This is the second part of a two-part blog on my journey and experience of the 2014 XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. If you did not read it before you can find Part 1.
As well as being a Spinal and Sports Injury Physiotherapist at CHHP, I am fortunate to be a Physiotherapist for the Canadian National Snowboard Team in the discipline of Freestyle. As a passionate snowboarder, I have been lucky to travel the world working with some incredible snowboarders over the last 5 years. This season has been hectic but enjoyable: In December, we were based mainly in Colorado for training before we moved to Whistler for more training at Blackcomb in the New Year. As we got closer to Sochi, we had our Team Olympic qualifiers in Quebec before heading to Aspen for the XGames, Austria for a preparation camp and then finally to Sochi, Russia.
In keeping with the pillars of CHHP, I am going to write a little about some of the key health and performance components of my experience and I hope that any athletes, clinicians or general public reading will find this interesting and be able to take something away from it.
Preparation is key
Our last major competition before Sochi was the XGames in Aspen, which took place only 10 days before we were due to arrive at the Winter Olympics. Although this level of competition has its obvious benefits for the athletes from a performance perspective, it also brings risks due to the magnitude of the jumps and rails there. We encountered this first hand with Sebastien Toutant going down in the Big Air and straining his abdominals and Mark McMorris fracturing his rib in competition on his second run (his first run won him a Silver Medal). These are exactly the kind of issues that arise in pro snowboarding that I wrote about in Part 1. Naturally, the team had its work cut out from this and fortunately our Head Coach, Leo Addington had planned some good down time in Austria for 5 days before Sochi. Although we classed this as a ‘preparation camp’, the whole purpose of it was for it to be an opportunity for the athletes and staff to relax and recover. Whilst we maintained our focus on Sochi, we were also able to distance ourselves from it by enjoying some hiking and some of the best snowboarding in deep, untouched powder snow that any of us had done in a long time.
After a quiet few days in Austria, we travelled straight to Sochi where we were one of the earliest teams to arrive before the games began. As well as you can prepare for the Olympic games, particularly in an unfamiliar country; we knew we would encounter challenges beyond our control. Initially, these were based around common things like language barriers, transport and security checks but on the most part everything was better than we had anticipated and went smoothly. Naturally, there was a big media presence when we arrived so the team worked to ensure the athletes remained focused whilst continuing to enjoy the moment. Amongst an exciting, busy atmosphere in the mountain Olympic village, everyone was conscious of finding down time where possible, in order to stay healthy and efficient as a team. On top of this, we made sure we were giving the athletes everything they needed for their performance and recovery routines leading up to the competition. Those routines were as close as possible to what the riders were already doing prior to arriving. It is well known within Sports Science and Medicine that any new strategies for an individual athlete around performance, recovery or injury management at a major event like the Olympics should be avoided unless it can be really justified by the entire support team. This meant regular meetings for staff were critical to ensure everyone was on the same page and fulfilling their designated supporting role.
Health Lessons learned
In 2013, we travelled to Sochi for a test event, which, allowed us to get a feel for how the medical and support services, would integrate into the Russian set up. One of the biggest challenges that week was when one of half pipe riders fractured his collar bone and the Russian Medical Team who led the process at the time barely spoke any English and initially wouldn’t even let me in the emergency tent. This prior experience empowered us to be well prepared for the games and between myself, our Head Doctor: Dr. Jim Bovard and another clinician; Damien Moroney, we ensured we were spread out over the snowboard course for rapid access to our athletes if needed.
We witnessed first hand a female slope style rider from another nation fall over in finals, hitting her head and breaking her helmet in the process. It was not clear what then happened with the medical team as the screen coverage is removed when someone is hurt but it was clear on the replay she was unconscious for a few seconds and yet somehow was able to push past the attending paramedics and strap back in and ride down to the bottom of the course. This should not have happened and will be another lesson learned around head injuries and their management challenges. Fortunately, the rider has since issued a reassuring statement of health.
Performance under pressure
Many of the athletes on the team are young but extremely mature and experienced at dealing with high competition pressures. Naturally, there will always be that bit of extra pressure around the Olympic games over any other event and, this is the first time snowboard slope style has been in the games. One critical skill the riders possess is being able to stay in their optimal zone of arousal for performance. At the Olympic games, this zone becomes so narrow that any factor (such as anxiety, fatigue or the snow condition) can influence it significantly. Between the athlete and the support team around them, everyone has their own role to try and minimize the influence that this could have on performance.
Highs and Lows around a Winter OlympicsIs it only about winning medals?
After 8 days of being in the Olympic village the Snowboard Slope style competition was ready to take place and it really did feel like it came a lot quicker than that. I have been fortunate to work with a number of Olympic athletes in my career but being there for the whole process really allows you to understand how much dedication and hard work each and every one of them put in. When you have a tiny number of Olympians Worldwide fighting for 3 medals every 4 years in their discipline, it is such a different concept to those encountered in football or other team sports which happen week in week out. Anything can happen on the day of the Olympic finals and no matter how well an athlete and their team prepare for it, success is far from guaranteed even for the world’s highest ranked athletes.
As a team, we were extremely proud of Mark McMorris achieving his Bronze medal, particularly after breaking his rib two weeks beforehand. However, you also feel pride to every one of the athletes that achieved something special just by getting to the Winter Olympics in the first place. The outcome of the Women’s event left us feeling disappointed for Spencer O’Brien and Jenna Blasman but at the same time I admired them even more as athletes and know they will continue be successful in their careers. It was a positive day for British snowboarding with Jenny Jones taking a Bronze: the first ever on snow medal for Great Britain. Although I currently support and provide physiotherapy for the Canadian Team, I was happy to see Jenny Jones up there having worked with her previously and knowing how committed she has been over the years to the sport.
So are the Olympics only about winning medals?
They may play a big part in the development of an athlete’s career and also the funding behind an Olympic discipline. Snowboarding will always have its identity separately from the Olympics and no matter what the result, there are so many other positives that come about when an athlete performs on the big stage and inspires thousands of sports men and women worldwide.
If you are interested in Winter sports and Altitude medicine and think the team at CHHP London can help you, you can read more about your specialist Ski and Snowboard service.
Thanks for reading!