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I Am An Athlete: Pt. 2
By Lindsey "Luka" Carfagna
When I was no longer part of the athletic community, I was asked to be so critical of sports for what they had done to me. Don’t get me wrong; we should absolutely be critical of sports, especially powerful governing bodies that ignore safety in pursuit of profit. But unlearning my athletic drive was hindering my recovery. I couldn’t accept that my life would be spent curled up in a ball in pain or medicated so heavily that I couldn’t feel anything, not even joy. Then one day, I got fed up with it all, stopped taking my pain medications and anti-depressants (I wouldn’t advise this), and joined a 24 hour gym to push myself through the uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal that were happening day and night. At that point, I had lived everyday with vertigo and nausea – so the shakes and nausea from withdrawal paled in comparison to what I was already accustomed to feeling. I felt like I couldn’t distinguish between the side effects of the drugs and the lingering effects of PCS, and my doctors had a stake in keeping me medicated to show that I had gone off the deep end mentally. Without the drugs, they’d have to own up to the fact that they were liable for injuries sustained during competition that weren’t properly evaluated. That’s a long story I won’t get into today, but I basically hit a wall with being ill and incapable and took matters into my own hands. We didn’t understand PCS quite as well then as we do now, so I felt like it was my only choice. I approached withdrawal and recovery like it was fitness testing. No one enjoys fitness testing, but everyone gets through it. I committed to getting through it.
I sweated my way clean and started to make a comeback. I taught myself how to workout such that I could minimize PCS associated headaches. I started to feel like an athlete again and had a resurging desire for life. The athletic department’s doctor wouldn’t clear me for contact sports, so I asked if I could walk on to the track team. He laughed and said, “Sure, try it” thinking I was joking around. I wasn’t joking. Most people don’t try to walk on to a D-1 team in a sport they’ve never tried, but I am an athlete. Put an obstacle in my way and I will overcome. My senior year, the track coach let me walk on as a javelin thrower (I had never thrown a javelin before in my life), encouraged by my work ethic and its potential to rub off on his athletes. We had no plans for me to be good at throwing javelin. In fact, Vermont didn’t even have a track at the time and it was too cold out for me to even throw a javelin. Throwers trained indoors with apparatuses meant to simulate different parts of the javelin throw. I worked the process everyday to learn how to throw, but my real role was to lead by example in the weight room and during practice. I didn’t actually get a chance to throw a real javelin until my first meet in March of my senior year. By May, I was traveling to Maryland with my team’s best to compete in the America East Championship meet. I put on my soccer cleats, a pair of XXL team shorts (being last to join the squad meant I got uniform leftovers), and managed to walk away with a third place finish in the conference. I sure as heck didn’t look like I belonged on a track team, but the points next to my name told a different story. They reminded me that I am an athlete, forever an athlete.
It’s an absurd story of success and recovery, but the takeaway isn’t to glorify my comeback. I’ve been training athletes for a while since walking away from competition and I can tell you instantly who has a chance at advancing to the next level or not. It’s not about talent or technique, though the two are important. It’s about that thing inside that doesn’t make excuses and keeps working. It’s about a mentality. I now do a ton of advocacy work around concussion awareness, and I hear a lot of misguided assumptions that the athletic mentality is at fault for our concussion epidemic. It’s not. Many of us can, have, and will walk away when told that our safety is at risk. I also hear a lot about how the athletic mentality is the number one thing that gets in the way of full recovery. It’s not. Give us the tools to succeed and we will methodically work the process of recovery. We will master patience and radical acceptance and mindfulness and anything else you throw at us that might make us better. We have a drive that goes beyond the field. It’s inside us. The thing inside me that shutout opponents was also the thing that saved my life and got me back on track to a life worth living. I am an athlete. Forever an athlete.