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To summarize, my situation is that I used to prioritize competing and learning more and more advanced gymnastics all the time even into my 30s, and doing my best to manage injuries that came up. Now, I am making the shift to prioritizing feeling physically healthy and enjoying my sport in a more relaxed manner in spite of how far I go or what skills I am doing. I bet a lot of you adult gymnasts reading have made that choice long ago, but for me this is a recent shift J
First things first. Of course gymnastics can lead to pain sometimes. It comes with the territory. Getting older doesn’t make that any easier. For me, the problem was that I found myself dealing with pain that prevented me from walking around even after the doctors said that I should have been healed long before (I needed a wheelchair to get through the airport a few different times) or from driving (holding the steering wheel hurt). So, the reason I got to that point was I went to the doctor (more than one actually) and got MRI of the ankle and the wrist (I’m blending them together a bit for this story, but their peak pain levels didn’t perfectly coincide).
Nothing was showing as wrong in the MRIs, and upon physical examination nothing was wrong according to the doctors. In fact, they were all pretty impressed my body looked as healthy as it did after all the years of competitive gymnastics! That was encouraging, but it didn’t help alleviate the pain I was dealing with. I could take pills to mask it, but I was scared at what would happen to my body if I kept that up. I was seeing a physical therapist, chiropractor and massage therapist who had always helped me before with any injuries I had in the past and they too weren’t sure why I was feeling so bad. So because I was medically ‘cleared’ to do anything I wanted in gymnastics ‘to tolerance’ I was thinking, well I will get stronger eventually or my body will get used to it and maybe the pain will go away. I was even tested for autoimmune diseases, Lyme, and Fibromyalgia (not my idea, but the doctors thought maybe those things were causing the pain). That all came back negative. So it was getting to the point where I couldn’t continue what I was doing because it was an unsustainable pattern for me to feel the way I was feeling.
So, at this point I had no diagnosable reason for the pain. The logical thing to try was to completely cut out anything both in and out of the gym that blatantly hurt. By the point I made that decision I was in pain in most of my gymnastics skills--but no more pain there than I was already in during my daily life--so I had figured ‘who cares.’ Well it eventually got to the point where I had to just stop. I stopped everything, I even stopped going to yoga. I was doing my best to modify, but even that wasn't working at the time. I probably was burned out more than I realized at the time. Unfortunately for me those places were where many of my support system people were located. I don’t have a lot of great family connections so my yoga and gymnastics people were my ‘peeps.’ So for the month or two I didn’t go to these places that were a huge part of my life I felt isolated and a little depressed. It was not so much that I couldn’t just go and hang out with them, because I could obviously. That really wouldn’t have helped me, because I am the type of person who likes to process things on my own, especially at first.
As hard as the alone time was, it was important. My
husband was really good about listening, but aside from him I didn’t tell many
people about what I was going though. I am not so sure I really knew myself,
but I knew that I had gotten through some very tough situations before, and it
would all be OK in the end. I really did believe that, I just wasn’t sure how I
would get from A to B. Meanwhile not being able to walk around to get through
my work day or go shopping was wearing on me. My job was changing in a way that
kept me in the office a lot. There wasn’t much in the way of distraction available
to me other than processing through it.
So at that time for me the ‘stopping everything’ was important. To learn that when the usual stuff that helped me, like modifying skills, PT, yoga, ice, etc. wasn’t helping, and might even be making it worse—just stop. Doing nothing can be better than doing something. For someone like me who’s a real go-getter, this can take a lot of discipline and self-control. It feels easier to me to do, than to not-do.
The next thing I had to do was to make 100% sure there was nothing physically wrong that medical people could find to say that I should not be pushing my body. After the repeat MRIs came back great, I felt more comfortable trying to resume things. I also experimented with trying a new fascial massage person who a good friend recommended. I figured I had nothing to lose by switching it up. I wanted to see if different approaches could lead to a different result. There was a point where I was always the slowest walker no matter where I went. For a solid year I could do squats, lunges, etc. but I really couldn’t walk fast. It was particularly apparent in the airport where it feels like everyone’s trying to catch a plane or something… ha-ha. Eventually I got to where I started passing people again! Meanwhile, I eventually realized I could jog if I wanted to and that didn’t hurt. So it was super confusing and strange. Whatever. This was my gig whether I wanted it to be or not. I already was eating pretty healthy but I tweaked my diet some to see if I could help my body heal better.
Happily, I found that I was making some lasting progress finally! It was not always linear. I had to be willing to deal with the fact that one day might not always be better than the day before. If I had a bad setback I had to really sit down and reevaluate my plan. I remember the day I couldn’t clap my hands because it hurt my wrist so much. I finally got to where I could clap again about 6 months later. The doctor who first looked at my wrist said it would take about 6 weeks to heal. It took 6 months. That had to be OK. When I needed a boot to get around, one of my doctors told me to 'lose the boot, because it's not helping you.' My body said otherwise, and I listened.
