A few weeks ago I sat in the cold, sterile Stanford sports medicine office looking at Dr. Baine as she held my gaze and said, “If we medically disqualify you, you will never get to row again. It’s not reversible, are you okay with that?” Of course I wasn’t okay with that/ I felt myself scream inside my head. How could I ever be okay with my sport, with my identity on campus, with my friends and my team being irreversibly taken away from me? But, instead, with my athletic trainer looking on, I nodded and agreed that this was the best course of action.
Being a Stanford student-athlete is undeniably a once-in-a-lifetime experience, an opportunity that my 13-year-old self could never have imagined as a reality. We not only get to attend one of the best universities in the world; we get to defend it, represent it, make it proud.
But the training that is designed to craft the strongest, the fittest and the most invincible can sometimes result in illuminating the cracks in the super-humans that we as athletes are expected to be.
My freshman year, I began to feel a numbness and tingling sensation through my left arm that would culminate in losing feeling in parts of my hand. If you know anything about rowing, you can imagine that gripping the handle of the oar became quite a challenge. My forearms took the bulk of that tension. If you don’t know anything about rowing, just take my word that this new development sucked. I was able to compete the entirety of my freshman season, but I felt as though I was being held together with arm braces, medical tape and an unhealthy relationship with the training room.
Sophomore year, I allowed a combination of bullheaded stubbornness, an ignorant belief that all athletes have to push themselves through serious injury and a naive sense that I owed my body to my team lull me into thinking that it made logical sense for me to train through the season. What I received in return was a deteriorating medical status, tears, anxiety, loneliness, exasperation and, eventually, surgery. I learned that no matter how eloquent, stern, persuasive or even well-intentioned your mind might be, your body will always have the final say.
My surgery went well, “incredibly well!”, they said. They had shaved off a part of my ulnar bone and replaced my nerve ending, moving it around the opposite side of my elbow. Yet, I still felt isolated as I waited to return to competing with my team.
Watching them from afar produced a kaleidoscope of emotions that seemed to shift to a new, ornate, surprising combination with every turn. Standing on the shore, watching the blur of red dominate California in our annual Big Row, I thought that I deeply, truly, achingly wanted them to succeed. I told myself I would be the ideal sidelined teammate. I would do everything possible to set myself up for the best return there had ever been. I would be more involved than even the most obsessive soccer mom. I wanted so badly to be back racing with my team, to prove to them that I was the tenacious, resolute athlete that could take back control of her body and contribute again. But, behind the mold of the ideal person that I strived to embody, there was a hurricane of unaddressed feelings just waiting to reach land. I was overcome with deep resentment, anger and sadness.
Having competed at an elite level for the entirety of my high school experience, as well as being a member of a family with three other children who were incredibly talented collegiate rowers, I felt rowing was bred into my existence. Hell, my family owed its inception to rowing. My parents first met at a regatta in San Francisco where my father was competing.
Yet, as deep as my roots to the sport may have been, a rower who is not rowing does not make for a reliable personal identity. My inability to control my body, to will it to push me through training, to force it against its own wishes as I had come to excel at doing, seemed to temporarily erase a part of me.
The hardest part about being an injured collegiate athlete is not the missed practices or the or the pain or the hurt of watching your teammates do what you wish you could; it’s the big, fat, domineering, overbearing, never-ending “why?”
Why me? Why did my body decide to give up? Why did I break down before it was time? Why didn’t my other teammates give out like I did?
My official diagnosis of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) came during my junior winter. On my team, diagnosis is seen as the best news you can possibly receive, akin to finding out that the horribly embarrassing drunk text you sent to your ex-boyfriend never went through. Diagnosis is progression is return. Like every good comeback saga, my time here is not a complete sob story. It is not a sad, emotional tale of defeat and what-ifs. Even though it was less than a year after my surgery and I was now diagnosed with a new affliction, I made it through seemingly perpetual hours of spinning, physical therapy and finally, finally rowing. I raced at the NCAA championships and competed in every single regatta in my junior year season.
I wanted so badly for my diagnosis to be that simple. I could do it all again. I could go to physical therapy everyday. I could spend four hours a day spinning alone. I could down my cocktail of pain relievers and antiinflammatories and rely on medical tape to keep my body together.
But, like most things in life, it wasn’t that simple. I did progress and I did return to rowing and competing, but there was always a price. I would make it through the full week of training but would use sleeping medicine to force myself to fall asleep through the pain. I would compete in every race, but I would inject toxins into my muscle to shut it down so the parts that needed room to swell could do so.
My last progression started in February of this past winter. It was my last year and all I had to do was make it through just four more sweet, simple months.
I was just a few weeks in when my symptoms started to get out of control. Without even really noticing, I was back on my regimen of painkillers, sleeping medicine and tears. But finally, this time, something felt different.
Erging alone in one of our of training facilities, I was mentally willing my body to complete yet another grueling 80 minutes of swelling forearms, barely having feeling in my left hand and experiencing general discomfort through both arms. I took the last stroke of my workout like I had taken the millions that had come before it. My legs went down. My back swung. My arms pulled through.
This stroke was distinctly different, however, because this time, when my body screamed out “no,” I listened.
Perseverance is one of the traits I admire most. Perseverance in most manifestations epitomizes loyalty, to a cause, to others, to yourself. As hard as I have tried to persevere through collegiate athletics, I have not been able to achieve that goal. Yet, in the realization of my inability to see one of my most meaningful commitments to term, I have learned that being brave enough to decide to let go is significantly more valuable. It is foolish to believe that our minds have total autonomy over our bodies. We can’t mentally will away disease or illness. But what we can do is learn to appreciate. Appreciate our bodies for the unique and marvelous things they can do. And, more importantly, we can appreciate our minds for supporting us, challenging us and letting us enjoy the incredible place that Stanford University is, with or without athletics.
– McKayla Taaffe
Contact McKayla Taaffe at mtaaffe ‘at’ stanford.edu