Throughout my career as an elite athlete I have come to believe that perspective is what keeps you on track — literally.
I’m a track cyclist (and yes, I know how bad my jokes are). It’s no secret to those who know me that one of my signature lines when things aren’t going particularly great is, “Well, it could be worse.” Optimistic? Yes. But it is actually reassuring and it keeps me grounded within my sport, and in life.
Like other endurance sports, the cycling world is a bubble — a small, intense bubble. Cycling consumes individuals, for better or worse. Getting absorbed in the bubble can give you the intensity you need to succeed in the sport, but it can also make it hard to step back and evaluate sport in the larger context of life. Cycling is a culture — one that’s based on long rides, coffee shop spins, and just talking about bikes and biking a lot. Because it’s a no- impact sport, you can ride your bike and you can ride it a lot; but this fact, combined with crashing, creates a very fine line between performance and injury.
The same week that the team was named for the Rio Olympics, my left arm swelled in a road race, and I subsequently found out that I had vascular thoracic outlet syndrome, which led to a 15-centimetre blood clot in my left arm. Making it to the Games meant nine months of taking daily blood thinners, which carried significant medical risk. If a crash was to occur while training, it could have been bad. As it turned out, with the residual effects of the blood-thinner medication, combined with a crash during the omnium at the Games in Rio, which led to a significant hematoma on my left hip when the clot reformed after the Games, I decided that riding while on blood thinners was no longer worth the risk.
I hung up my bike until I could get the proper treatment. It wasn’t until a full year after the spiral began, and five months without touching a bike, that I had left rib resection surgery. They removed my top rib and opened up the thoracic outlet space to alleviate the compression; and I had a vein angioplasty to try to repair and smooth the damaged vein as much as possible.
The severity and unpredictable outcome of the surgery made it difficult to find a surgeon who would perform the operation.
Those five months — after the Games and before the surgery — were one of the only times I felt like I had hit rock bottom. In my worst moments, there was nothing more devastating than being told that I would have to stay on blood thinners indefinitely.
The prognosis was effectively that I would have to retire, and be forced to change my lifestyle significantly. Any activity with the risk of a head injury or serious crash would be a no-go: and that included an awfully long list of the things I like to do.
Going into the surgery, the medical staff informed me that I would not enjoy my life post-surgery, that there would be significant discomfort involved with the rib resection. But none of them had ever suffered through a bike race during a completely off day — that is discomfort. The surgery was fine, mostly because of great medical care from Dr. Winkelaar and the staff at Grey Nun’s Hospital in Edmonton.
Physically, I think cyclist’s bodies are just used to constantly being under stress, pushed and pulled beyond the point where people should probably stop. Long story short: my sister, a plastic surgeon resident, took the first post-op evening off to look after me; which in the end turned into dinner and glass of wine.
During my injury and forced time off the bike, a lot of people asked me if I was doing ok; for the most part my answer was a genuine “yes.” I’m not going to pretend that the medical side wasn’t challenging, but like I said, I believe in balance and perspective.
I believe that to achieve within sport, you need a life outside of sport. During that time I went back to school and carried a full course load at university. I took up running in the park with my dog and put a lot of time and energy into some different things that I had put on hold while I pursued cycling for Rio.
To be honest, I didn’t have much time to be anything other than stressed during school, but it helped to replace some of the intensity and life-direction that was missing off the bike.
As far as actual riding performance goes, the extended break was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me. As an endurance track rider, we race throughout the winter on the track, and all summer on the road. We get, at most, a couple weeks off the bike throughout the year. Five months of proper unloading, physically and mentally, left me refreshed and motivated for the seasons ahead. It was a bumpy road back, but that’s what you get for not training for an extended period of time.
My team, Rally Cycling, and my director, Zach Bell, took really good care of me during my comeback and made the ride enjoyable. Despite having one of my best road seasons this past summer, my track season was not as good. There were a few contributing factors and choices, but I’m looking forward to refocusing and getting back to a new season, with new goals and strategies for achieving them.
Everyone has their own challenges. Life is dynamic and that’s what keeps it interesting. Despite everything, including the slightly swollen arm that I have to manage on a daily basis, and always will, I wouldn’t change my story. Cycling is a relatively risky sport, and I have seen it take a lot from close friends and people within the cycling community. Compared to many of those stories, I have a lot to appreciate.
Overcoming this injury, and especially being able to stop taking blood thinners, was a gentle reminder to be grateful for the health I do have. This appreciation has let me re-evaluate what I want to be doing with my life, and what I’m trying to achieve within my sport. Along the way, it also made me realize what this sport means to me, so even though I have plans for life after cycling, and I’m still working away at them, most of my immediate goals focus on the Tokyo 2020 Games.
I believe that I am now more grounded. I have a steadier and more purposeful road to Tokyo, compared to my Rio experience, which I hope will push me further up the podium. And yet, despite what happens in Tokyo or on the journey there, I know I’ll be okay, because no matter what the outcome, I have a new perspective on perspective.
(Top large photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images; middle large photo by Paul Hanna/Reuters)
10 quick answers Allison Beveridge
Q: The best book you've ever read?
A: Great Gatsby.
Q: Must-listen Podcast?
A: Stuff You Should Know.
Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: “A bad day is just that, one bad day."
Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called?
A: The Napping Chronicles.
Q: What word or phrase do you overuse?
A: "It could be worse."
Q: What is a skill you wish you had?
A: Sourdough bread making/ heat adaptation.
Q: What's something no one would guess about you?
A: I bake good pies.
Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite?
A: The Queen, LeBron James, Serena Williams, Ryan Reynolds, Audrey Hepburn, Alan Turing.
Q: What makes you cry, every time?
A: Climbing a mountain in temperatures over 25 degrees.
Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: Short term: getting out of bed in the morning; Long term: gold in Tokyo 2020.