The Struggle of Overcoming Injury & Reflection Discovered Along the Way

“I returned home to the Upper Valley in mid-July exhausted and pretty heartbroken: I had not made the U.S. Olympic rowing team. A back injury, which had caused a number of stumbling blocks throughout my previous three years training with the national team, had flared up again and at the wrong time.

The heartbreak was two-fold: First, I would miss completing the journey with a group of women with whom I had felt a part of a larger project since joining the team in 2013 after my college graduation. With them, I had been incredibly fortunate to experience brilliant moments in the eight-person boat, with a new world record, 2014 and 2015 World Championship titles, and Olympic qualification.

Second, my goal in the sport had always been to see just how far my love for rowing could take me, and now I questioned whether my back could handle rowing in the future and allow me to continue to do what I loved.

I was uncertain about my future with the national rowing team and timeline for resuming full-time training, but I did know that I wanted to develop a skillset to help my back and allow me to enjoy activities, including informal rowing, pain-free.

I had worked with Cindy Summer in the Pilates Studio at RVC a few times in high school to learn some fundamentals about the core stability and body awareness I needed to support my back and maintain symmetry when riding horses, a hobby I have always loved and grown with since I was a little girl.

With Cindy’s training, I found the same precision and attention to the details of body mechanics and movement patterns that I enjoyed and practiced on horseback. I later discovered, in rowing, a very similar focus on precise body movements supporting the goals of achieving rhythm and power in a boat, and I became hooked on the sport.

The best decision I made this summer, while still muddling through the rut of disappointment and back pain, was to begin training with Cindy again, this time, consistently. On days I wasn’t working with Cindy, I would build on the tools she was teaching me by training with Chris Poljacik on the Club fitness floor.

I gained awareness of the subtle details of my body’s movement patterns and how easily I compensated for imbalances and asymmetries, feeding instability in my back. I practiced specific, confined movements with detail to understand and correct these patterns by engaging the appropriate core stability muscles instead of cheating with other muscle groups.

Chris added a new layer to this work by challenging me to maintain these correct movement patterns and activate muscles while adding more dynamic movements, strength exercises, and some conditioning. At the beginning and end of every session he checked my alignment: Was my pelvis level? Was one hip tilted more forward than the other? Etc.

My initial goal was to learn about my back and strengthen it so that I could enjoy rowing again and potentially return to training as an elite level if I desired. While I have made significant steps toward that goal, I have benefited from this training experience in many more ways than I had anticipated or hoped.

As cycles of injury-related pain and frustration accumulated over the last three years, I increasingly struggled to find enjoyment in rowing and the training; my rows in practice became more about survival and making it to the next day and less about learning and growing as a rower.

I could sense I was losing my bearings to be the person and athlete I wanted to be as it became more and more tempting to cope with the situation by putting on blinders to life outside rowing and emotions.

Over these last two months, the supportive relationships that Cindy and Chris extend through training have given me a wonderful opportunity to recharge and reflect. It has brought me great joy to work with them each week.

I look forward to the training sessions and what I will learn, not just about my body, but also about what I want from life and sport and, in turn, hope to contribute: meaningful relationships; joy; concrete goal-setting. As well as those types of goals which are hard to voice and maybe can’t be measured, like loving an activity and wanting to pursue it to my fullest potential; and the opportunity to learn and grow.

With applications submitted to medical schools, I am thinking about my next steps. Cindy’s and Chris’s depth and breadth of knowledge and how they communicate it to me has been exceptional. It has encouraged me to reflect on how much I value teaching, where my interests lie, and what I would like to incorporate into my future studies in medicine.

In the meantime, I am happy to be enjoying my rowing and training in a wonderful community and plan to pay forward some of what I have learned by coaching junior rowers back in New Jersey. Thanks, Cindy and Chris!”

Heidi Robbins

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