In my slalom career, I've had to make one really difficult decision before - years ago. It wasn't my choice to have that decision forced on me, and it wasn't a decision for myself. It was a choice presented to me by people for reasons outside of sport.
But at the end of the day, that time, either choice I made resulted in me doing what I really wanted to be doing. Which was getting in my boat and training as hard as I could. And having the opportunity to make that decision, even if it was shitty, is still a privilege because so many people don't even have a choice, or an opportunity to be on that pathway.
For a couple of years I've had a bit of a niggle in my left elbow. It presented itself as reactive tendinitis when I first encountered it, and sort of flared up a few times since then with recurring inflammation and stiffness. I know loads of paddlers who get sore wrists or elbows - listen, if it's making that 'creaking' sound, then stop. I know it doesn't hurt that much, but we're pretty tough! So stop.
I decided to get an MRI scan shortly after the world cup in Tacen. I just wanted to know what the problem was, because while it wasn't getting sore, by the end of the 2018 season I was having to let go of things quite randomly. Picking up a laptop in that hand, opening a door, holding my phone above my face (yeah) and opening jars of things. I'd just suddenly let go. It wasn't sore or anything, but seemed a bit weird (and expensive, I broke a lot of stuff).
I was so sure that in my consultation after the MRI scan I'd be told that I just needed to do some theraband exercises, release work on my pecs and probably develop stronger deltoids (the root cause of previous niggles). So I was pretty shocked to get an appointment with a surgeon shortly after the results came back.
I'd never heard of a 'bone marrow oedema' before but it sounded bad (I later discovered that a paddling colleague had suffered a much nastier one in the clavicle). Basically the bone in my elbow joint had been under so much pressure, for so long, that it had swollen inside and become inflamed. But that turned out to be the less problematic part of the scan. 'Degenerative tendinitis' is what you get when you ignore small niggles for a long time. The cartilage in my left (and probably right, but we only scanned the left because that's the one that hurts) elbow is 'fibrillated' and worn. It looked a bit like the edge of a carpet on the scan.
So I had a decision to make. Surgery seemed like the fastest option - there's an operation called the 'topaz' procedure, where using keyhole surgery doctors sort of 'burn' the tendon that's fibrillated, which causes it to build a thick layer of scar tissue. This alleviates pain, and strengthens the tendon a little. There's a three month no-use period, and probably more than 12 months of rehab. Either way, our winter of whitewater in France changed to time away from my boat in Scotland, very quickly.
I came so close to choosing surgery for a number of reasons. It would satisfy my decision making problems. There would be absolutely no option of getting in my boat while it was healing. It was a definitive ACTION to fix something. A black and white, this is for my paddling, option of surgery. It sounds pretty cool too, being an athlete and getting your body cut open to fix an engine problem. It gives 'rehab' a definitive purpose. Once the bandages are off, you're going again.
I'm extremely lucky, because I turned to everyone I knew who had ever had a severe injury or the option of surgery. Every single person offered all the advice they knew, what they would have done differently, or why they're glad that they made their own decision. I have the most amazing support network with sportscotland Institute of Sport, and my physios and doctors held my hand the whole time while I was swerving between options.
The longest I've ever been out of my boat in almost ten years is one week. We decided that the best option for me, would be to try the 'rehab' part of surgery without actually having surgery. I made this decision looking at my goals - from a long and short term perspective. I want to race for GB at the world championships, and the Olympic Games. I want to teach my kids how to paddle in ten years time. I want to stand on a podium next to my teammates and friends. I want to be 80 years old and feel the water under my kayak. I don't want to risk my health. And surgery, even in the best hands, is risky.
Giving my body time to rest is something I've been terrible at over the years. The time I take out of the boat this winter will be one of the most challenging things I've ever done, but possibly one of the best decisions I've ever made. I'm so grateful that this decision was one I had the opportunity to make, by myself, for myself. I hope if anyone is reading this with a heavy decision weighing on them, that they have the same kind of people to turn to that I do. I invite you to think of me as one of those people.
So my mission to fix my elbow begins, and as usual I'll keep updating my social media with pictures and videos of the best and the worst bits! Thank you for joining me.