Concussions threaten snowboarder's Olympic dream
'I've pretty much had one every year,' says 2018 hopeful Meryeta O'Dine
For any Olympian striving to be the best at her chosen sport, there are obstacles on the path to glory. Canadian snowboarder Meryeta O'Dine's journey towards Pyeongchang has been no different.
For one, not many Olympic snowboarders come from Prince George — her community of about 74,000 in northern B.C.
"No one really knows a lot about snowboarding," the 20-year-old O'Dine says of her hometown. "It's kind of, you graduate high school, you [learn] a trade or you go to university and that's just about it. There is not a whole lot of branching out.
"So it was a bit of a tough journey to find the support."
But O'Dine did find the support, and now she's primed for her second full year on the national team. Last season, she was the only Canadian to reach a World Cup podium in snowboard cross, finishing third in an event in Germany.
And at last month's World Cup race in Argentina, she finished fourth, narrowly missing her second career podium.
It appears only good things lie ahead for O'Dine — if she can stay healthy. She has suffered a laundry list of injuries during her short career, and protecting her head has proven to be especially difficult in a sport where high-speed spills are common.
"I've pretty much had a concussion every year that I've competed," O'Dine says.
No direction home
O'Dine is far from alone. She's one of many Canadian hopefuls for the 2018 Winter Olympics who has dealt with a concussion. CBC Sports' research shows that, of 142 Canadians in the running to compete in Pyeongchang in a contact, high-impact or speed-driven sport, 48 (one third) have suffered a suspected concussion.
O'Dine says most of her concussions have come during pre-season training, when she's pushing hard to get prepared for the busy winter race schedule. Last season, she believes she suffered one in September, followed by her most recent concussion, in March at the world championships in Spain.
"Basically, the one time you need to not get a concussion," O'Dine laments. "[The world championships] happen every two years. It's a huge event.
"I fell during my time trial run and I don't know exactly what happened but it was a long recovery afterwards. It was slow. The headaches and the emotions just lingered."
In a Facebook post, she described it as "one of the rougher concussions I've ever had." She also said that, a month and a half after suffering the concussion, she went out for a run and couldn't remember how to get home.
When a suspected concussion is identified, Canada's high-performance athletes are required to follow a detailed return-to play protocol established by their national sport organization before being cleared to return to competition.
O'Dine didn't compete again last season after her fall at the world championships, and she wasn't cleared to return until June.
Still, she admits she may have pushed herself to come back too quickly.
"I'm always like, if I don't try I'm going to be upset with myself," she says.
Experts say that athletes like O'Dine who have suffered a concussion can be at greater risk of sustaining another. Also, the amount of impact necessary to prompt another concussion may lessen each time.
"The first time, you fall from three feet off of a ramp… by the third one you get hurt by opening the car door and hitting your head," explains Michael Hutchison, director of the concussion program at the University of Toronto's MacIntosh Sport Medicine Clinic.
"Also, if the symptom complaints are greater each successive time then that's, from a clinical perspective, where you start to get concerned and say, listen, maybe this isn't the right thing for you to do."
Taking a toll
It's also important to note that all athletes are different when it comes to concussions.
"The length of time to recover is all over the map," says Dr. Charles Tator, director of the Canadian Sports Concussion Project based at Toronto Western Hospital. "Some people do achieve a full recovery, some people never achieve a full recovery.
"We're currently tracking about 600 patients and we've developed what we call recovery curves that show, for example, the more symptoms you have at the beginning, the longer it is going to take you to recover. Concussion history is also important. You are much more likely to recover after one concussion than after 10 concussions."
O'Dine is honest about her concussion history. She acknowledges both the physical and mental toll the injuries have taken, and the possible implications for her long-term health as she continues to compete.
But she's not thinking about getting hurt again. It's hard to be successful on the international stage if you're worried about what might happen. Instead, she's focused on reaching the podium in Pyeongchang.
"I hope I'm going to be able to ride with the same aggressiveness and calmness," she says. "[I want to] race my own race and come out of it happy and know that I did everything that I could to be the best."