Elana Meyers Taylor: 'I Was Sidelined By An Invisible Injury'
Last season, Olympic silver medalist Elana Meyers Taylor won an historic gold medal -- the first world championship title in women's bobsled for the United States. But scary concussion symptoms from an earlier crash soon surfaced, and everything changed. After extensive rehab, she's back and looking to defend her world title this week. She told us what the past year has been like.
We were flying.
My brakeman, Cherrelle Garrett, and I were traveling faster than any female team in history on the track in Konigssee, Germany, in January 2014. My bobsled was a 75-mile-per-hour missile on ice.
Coming down the first couple of curves, I was still building speed, going much faster than I ever had before. I remember coming out of a sharp turn -- a "kreisel" in bobsled speak -- and approaching the two smaller curves ahead. Our 380-pound sled went airborne on the second bend, crashing to the ice before I had time to tuck my head under the front, like we've been trained. Amazingly, we popped back up on the following curve, allowing us to finish and place sixth overall.
As I exited the battered bobsled, my adrenaline still racing, people were yelling at me. "Get to the podium!" But even then I knew something was wrong. I felt foggy, nauseous, disoriented. It was an out-of-body experience. So we skipped the award ceremony and headed straight back to the hotel to see a doctor.
He didn't use the word "concussion," but in a sport in which head injuries are common, I didn't need an official diagnosis. I've described bobsledding (or sliding, as we like to call it) as being put in a garbage can and kicked down a rocky hill: Concussions are a reality in my world.
I thought my season might be over -- and maybe even my career.Elana Meyers Taylor
After being evaluated, all I wanted to do was rest -- to sleep off my headache and the disappointment of a great run gone bad. Instead the doctor told me I had to stay awake for at least a few hours, which is standard concussion protocol. Cherrelle, who escaped the crash with minor back injuries, helped entertain me by talking about the cute pink bags awarded to the winners that day. "We should have had those pink purses!" she joked, and I laughed right along with her.
I wasn't scared at the time. Even when trainers woke me up periodically throughout the night to make sure I was conscious, I considered it a step toward recovery. It wasn't until they cleared me to slide again four days later that the fear and uncertainty began to creep in. I felt OK, but my memory and concentration were off. It was enough to make me a bit gun-shy, knowing all too well the consequences of a split-second mistake.
I relied on my feel as a driver in the days and weeks ahead, though -- and I won a world championship title less than a month after that high-speed crash. My concussion worries were behind me, or so I thought.
I headed into the offseason on a high, ready to start a two-month summer internship with the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland. Instead of rattling around in a sled during training runs, I was at a desk for eight hours each day before going to the gym. Ironically, it was the time sitting in front of a computer screen that triggered the return of my concussion symptoms. The headaches were terrible and constant.
Traditionally, the treatment for a concussion has been to stare at a wall and wait for your brain to heal itself. Don't watch TV, don't read a book, don't look at your phone and definitely don't train. It's a torturous protocol for an athlete.
But there was a place called Cerebrum Health Centers near my home in Georgia that offered another option: brain rehab. I spent a week there after returning home from Switzerland, working on eye tracking, responding to stimuli and improving my reaction times.
My symptoms went away, and again, I thought I was out of the woods. But when I got back to sliding in October, my reactions were slow and my practice runs shaky. I took another knock to the head in November during a World Cup stop in Altenberg, Germany -- one of the toughest tracks in the world -- and then the headaches returned. Along with my coaches and my husband, fellow bobsledder Nic Taylor, I decided to return home from Europe in early December for another stint at Cerebrum.
I was devastated. There was nothing I wanted more than to slide down that hill. When that opportunity is taken away, it feels like your heart is being ripped out. I thought my season might be over -- and maybe even my career. I'm a world-champion athlete, sidelined by an invisible injury.
It's hard to describe what it's like to live with a concussion. You want to enjoy things like you used to, but you can't. You wake up in the morning and wonder how you're going to feel that day: What will my reactions be like? Will I have a headache? Will I have to triple check to see if I unplugged the flat iron?
It was a scary, uncertain time. But then I had a breakthrough.
In mid-December I finished my last treatments, and was cleared to train again. I was extremely relieved. But it's one thing to be cleared by a neurologist, and another thing to actually get behind a bobsled. Trusting that my reaction time would be there and that everything was going to be OK was really hard. And bobsled is a violent sport in which you take hits to the head on a regular basis. I was terrified I'd take a hit and be sidelined again.
So now I take a lot fewer trips down in a sled -- and if I'm tired or something doesn't feel right, I make sure not to go again. It's too dangerous to push through it. I have a new helmet from a company called D Helmets that helps reduce concussion impact, and extra padding in my sled. I'm also very careful with my nutrition, even more so than ever before. I'm gluten-free, sugar-free and dairy-free, and super strict about it. I've noticed when I eat any of those foods, my head feels awful.
And I have, without a doubt, a new perspective. I had gotten into the mindset of wanting to win and wanting to dominate every race. And of course I still want to win, but now it's just being thankful for every day I get to be out on the ice. Every day I get to slide is a good day. If I wake up in the morning and I don't have a headache and I get to go down the track, it's pretty amazing.
Right now I'm cleared only for specific tracks -- the ones that are safer and have less vibration to them. The fear is still there: I've only been sliding for three weeks and it's going to still be there. I feel a little rusty, and I may always have some fear.
On Friday, I'll compete again to defend my world title. My goal is simple: to put together four solid runs. That's the only thing I can really ask for at this point. I'd love to repeat as world champion, and if I can put together the four runs I'm capable of I know I'll win another world championship. But win, lose or draw, if I'm out there, putting together the best runs I can, I'm happy.