Thursday, 28 August 2014

Learning to dream...

Last weekend was the anniversary of my back injury and the emergency surgery which left me with a weak leg.  

As I look back over the 3 years - the initial hope I would recover fully, the dark place as I realised what I had lost, and the journey to finding a new me - and it seems incomprehensible that I could have gone from that to this. If anyone had told me, when I couldn't even lift an empty dinner plate, that one day I could become a world champion in an upper body power sport I would not have believed them.  It took the best part of a year to learn to Dream...
Endurance mountain biker to sprint kayaker in 3 years
My situation was far from unique
In my job as a physio I see people every day whose lives have changed in that they are no longer able to participate in activities they did before. Some have had dramatic accidents, but many have simple incidents, like me, that change their lives.  It doesn't matter how dramatic or how severe, the fact that you can't do something you used to take for granted starts to define your existence.  That's the trap... And you are the only one who can get yourself out of it.

Recently I was asked to give a "motivational speech" at a conference.  It made me think through what it was that got me out of the negative spiral and onto a positive one.  I am writing this down in case you know someone who is struggling as I did...

Having a life changing injury is just that - your life stops going in the direction you thought it would go - no one plans for not being able to walk or make coffee - it is a massive shock and your life can come tumbling around about you as the reality sets in that its never going to be the same again. 
Me prior to my injury- free to explore 
So how did I change from a broken endurance mountain biker in to a world champion para canoeist?? 

The acronym I like to use is to DREAM 
You have to have to be able to Dream to get yourself out of the dark place that you have found yourself in. You have to be able to dream because the reality is sometimes too hard. Things happen twice in the world, once in your head then again in real life so once you have dreamt about something you are half way there already! 

But how do you change a dream into reality? 

D - stands for Decision. It's so easy to focus on how much you think has been taken away that you forget about everything you still have. It wasn't until I Decided that even though my legs didn't work the same as they used to I still had my arms (and a whole lot more besides !) and in focusing on the positives there was no reason to stop my enjoyment of life.

There is always a choice on how you define yourself and the Decision about how you see your injury is ultimately yours. You can Decide to be a victim or you can decide you still have lots...

R - stands for Route. once you have decided that you have 'lots' instead of 'nothing' the next step is to find your new Route. If you keep on trying to navigate the path of your old life you will always be reminded of your injury and remain frustrated. I looked for opportunities to change things and embraced new challenges which played to my strengths, rather than those restricted by my weaknesses.  The fact that I found my route whilst volunteering makes me smile, but that's another blog... When I was asked if I wanted to try out for para canoe the obvious answer was no! After all I was 45, I wasn't fit anymore, I hate water, and I had never been in a canoe before. But it wasn't mountain biking, so it was a possible new Route and I said yes. 
as a beginner...
E - stands for Enthusiasm. Once you have decided that you want a new route, add a dollop of enthusiasm.  You can't expect to get good at something new without putting time into it and enthusiasm is infectious... After all, the more you put into something the more you get out and the more others will want to share the journey. When I started canoeing I read bout it, watched u tube videos and talked to knowledgeable people about it. My enthusiasm turned trepidation into genuine excitement as I learnt more, became more capable and began to realise this was the route I had been looking for (it's actually a great social sport as well as the competitive side!)

A - stands for Action. It's all very well reading, watching and talking about something, the next step is to put some real action behind it. You became proficient at your old activity through hours (probably years) of practise and proficiency in your new activity isn't going to happen overnight. I joined my local kayak club and spent hours and hours learning how to paddle. I realised that I needed to get stronger in a different way than I was before and so started going to the gym - again something I had never done on a regular basis. It was exciting seeing how my paddling body, with the correct input, started to change despite my age. My weedy cyclists arms soon bulked up and the empty dinner plate challenge soon became a thing of the past. I am now lifting my body weight with ease. Yes it took perseverance, and also patience, but gradually Action turned into results.! competing at the world championships
M - stands for Mentor. I cant stress enough how important this is. Navigating this journey is hard to get right on your own, so try to find someone you can trust to guide and motivate you through the process.  This is where Enthusiasm and Action are also key.  Your new Mentor(s) are likely to be people who didn't know you before and nobody will want to put time into you if you aren't putting effort in. 
I have been so lucky to find mentors for every aspect of my new sport, but it is two people that stepped in right from the beginning that have been key to my journey. Phil and Claire Gunney are both accomplished ex National paddlers and volunteer coaches at Wey Kayak Club. They took up the challenge of teaching me to paddle and since then they have assisted with every aspect of my training as well as becoming close friends. Their experience and knowledge of the world of kayaking has been invaluable. They have been there 100%of the way and have been there to cheer loudly when I get things right and to hold me up during moments of trauma and doubt.

