body to such extremes that you are constantly sick and hurt.

And so here I am, competing on America’s Cup, back where I started the beginning of my bobsled career five years ago.  It’s a chance to get not just my body, but my mind right again. Winning the races in Park City, Utah was an important step in repairing the thought process of competition while I finish off the rehab on my hip. It’s definitely roughing it – self-funding with a lot of extra grunt work – but it takes me back to all of the things that made me fall in love with this sport in the first place and took me to the Olympics in 2010.