The following story was shared with us by Eleni Kalimnios
I look back now, and I wish I had taken in that moment just a little longer. Standing on the podium at the Junior World Rowing Championships, with a silver medal around my neck. Up to that point, in my rowing career, I had experienced few setbacks. Sure, I had the occasional minor injury or illness, and sometimes I wound up with second place instead of taking the gold, but my formula for success was pretty simple at that point. Train harder = row faster. Looking back, maybe it was inevitable that, at some point, I would have to pay the price for that mentality.
Following that Junior Silver Medal, I was aiming to make the Senior Australian Rowing Team in 2014. To put myself in a position to make the next Olympic Games. They were my goals. Little did I know, my goals were about to be seriously altered.
The last straw came in the form of a deadlift in the gym. That is when you could say my back ‘went’. Following three-months of back pain, a handful of disappointing rowing performances, and a whole lot of frustration, I received a diagnosis. 2 bulging discs. Not ideal, but also not a death sentence for a rower. In actual fact, this injury is fairly common in rowers, who routinely put their spines under extreme pressure in the hope of getting faster, fitter and stronger. Five-ish months for recovery is generally what is expected. What eventuated, for me, was five-ish years. Yeah, didn’t see that coming.
I must admit that when my physiotherapist first explained the concept of ‘persistent pain’ to me, I was beyond sceptical. Not because I doubted her medical expertise, but because I did not consider myself a likely candidate for what was being described to me.
In fact, when she explained the role of the brain in my pain, I simply heard two things. ‘This is all in your head’ and ‘we’ve given up on you’. Of course, this isn’t what was actually said. Not even close. But I can assure you that is all that I heard.
Why? Well, at that time, I was a world-class elite rower. Quite frankly, I considered myself far too mentally strong to have fallen victim to an injury that had a psychological or cognitive component.
Interestingly, I was perfectly willing to accept that sport is ninety-percent mental, I was about to begin a combined Bachelor of Psychology and Human Physiology degree, and I was seeing a sport psychologist to deal with the effects of race anxiety on my physical performance. But my brain having anything to do with the never-relenting pain in my back? Yeah, no.
I continued to try and push past the pain. I continued to try and train like a ‘normal’ athlete. I continued to try and finish the training program. But I continued to have pain. Mostly, I continued to search for some alternate explanation for why I was experiencing so much pain from a relatively minor back injury. I continued to search for some sort of answer.
And about three years later, I found one. This debilitating pain wasn’t going anywhere. I had to quit the sport I loved. I was out of options.
Just six months off…
That decision pretty much broke me. Sport to me is like oxygen. I need it, it’s a part of me, I thrive off of it. In the two years before I injured my back, I had proven myself to be one of the best Junior rowers in the world. Yet, here I was, unable to overcome the pain in my back, unable to finish basic training sessions, and completely unable to trust my body. As an athlete particularly, that pretty much means you have nothing.
I told my coach, my medical team, my family and friends, and even myself, that I was taking six-months off. In reality, and under a few layers of denial, anger and disappointment, I think I knew there was a big possibility that I may never be able to return. Retirement at age 22. Yep, never saw that coming.
I probably don’t need to tell you how the next few months went.
At the point of taking a year off, I had experienced over three-years of chronic back pain. You would think that ceasing the activity that was causing the pain to persist in my back would be an easy one. You would think that if a specific movement was causing pain, and you were repeating that pain-inducing movement 2000 times every morning, it would be an easy decision to call it quits. It certainly wasn’t.
That year initially felt very long. But in the midst of this period of devastation, loss, and grief, something just a little big magical happened, and I began to see even just a glimmer of light at the end of this painful tunnel.
I started running.
I started to believe
For whatever reason, my back seemed to handle running, It seemed to loosen up the muscles that were constantly tight from the pain running down my back, it gave me relief from the nerve pain that seared down my leg, and it gave my head peace and clarity as I ran along beaches, climbed stairs, and navigated soccer ovals. Overtime, I grew confidence in my ability to run. I decided to join a run group, and ultimately take up Triathlon.
On one particular Saturday morning, racing stride for stride against the other triathletes, I realised I had made the right decision to stop rowing. Crossing the finishing line, it dawned on me that the only pain I was feeling was the lactic acid accumulating in my legs and my lungs struggling for breath. For the first time, in nearly four years at that point, I had pushed my body to its limits and it had simply just responded how it should. I had no thoughts of pain, no fear of pushing my body too far and flaring up my pain… I was overcome with the desire to win and nothing else. I hadn’t felt that in so long. And I loved it.
I started to believe a return to rowing may just be possible.
Over the next year or so I learned three main lessons. 1. I couldn’t be the athlete I was before my injury. But that didn’t automatically exclude being a better one. 2. I had to re-learn how to move my body without pain. And there was no ‘quick fix’ solution for this. It was going to take blood, sweat and (*a whole lot of of*) tears. 3. I would potentially have to manage chronic pain for the rest of my athletic career. That didn’t mean I couldn’t reach my goals.
After progressing through swimming and bike riding, and teaching my body to handle those sports, I started learning to squat in the gym again. A movement more aligned to rowing. I started just with a broom stick, putting my body through the movements, teaching my brain that I was safe. The first time I added weight to the bar I cried. I was scared. But slowly by slowly I added more. By the end of the year I was squatting 90kg without my pain flaring up. That year could be described in six words: one step forward, two steps back.
