From 2 ACL tears, to winning 1st place in the Super Sprint Triathlon

december 8, 2018

ATHLETE: GEMMA BROWN
FOLLOW HER on IG: @gem6421

Gemma Brown is a 33-year old athlete, originally from the United Kingdom but currently living in Abu Dhabi. She is currently Head of Physical Education in a British International School. Previously, she was an International Field Hockey player and is now a sponsored Triathlete; competing every weekend in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. During the summer holidays (June, July and August), she still plays field hockey in Melbourne, Australia, and has played in the National Premier League in England and Melbourne, Australia. Today, after a significant amount of hard work, she won 1st place in the Super Spring Triathlon! Congratulations!


6 months ago, lying on the hospital bed, she said "I’ll be back for the JLL Triathlon Series Race 1”. Today, she went out, nervous and excited, but smashed it! Congratulations on the 1st place win!

6 months ago, lying on the hospital bed, she said "I’ll be back for the JLL Triathlon Series Race 1”. Today, she went out, nervous and excited, but smashed it! Congratulations on the 1st place win!

Q&A with Gemma Brown

ON HER COMEBACK FROM TWO ACL TEARS

My first ACL reconstruction was 7 years ago. I tore it during field hockey training in the UK. This was my first major injury and I really struggled physically and mentally. Unfortunately, at the time, I was juggling my teaching career and sporting career, which meant my time and dedication to my rehab was very limited. At the very start of my rehab programme, I suddenly found myself 3 weeks behind schedule, without fully knowing how I got there. That was a particularly low point but with some tough physical training sessions and hard work, I was back on track and even more incredibly, I still managed to be back playing for my club and country within 10 months of having the surgery.

My second ACL reconstruction was in May 2018. I was transitioning from my Triathlon training programme to prepare for my hockey season in Melbourne. I was training one night in Dubai, turning towards the goal with the ball, and my knee just completely went out from underneath me. I went down screaming, heard the tear and knew exactly what had happened. I was absolutely heart broken. I was 4 weeks away from the hockey season and I knew this was it for the next 12 months.

The drive home was horrible. I was crying my eyes out, replaying the scene in my mind. I could even hear the tear, over and over again. Even that night lying in pain, I couldn't sleep. All I could see when I closed my eyes was my knee give out from underneath me and the loudest tear I have ever heard.

Anyways, I managed to get myself to the hospital and the doctor diagnosed exactly what I thought: complete tear (both ends) of my ACL with severe bone bruising and some damage to the meniscus. 

I had the surgery a week later. Even the night before, I was starting to get upset that I didn't want to go through the surgery again. I tried to convince myself that I would just continue without my ACL… but I knew deep down if I wanted to play hockey (or any sport) again at a high level, I had to have the surgery.

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Surgery day came, and it was nothing compared to last time - this time, there was no pain - nothing, i felt so strong. I attributed this mainly due to being much stronger physically going into the surgery through training for triathlons and hockey. I decided then and there in the hospital bed that I would use a diary, so I could help others and myself through this injury (the best decision I've made, I've never felt so motivated).

The diary is still going now and I have recorded all the major progressions I have made in my rehabilitation programme, I still flew over to Australia to be with my hockey team on the sideline and coach, I wanted to be around them so I could feel normal, even though i knew I couldn't get on the field with them. Being with them helped me and I could see what I had to do to be back with them again. I continued my rehabilitation programme in Melbourne with a great physiotherapist. My medium term goals were to be back competing (swimming and cycling) by September when I returned to Abu Dhabi, with my long term goal to be back in full triathlons by Feb 2019 and playing hockey by June 2019.

I have been competing in Swimming and Cycling races since September, getting on the podium each weekend. However, today was the day where I wanted to be back competing in a Super Sprint Triathlon, as a baseline to see where I am with my fitness over the three elements. Today I went out with the objective to complete the race and not have any pain on the run, and ended up winning 1st place by 5 minutes.

Tri Belles Abu Dhabi Triathlon Community who have supported Gemma with her return to competing

Tri Belles Abu Dhabi Triathlon Community who have supported Gemma with her return to competing

ON ACL SURGERY #1 vs. ACL SURGERY #2

For both my ACL reconstructions, I had a hamstring graft. This is something that I had opted for. For the first surgery (right ACL), there was horrible pain, and I struggled for a good month after the surgery with pain, movement and muscle fatigue. However, for the second surgery (left ACL), as soon as I woke up from surgery I didn't even realize that I’d had the surgery. I had absolutely no pain whatsoever!

The same with the recovery - I felt much stronger the second time around and I felt my muscle return much quicker this time. I was even walking (with crutches 3 days after the surgery this time around). The diary has helped me see the progress I was making and know where I needed to be next.


ON COMEBACK ADVICE FOR OTHER ATHLETES

My advice would be to focus on the small goals. Set the big ones and have them in the back of your mind, but take each day as it comes. Work hard on your exercises the physio gives you, and make sure you do every single exercise, 3-4 times a day. It's a lot of work, especially to fit around a full time job, but put the work in now and you'll see the results. Share your progress with others - you would not believe how many people are out there, going through the same thing as you. Compare stories, but always remember everyone is different. Also be patient - there will be times when you feel you have plateaued, but one day something just clicks and the progress seems to snowball from there.

"When you can’t play… coach!” - Gemma Brown

"When you can’t play… coach!” - Gemma Brown

ON THE STRUGGLES THROUGH RECOVERY

The hardest part was when I thought too far ahead. Any kind of negative thoughts need to be forgotten straight away. Don't ever sit there and think, “why me? why now? but I should be playing now? but I won't be the same again?” Never, never think that... stay positive by focusing on what you can do here and now. Don't look too far ahead. Looking into the future only ruins your mental state. Don't be afraid to push yourself a little bit - you'll be amazed at how much your body can take.


ON FUTURE GOALS

On that horrible drive home, when I knew exactly what I'd done, my mind decided to try and think about the long term goals:

1) Return for the ITU Sprint Distance in March 2019 with my parents flying out to watch me (my mum flew over for a week after surgery to help me around the apartment, so she's going to be there for my first Sprint Distance Triathlon since surgery)

2) Be back on the field with my hockey family in June 2019 for the new season

Thank you Gemma for sharing your story and experiences to inspire athletes across the globe!

SPECIAL THANKS TO KEY PLAYERS IN GEMMA’S RECOVERY:

  • DR. SHAFI, SURGEON

  • TONY BEECROFT, PHYSIOTHERAPIST, MELBOURNE SPORTS PHYSIOTHERAPY

  • REBECCA HUPPERT, PHYSIOTHERAPIST, MELBOURNE SPORTS PHYSIOTHERAPY

  • LEONARD DELEON, HOSPITAL PHYSIOTHERAPIST