I am not saying that anyone out there who has an injury should try to become world champion at a different sport, but I hope that you can see that it is possible to be defined by what you can do rather than what you can't - you just have to be able to dream......

Friday, 15 August 2014


Sorry this is a bit of a long one, grab yourself a cup of tea while I tell you about the Gold that very nearly wasn't!

Moscow regatta lake. (credit to JJ for photo)
I love an adventure, and heading to Moscow for the first time, to compete on the Olympic regatta course, turned out to be exactly that.  It was an impressive and interesting venue to hold the 2014 World Sprint Canoe Championships.  The regatta lake itself has a city skyline, iconic Olympic structures and, given the current political tensions, armed security guards everywhere.  I have to admit to arriving for my first practice paddle with a mixture of awe, apprehension and excitement.

Most of you will hopefully already know I came away with my first World Gold (having taken Silver in my first attempt the year before), but getting that win was some “adventure”.
YAAAAY! Gold!!

Warm up day – time to become a drama queen
The first 'challenge' was during my practice paddle. The start mechanism malfunctioned, thrusting my boat out of the water as I paddled over it. Going for an unplanned swim the day before my heat wasn't good mental preparation.  On the plus side I learnt (the hard way) how to get back in a boat in the middle of a lake (massive thanks to the GB K2 pair Johnny Boynton and Ed Rutherford for rescuing me), and it also proved the theory my coach had been telling me that on capsizing I really could float free from the bindings in my boat!
Warm up paddle

On the downside, it freaked me out a bit and the hull and the rudder were damaged so had to go to be fixed before my heat the next day. This prevented me from further practice before the most important race of my season.

Heats day – back to school…
The next day arrived and Harry (my boat) was back from the menders - polished and fixed, with a new rudder.  As I paddled away from the jetty for my heat something was very wrong. The boat wouldn't go in a straight line and pulled heavily to the right.  Initially I thought it was just me being unsettled after my “drama queen” capsize episode the day before. It wasn't, and there was absolutely no way I could paddle in my race without being disqualified for going into someone else’s lane.  I didn’t ask for this kind of adventure!

Racing my heat
(Because of my wonky leg and foot I paddle with the tiller bar offset. The boat menders had thought the offset was caused by the crash and had mistakenly corrected it.  They had been absolutely amazing getting it fixed for me, and it was my schoolgirl error in that I hadn't checked my boat properly that morning.  I hadn’t been sleeping well and chose a later start rather than getting to the lake early.)

Refusing to panic, I waited for my coach to find me on the lakeside and we spent a frantic (me – he is always calm!) 15 minutes trying to alter the rudder.  It wasn’t perfect but it would have to do and, with a few minutes to spare, I paddled to the start of the heat with no warm up. With more brute force than skill I thankfully managed to keep to my lane and even won my heat, putting me straight through to the final the following day.

Finals day – Take 1 – thunder and lightning
The following day my boat was running straight. I had also managed more than 4 hours sleep, so all was looking up J  That is until I had completed my land warm up, and was just about to get on the water.  Black clouds had been gathering, the wind picked up and suddenly a bolt of lighting shot out of the sky.  The lake was evacuated, leaving me standing there ready to race with no race ...

The storm arrived.. and the boats left
After the storm a new race time was announced.  I decided to eat early and then start the warm up process again.  Just after I finished eating a message came through saying that my race had been bought forward.  I looked down at my empty plate and full belly and instantly regretted eating!

My warm up began again, with more black clouds gathering.  I carried on my warm up, ignoring the howling wind, the marquee falling down around me, and the distant rumble of thunder.  Just as I was about to get on the water there was another bolt of lightening and the announcement came that all racing was cancelled for that day.
Yes it was windy

Finals day - Take 2 – GOLD (but only just)
We didn’t get confirmation of the revised times until the next morning. As I warmed up for the 4th time for my race (I had made the effort to get to the lake early this time for a pre warm up paddle;-)) I was glad of my 24 hour mountain bike race experience, which teaches you to concentrate on just the present. In fact my coach was concerned that I was too laid back, “You have a race today you know?"

I think I was half expecting it not to happen again, so when I finally got onto the lake I was a bit taken aback - its actually going to happen!! I was also suddenly aware of seeing armed guards every 20m or so round the lake - another interesting development. We didnt find out until later about the bomb scares!

