The blindside collision dismantled nearly everything Brittany Bowe knew of herself.
The persistent symptoms that ranged from dizziness to blood pressure issues to fainting episodes to inability to focus when necessary, were all bouts Bowe encountered every day for nearly 18 months. Every single day, she said. Post-concussion syndrome injected into the American long-track speedskating star a sensation she never had dealt with and never truly encountered in her drive toward an Olympic medal:
Friends would see Bowe, tell her she looked in great shape, seemed in great spirits, but in her mind, she told herself that they didn’t understand where she really was, how she felt fractured at times.
“I would like to believe that one of my strong suits has always been being super mentally tough and mentally strong, and that’s one of the things I feel like the injury stripped me from,” Bowe said. “I kind of lost that mental toughness and ability to fight through things.”
Bowe and a teammate collided on the ice at the Utah Olympic Oval on a warm summer day in July 2016.
“It was a freak accident,” the 29-year-old said.
Every day since has been a test of her will.
Bowe finally returned to the ice last December, six months after the concussion, in Heerenveen, Netherlands, where she won a World Cup bronze medal. She was also a couple tenths of a second away from gold. That was supposed to be the turning point. That was supposed to be the end of the nightmare. But Bowe, a one-time point guard at Florida Atlantic University, felt the onset of similar symptoms when she returned home to Salt Lake City.
Bowe fainted in her home a night before the U.S. nationals at the Oval. The battle was far from over.
“At times,” she said, “I didn’t even know if I would be able to put my skates on again and skate.”
The long, long road back
Joey Mantia noticed. Everyone at U.S. Speedskating did. It was impossible to miss her daily dose of hope nosedive once Bowe laced up to only unlace her skates soon after.
“To see her show up and try and have to get off the ice because she just couldn’t do it,” said Mantia, a fellow Floridian and Olympic skater, “it was tough for us to handle.”
“Can’t be going top speed on the oval and have a crazy little episode,” Bowe said.
Bowe returned home to Florida to decompress last January a few weeks after shutting down for the season, forced to miss World Cups and the World Championships. Her vestibular system — the part of the inner ear and brain that aids in controlling eye movement and balance — were “so out of whack” that she realized that she was not improving even resting at home.
The Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., later made arrangements for Bowe to go through a series of tests. She eventually moved to Colorado Springs in March and stayed there working on her concussion rehabilitation through June. Bowe saw a specialist once a week. Amid the monotony of the tests and pushing through the frustration of her slow recovery, those episodes of dread seeped in.
Feelings of anxiety slammed into her.
“All of a sudden, I’m kind of stuck in limbo where I kind of felt like what’s my identity if it’s not skating,” she recalled.
Then the tediousness of each day would overwhelm her.
“What am I working for? I’m working toward such basic things,” she remembered. “I just want to put my skates on and feel normal again.”
The post-concussion symptoms, or TBI (traumatic brain injury) as Bowe calls it, affected the regulatory systems in her body. Mantia watched Bowe inch toward normalcy on the ice while still having to keep her heart rate down to ensure another fainting episode wouldn’t arrive.
“I don’t know many athletes — and I’ve met a ton of athletes — that could do that and have the patience to go through that,” he said.
One day while in Colorado Springs, Bowe’s phone rang.
Hockey megastar Sidney Crosby was on the other line.
Some timely advice
Bowe knew Crosby probably was going to call. But it didn’t lessen the astonishment when he was on the line, waiting to speak to the speedskater for nearly an hour about the rigors of post-concussion symptoms. U.S. speedskating legend Dan Jansen helped facilitate the call, knowing Bowe needed more support, more input.
Bowe realized a few minutes into the conversation that while Crosby detailed his long history of concussions, the two had very similar symptoms. The Pittsburgh Penguins star has missed more than a season’s worth of games due to concussions sustained in his career.
“Listen to your body,” Crosby told Bowe. “That’s all we know is to push through this hidden injury. You really can’t see it.”
Bowe said the last big push was feeling comfortable enough to leave Colorado Springs to return home to Utah where she’s lived full-time since 2010. Bowe has set and broken several world records and earned over 40 World Cup medals since bursting onto the world’s skating scene in 2013. She owns four World Championship gold medals, too.
Racing, Bowe said, is what makes everything in her life go.
Nothing is more therapeutic.
“I feel at home and comfortable when I’m on the ice,” she said.
She still clashes with onset anxiety that stems from the concussion. Bowe has been able to utilize her own trauma and help someone close. Olympic short-track medalist Katherine Reutter-Adamek suffered a concussion a few months after Bowe in 2016 and remained in close contact with Bowe throughout her recovery. Reutter-Adamek was sidelined for seven months with her own lingering symptoms.
“Having a teammate to be there to know there are other people going through what I’m going through, and that we’re having the same issues [helped],” she said. “If Brittany can be OK, I’ll be OK.”
Bowe won both B-Division races in the 500 meters and 1,000 meters in early November on the ice in Heerenveen. She missed last weekend’s World Cup stop due to an illness but is expected to compete on her home ice at the Oval this weekend. And like everyone else, she has the upcoming Olympics on her mind. Long-track team trials are scheduled for the first week of January in Milwaukee.
Then, hopefully, a poignant return to the Games.
“That expectation of leaving South Korea with a medal,” Bowe said, “is definitely there.”
2017 ISU LONG-TRACK WORLD CUP
When • Friday through Sunday
Where • Utah Olympic Oval, Kearns
12:30 p.m. • Women’s 500 meters
12:55 p.m. • Men’s 500 meters
1:30 p.m. • Women’s team pursuit
2:30 p.m. • Men’s team pursuit
12:30 p.m. • Women’s second 500 meters
12:55 p.m. • Men’s second 500 meters
1:30 p.m. • Women’s 1,500 meters
2:15 p.m. • Men’s 1,500 meters
3:10 p.m. • Women’s mass start
3:30 p.m. • Men’s mass start
12:30 p.m. • Women’s 1,000 meters
1 p.m. • Men’s 1,000 meters
1:45 p.m. • Women’s 3,000 meters
2:50 p.m. • Men’s 5,000 meters
Age • 29
Sport • Long-track speedskating
Hometown • Ocala, Fla.
A home out West • Moved to Utah to live and train full time in 2010
Dominant on the ice • Made her Olympic debut at the 2014 Sochi Games. ... Nine-time World Championship medalist and four-time World Championship gold medalist. ... Has won 45 career World Cup medals.
The long road back • Off the ice nearly 18 months after suffering a concussion in July 2016. ... Returned to win bronze in a World Cup last December but once concussion symptoms returned, she had to end her season early and rehab. ... Spent three months this year at the Olympic Training Center working on concussion rehabilitation.