For the re-entering gymnastics piece. I am the type of person who can’t just not do any gymnastics for a year and come back like I left off (those people suck). In fact, I tend to get injured very easily if I try to do that. Even though my ankle and wrist were not functioning well, I didn’t want to add to that list, so I had to figure out which gymnastics I could still keep up with that didn’t interfere with the healing process. This was nothing new, but to have both the arm and leg problem at once was a new challenge for me. I had to get over myself feeling silly at doing something a 4 year old can do in gymnastics. Because it was important for me both physically and mentally to be engaged in gymnastics if I wanted to really heal these injures and get back to the sport on some level.
Even beyond gymnastics though I wanted to get to where I could walk around during the day and feel good. I felt that gymnastics would be great exercise for me as long as I didn’t overdo it. I didn’t have the option of going for a walk anyway, and the exercise bike and pool were starting to feel real old. I did a lot of super simple basics on the beam, and rolling on the floor with my hands on a floor bar to practice my pirouettes on bars. Really easy stuff. But still good movement. I hammered away at flexibility, core and pt stuff.
I had to figure out if I would be happy in gymnastics even if I didn’t resume my old skills. Since I was done living in pain that could be prevented, I had to come to the realization that I might not be able to do all my old skills pain free ever again. In the past, learning a new skill or competing at a new level used to be what motivated me. Now, I realized I might not ever resume the old skills I used to do. Would I consider that a failure or a waste of time? I had to figure that out.
And I surprised myself by realizing that I would be OK with it. That me, a huge overachiever, would be OK with not pushing the envelope anymore, if that was permanently my new reality.
I thought about the fact that if it was my last day on the planet, would I go to gymnastics that day or not? And I realized that I would. And because of that, yes it was worth it, no matter what I was or wasn’t doing while I was at practice. I thought about the fact that, if I was forced to quit gymnastics for some reason, would that be OK too? I realized that it would. I realized that I had other things in my life that I enjoyed too, and that I wouldn’t feel empty without it. I could always expand on those things if gymnastics was taken away. I wasn’t doing gymnastics because I had to. I was doing it because I wanted to.
I have also grown to really appreciate the connections I have made with the other adult gymnasts, and realize that I was inspiring them and supporting them, and that if I was not as good as I once was, none of that changed. They loved me and enjoyed being around me not for my skills, but for who I am. That was a pretty cool realization from someone who always felt like she had to ‘earn’ people’s respect and friendship.
So, no I’m not healed completely at this moment. I still have pain days, especially in my ankle. However when I do, I take it way easier in the gym, and outside of the gym. I can still do gymnastics and work around it. I’m continuing to pursue the healing process by working with practitioners and following their advice who have been helping to make a difference. So I’ve found a place where I can participate in my favorite sport and stay out of pain during practice. I have found a place where I’ve resumed a lot of the skills that used to be impossible due to pain. A handful of super compassionate, helpful, kind people have helped me learn to inhabit this place, both literally and metaphorically. If I want to resume something, I find the closest thing to that thing I can. For instance, there was a point where I couldn’t jump on floor, but I could in a pool, so I went to a pool and did that whenever I had a chance. I learned handstands on my fists so I could still do the position without putting too much pressure on my wrist joint. I learned to enjoy these things even though they were a far cry from what I was doing most of my career. I no longer consider regaining all my old skills as the definition of success. I consider enjoying my sport and enjoying the training process to be the success. I will certainly enjoy competing again--probably at a reduced level--if my body can do it, but if that isn’t a choice, I am enjoying my sport regardless. People tell me all the time I inspire them and they love to train with me. So that in and of itself is a victory.
Some people are insensitive or maybe just trying to help and say things like, ‘find a new doctor.’ There’s a point where you are just sick of the investigative process and you just want to live your life. I have been to enough doctors that for the time being I don’t really care to find out what I have is ‘called.’ I just want to live and enjoy my sport however that ends up being. Sometimes the answer isn’t really there or you are done obsessively exploring it at least for the moment. Again, I’m someone who tends to ravenously pursue answers. At this time I’m willing to wait, to be patient...to not-do. I’m curious what’s next for me both in and out of the gym. I enjoyed a long career of building my skills even as an adult for many years, and I would love to continue with that, but only if it’s meant to be. I’m open to the changes that come in life and I am also grateful for the beautiful life that I have right now.
1. Be sure you’re medically cleared to go through the rehab process if you've been injured or in pain.
2. If something treatment-wise isn’t working or helping, look for alternatives, even if what you're doing 'worked before.'
3. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do.
4. Be appreciative of what you have. Just having a sport or workout to go to is a huge gift.
5. Be honest about how your body is feeling and responding to what you are asking it to do.
6. Make sure you’re enjoying the process, not simply waiting for a certain outcome.
Thank you for reading about my dealing with injury as an adult gymnast experience! It really helped me to process it by writing it all down. Feel free to share if you have an experience with retiring from competitive sports, dealing with a frustrating injury, or any related experience below. I'd love to hear from you!
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