Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Retirement

Top speed in my race boat was about 17 km /hour but today I'm aiming to go much, much faster ... Sprint kayaking wasn't scary or dangerous but my heart would beat really fast on the start line anyway.  Bizarrely this thought crosses my mind as I sit precariously on the top of a cinder cone volcano in Nicaragua, astride a wooden plank, staring down the 40 degree slope to the tiny backpacker bus far, far below...
Cerro Negro Nicaragua

Two weeks ago I announced my retirement from the GB Paracanoe team and immediately accepted an invitation from Simon, my husband, to join him on a work trip to Nicaragua. Simon travels a lot and for the last four years I have been so focused on that one single goal - getting to Rio - that spontaneous trips like this were unthinkable. So here I am, "boarding" on a live volcano?!    Am I nuts?! 
Staring down the 40 degree slope
My heart is beating just as fast as at the start of a race, but this time it's with pure fear as I prepare for my turn. Our safety briefing was minimal, "Is anyone allergic to bees? No? Good (!?) Speeds can reach over 90km/hour so you need to keep the board balanced otherwise you will topple over and it will hurt.... Don't EVER put your hands down and if you fall off, just roll...." The only items to protect me from the sharp volcano gravel and rock are a pair of poorly fitting safety goggles, a thin orange boiler suit, and a bandana over my mouth. 


Protective clothing!!

As I sit on my board waiting for my turn, I think back to the team up in Nottingham starting the Tokyo cycle. I know what they're going through and the sacrifices they have chosen to make in order to 'go' for another four years. Having reached as far as I could by winning gold in Rio, I have chosen to step away from elite sport and find new adventures. Knowing what it takes, I have absolute respect and admiration for those who have decided to carry on with an elite program. 
The Incredible GB Paracanoe Team In Brazil

Everything, and I mean everything I did in the last 4 years was a conscious decision based on a single quest, "Will this make my boat go faster". If it didn't fit this criteria then I simply didn't do it.


While I'm waiting, I start to think about the elite athlete 'rules' I'm 'breaking' by being here. Pretty much all of them! Holidays were called regeneration periods and had to be booked in the off-season. Regeneration preferably needed places which had a gym, proper nutrition, no diseases, no unsafe activities, no alcohol, etc. I start to chuckle as I make a mental list of all my transgressions. I'm sitting on top of a live volcano (I bounced here on the back of a dodgy open top truck) in the second poorest country in Central America. I had only a Coca Cola for 'breakfast' and I'm dehydrating rapidly in the heat. The  volcano boarding trip has a shot challenge prize and a beer and mojito reward (lunch?!?) on completion...

But it's not just holidays which were limited and I begin to wonder if people realise the huge amount of personal sacrifices elite athletes make every day in order to reach the top of their game. Once at the top it's even more ruthless as the expectation piles on more pressure and you know that the journey can end at any time, through being beaten or through injury. The risk is so high that you daren't do anything which might jeopardise achieving that one goal. I was fortunate to have had amazing support around me to get me to the top, and such luck that things fell into place at the right time .... the choices I felt I had to make to give me the best chance to succeed were really tough but these choices (along with my training) clearly worked! Although for me, the training was actually easier to deal with than the sacrifices I had to make! 

My Family.

I missed family holidays as regeneration periods don't usually coincide with school holidays. At home I would think about where I went or how I travelled to avoid people who might be infectious. I wouldn't go near anyone who sniffed or sneezed. This included distancing myself from my family if they turned up with a cold. I would often go to bed before my children in order to get enough sleep, I said no to my friend's invitations to parties and evening social events in order to optimise my recovery. I changed my diet and didn't eat or drink anything which didn't promote recovery or wasn't good for me. My take was that empty calories would only make me heavier not faster. I had to be wary about everything I put in or on my body, meticulously checking labels to make sure it wasn't contaminated with a banned substance.  And that's not to mention the loss of privacy, with every detail about me being recorded by the program on a daily basis, so the team around me could learn and adapt.  Nothing was spared and the team knew everything about me from the colour of my urine to the percentage of my fat.  Clearly it worked out for me - but looking back, it was incredibly tough. 

Gold
"Are you ready??" Oh no, It's my turn ... Help! I start off trying to go slowly but I rapidly gain speed and I soon realise I'm out of control. Keeping the board balanced when you have a wonky leg and asymmetrical butt cheeks is near enough impossible!!! Then, in a cloud of dust and debris, I start to slide sideways down the slope. Unable to stay straight, I fall and roll my way down the last section of the volcano. 


Just before I fell off......

Ouch!! this is going to hurt a lot tomorrow ... but I don't really mind - this is being alive!!!  As much as I loved being an elite athlete, I love being free even more. Free to do what ever I want, when I want, without worrying that I'm doing the wrong thing, letting someone down, wasting the Programme's efforts, or the public and sponsors' money. 


The 'After " shot

Having said all that, I am in total awe of all of our elite athletes, who sacrifice so much and live each day by strict rules so that they can train properly to be the very best that they can be. The reality is that being an elite athlete is incredibly hard and only the most dedicated and mentally strong, with the best support, make it to the top. 


Talent Pride and Determination.
So having reached the bottom of the volcano (ignoring my bumps and bruises), picking grit out of my ears and hair whilst drinking a cool beer and accepting a strange looking cookie without asking what's in it, I feel happy that I can now live 'normally' again and have new adventures.I want to wish all our athletes aiming for Tokyo the very best luck for your futures. You and your support teams are all - each and every one of you - AMAZING.

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