The wind kept changing direction, but as I lined up for the start, finally something went my way - it became a “tail cross from the right” which, with my weak right leg, is my preferred direction.
Racing my Final

GO! Argh - what was happening??!! For some reason my right (weaker) leg wasn’t working in its usual way and my timing was completely out. This caused me to do a couple of massive wobbles, letting everyone pull ahead.  I had to draw strength and determination out from every part of my body.  I was so angry and a red mist came down as I kept focusing and refocusing on my leg to bring it back.  After what seemed like an eternity this worked and I could feel my rhythm returning.  The boat leveled out and I knew I was gaining on the boats in front, but I didn't have that far left to bring the race back. I dug deeper and mentally pushed the finish line further away to force me to aim for something in the distance, rather than a few feet away. I didn't hear the beeps as we crossed the line and really didn't have a clue who had won.  To be honest I no longer minded.  My Russian adventure was over.  It had been an exciting race and I had put absolutely everything in to fight right to the finish. I had nothing more I could have given.
pulling ahead just before the finish

After what seemed like hours the results flashed up on the big screen and I had won by a mere tenth of a second!!!!  In fact I had posted a PB (49.7 seconds), become the first woman para-canoeist to break the 50 second barrier in competition, and I had broken the world record that I had set in the Euros a few weeks earlier!!
win, world record, and 1st para woman under 50 seconds!!

Apparently I had also caused a little anxiety in the team GB camp – the coaches were very happy, but in a stressed 'that was mighty close' kind of way! "Great race Anne, but please don’t leave it so long next time, my heart can't take it!!"
National anthem and podium

So what next? - Lots to work on
At this stage last year I was competing with an injury and I was determined to get to this point with no 'excuses'. Clearly I am happy with the result, but Im probably happier that my years training went well. I missed only 1 training session due to 'illness or injury', and I have come on massively in all my targeted areas. A measure of this is that I dropped 5 seconds from last year’s world championships to this and I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by super skilled coaches and a great support team.
My Coach Griff

I am really excited about next year.  I have watched the video over and over and know I have lots of room to improve.  But first I’m going on holiday, for a proper old-fashioned cultural adventure, with not a kayak or gym or armed security guard in sight!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

5 Minutes of Fame

If I ever needed a reminder that fame and personal glory were short lived, this was exactly the put down I needed…

Just over a week ago some of you may have logged into your BBC Sport page to find an article on me on their front page right next to the latest headlines for the World Cup.  That was the day before I was due to race 200m in a straight(ish) line to retain my European gold. Apparently I even made the evening news and as a result was inundated with tweets and emails from people who had personal experiences similar to mine and felt moved enough to “find me”, wish me luck, share their personal pain and thank me for inspiring them. The night before a major race this was not the preparation I was supposed to be doing. But those who know me will understand that hearing that I had helped others cope with their personal trauma was perfect for me to go into race day feeling on top of the world.
being filmed doing chin ups
The BBC interview and filming itself had taken place a few weeks prior. It had been an utterly bonkers day – a camera pointed at your grimacing face while you struggle to do chin ups; and a launch boat plus 'film crew' following you for an entire session on the water, forcing you to struggle to keep “looking focused” for the whole time!!

some of the tweets..
I was mildly curious about how the article would turn out, especially when Jenna, the journalist, admitted that the people at BBC liked me because they thought I was inspiring but also a bit bonkers! For those of you who haven’t read it the link is here…

The race lake itself was about as bad as it could have been.  It was rough and windy – in fact if I could have specified a set of weather conditions that I really don’t like, one that plays against my physical weakness and lack of stability, then this was exactly it. I didn’t care. Knowing that so many people were behind me was such a fantastic feeling and I just couldn't stop smiling.  One of my competitors tried to put me off (I do find people playing psych games funny) but what she didn’t know was that my ‘race’ was already won. I did also happen to win the timed event, and was absolutely thrilled to regain my European title in a world record time (woo hoo!!).
at the finish line

Again my social media erupted and I wondered how celebrities cope with all of this ... I kept getting stopped by people asking me to sign their shirts or take a selfie with them. I was quite thankful when I was taken into the closed off area to wait for my medal ceremony. The weather was so severe that the ceremony dragged on with regular delays. I was starving and also noticed how pale one of my team mates looked… “I'm just so hungry”, he said.  Looking over at my parents in the stand I suddenly realised I might be able to help.

"Mum do you have any of your home made biscuits?" I knew Mum never travels without her homemade ginger and marmalade shortbreads and, true to form, she handed me a massive tub, full to the brim.

Mums famous biscuits

Back at the medal ceremony I handed out Mums biscuits to all sheltering from the rain.  German Officials in their finery initially refused but little by little more and more people succumbed, "mmmmm wow! These are incredible!!!” The Mayor of Brandenburg, big wigs from the international Paralympic committee and international canoe federation all tucking enthusiastically into Mums biscuits!