Far from a linear process
The backward steps were hard. Chronic pain rehab and management is far from a linear process. In that year off I fractured my foot from running too much. I learned my nervous system was pretty screwed up. I had pushed pain out of my head for too long and my ability to pick up peripheral injuries in my body was limited. I learned I needed more help when distinguishing if pain was simply a ‘flare up’ or an injury to be concerned about. I pulled my back on a squat and had three days in bed. I panicked I had re-injured my back all over again. I cried and grieved that I would never be the athlete I was before.
With each step back I found new tools to step forward and, by the end of just over a year off, I realised I was ready to try rowing again. With the support of some amazing medical professionals around me, a new coach, and my family, friends and team mates there to support my return, I decided to give it another shot.
I wasn’t scared of my pain anymore
Upon my return to rowing, one main thing had changed: I wasn’t scared of my pain anymore. I accepted that I might have pain, but it wasn’t necessarily dangerous. I could row through it without fear, and I had the tools and ability to manage any flare up I might have. That cognitive shift was life-changing.
And so, I got back in the boat. I wish, at this point, I could tell you that my return to the sport was fairly straight forward. That I had a simple year of training and I then made it back onto the Australian team, that was my plan anyway. But in reality, it took far longer than I had hoped for and I’m still working on it. What I underestimated was the damage and change that chronic pain does to your body. It changes the way you move, the way you recruit your muscles, your ability to read and listen to your body, and your capacity to trust and believe in yourself to perform. It took me a while to get my confidence back. In fact, I think I am just starting to. And it’s super exciting.
From my pain journey, I’ve learned to respect my body and that more is not always better. I’ve learned the lesson of quality over quantity. I better understand the importance or rest and recovery. I’ve learned to find joy in the journey, because you never know when your athletic career may be taken from you. I’ve been taught the hard lesson that some people are only there to witness your success, and will turn their back the minute you are not performing. Thus, I know the importance of having a team around you that you can trust and rely on. I’ve come to appreciate the importance of mental training, and the huge role your brain plays in sport, performance and everyday life. I’ve learned it’s ok to see a psychologist, and sometimes you need medication.
I’m training again
I’m training again for Olympic selection. And I love it. I have certainly found a new love for my sport. I wouldn’t say my back pain is ‘cured’, but I know my triggers now. I know my action plan for when a flare up happens, and I know how to read my body a lot better. Whilst my journey would probably have been far easier without chronic pain, I’ve learned a lot from the experience. I truly do believe that I am now a better, stronger and more resilient athlete for it.
I want to finish with this. I had some of the best medical staff in the world (literally) working with me when I first injured my back. I had some of the best psycho-education you can receive on chronic pain. I have a pain-threshold that is probably up there with some of the best athletes in the world. And there was nothing in the world that I wanted more than to make the Olympic Games and pursue my rowing career to its fullest. And I still couldn’t hack it. I still had to stop and start again.
Our brains are a complex and weird organ. And to suggest that that they play a significant role in chronic pain is an understatement. This DOES NOT MEAN it is ‘all in your head’, and it certainly does not imply that your experience of pain can be easily controlled with some positive thinking and a reality check. But it does mean that you can find ways to work around it and manage it. And that will take time. Just like when we injure any other muscle in the body, it takes time to rehab it. That’s all you’ve done. You’ve injured your brain. But you can teach it how to work properly again.
Neuroplasticity, it’ll be your new best friend.
You are stronger than you know
I hope that what you take from my journey is that recovery is possible. It takes an open-mind, a willingness to fail sometimes, some creativity, and a whole lot of patience. Most importantly, it will require you finding new ways to undertake old things and the openness to try new ones. This might mean seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist, attempting yoga, changing doctors, getting out of bed, or taking the dog for a walk. It might simply be accepting the pain, breathing through it, and learning that you can still accomplish things and reach goals with it there.
Recovery will require you to accept failure. Probably daily. Sometimes you will have a win, and other times you will fall. And you will fall hard. Your pain will blow up, your eyes will well with tears, and your voice may shake with fear. And that is scary, I get it. But you are stronger than you know, believe me. And so, if you fail, if your pain worsens, you don’t get the whole walk done, or the psych session opens up a whole can of worms you didn’t know was there… you will get up, brush yourself off, and try again.
Recovery is possible
In the wise words of Einstein ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ Chronic pain recovery means forming and reorganising new neural pathways… we have to learn some things again. We have to re-teach our brains that we are safe, that it doesn’t need to signal a pain response this time. That is the nature of the beast. And it takes time. But I encourage you to take a step back and admire how amazing is it that our brains have the ability to do that, to reorganise and fix itself.
Recovery is possible. And you have the courage to get through. How do I know this? Because if chronic pain has taught me one thing, it is that I am tougher than I thought I was. And you are too.
Eleni Kalimnios is an elite athlete with the Tasmanian Institute of Sport, accredited Behavioural Scientist, and qualified personal fitness trainer. Follow her journey on Instagram at @elenikalimnios, and her business page @recess.forthemind for any enquiries.