The next day, back at the race arena, I was stopped by two men. So what was it to be, I thought, autograph or selfie?  In stilted English one asked, "I have heard about your Mothers biscuits ... is she still here so I could taste zem please?”

I burst out laughing. Front page of BBC Sports, European Gold and world record and to these German men I was just the daughter of the woman who makes amazing biscuits, which is precisely how it should be!
European gold!

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Thursday, 12 June 2014

New Shoes and Boats

Today I tried to buy some new shoes. Yes, I'm a girl and I like shoes, so what's new?!  Much to my dismay I have spent the last 3 years living in boots and trainers and I would love something more 'girly' to wear... So off to the shops it was. Pair after pair I try on, I stand up, try to walk, shake my head and sit down. The shop assistant looks up at me while surrounded by open shoe boxes and tissue paper - she is trying to smile but I can tell she is crying inside. My criteria, I thought, was fairly simple. All I want is a pair of shoes that don't "wobble when I walk". Oh, and they have to look fabulous! 
This is as exciting as my shoes get!

Sounds easy eh? But ever since my back injury and resulting leg weakness I've been unable to wear even the smallest heel without falling over - much to the amusement of my kids...

I've had much the same problem with boats - not standing up and falling over (well, not too often;-)), but you know what I mean. One of my main training goals this season has been to improve my stability in the boat - to minimise the wobbling as I paddle and to allow me to paddle in skinnier (ie faster) boats. 

This has involved input from the whole team of experts in the GB Paracanoe Program. I've been corrected by technical coaches and treated by physios with the help of strength and conditioning gurus, not to mention clever boat adaptations to compensate for the lack of feeling and control in my right leg - making me more 'at one' with the boat. 

So with no luck on the "new shoe" front it was with huge excitement that I was finally able to paddle the mark3 Plastex para canoe - (the faster but more unpredictable version of my much loved Pippa.) without falling in- yippee!!

Opening the bag of the new boat made me smile from ear to ear. It wasnt a shoe box containing jimmy choos and I may not be able to wear those beautiful, sleek shoes with a skinny heal anyway, but I can absolutely paddle a beautiful, sleek, skinny kayak.  What's really exciting is that ahead of my final selection regatta for the world and European champs I have just posted a PB in my new kayak.
My new boat!!
Thank you to all involved who have worked so hard in helping me wobble less in my boat and also a really big thank you to Plastex for your commitment to making boats for para athletes and for  generously sponsoring me with a perfect boat. 

Now, if only I could find a high performance team to help me walk without a wobble and perhaps a glamorous shoe sponsor? ...;-)

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Chin ups and Eggs

I'm really happy that despite getting to an age that some folk have inadvertently fallen into a rut of familiarity, I'm still leaning skills, having adventures and experiencing new things.

One of the things I'm most excited about on my journey of being a team GB para canoeist  is the fact that I can now ........ do chin ups. Note the deliberate plural here :-)

This may not be a skill high up on many of your wish lists, but I've been trying unsuccessfully to do one for years.  In fact I can remember being turned away from the local gym club aged 10, despite being able to do passable headstand, because I failed the strength (ie chin up) test .
Me doing chin ups (ie more than 1!)
As a cyclist, chin ups were about as likely to happen - and as relevant - as me jumping over the moon, but when I started kayaking everyone said I had to be able to do chin ups - It's a kinda right of passage - something to do with getting strong arms, backs and shoulders I suppose.

In fact chin ups are so much of a way of life for kayakers that most of them can jump onto a bar and pop out hundreds while still chatting about their weekend. Many tie massive weights around their waists- (big enough to make my knees buckle)  and then they still manage several?!? Kayakers have even been known to do chin-ups for fun at parties...
Adding weights, like its not difficult enough!

Another new experience for me is eating eggs.  Now bear with me, egg eating may seem random and unrelated to my chin up success, but I wonder ?..... When I started on the journey changing from an endurance to a sprint athlete I had to get bigger and stronger. In order to achieve this my diet had to incorporate more protein - "Eat eggs" everyone said. This was going to be a massive challenge to manage because eggs make me feel sick- I've never been able to eat eggs, think about eggs or even sit next to someone eating eggs without feeling really nauseous. 
Yes! I can now eat eggs :-)
However, continuing the theme of 'embracing new experiences' I figured if I could become European champion in less than a year of kayaking then I could also conquer egg eating.

It's taken me 18 months of trying and I'm not sure which was harder, chin ups or egg eating but I'm happy to report that I can now do both.

I hasten to add that I can't do many of either (and never at the same time;-) ) nor do I particularly enjoy doing them and I definitely, categorically won't be doing either at parties !!