ATHLETE INTERVIEW - January 2019
Sarah De Jaegher
Sarah De Jaegher is a 37 year old athlete from Belgium, and is often called Sarahita, a little lady with big dreams. She discovered her passion for stand-up-paddleboarding after moving on from being a semi-professional Tango dancer. She loves her career as a primary school teacher, teaching gym classes to young children, as well as training clients as a personal fitness trainer. For an active individual like Sarah, who has been training in gymnastics since young, tearing her ACL and not going able to do what she loved, was difficult mentally and emotionally. However, this experience opened her eyes and changed her perspective in many ways. So much so that she ended up getting a surf-tattoo on her arm to remind her of the obstacles she has conquered, and the new chapters in her life.
In her feature, she shares her story and experience overcoming her ACL injury - the hard times, the good times, lessons learned, and advice for other athletes.
FOLLOW SARAH ON IG: @jufzehraavci
Q&A with Sarah
1. Can you share our ACL story?
I had done gymnastics all my youth and became a semi-professional Tango-dancer. But when my relationship with my boyfriend at the time ended, so did my dancing chapter of life.
I went looking for a new passion and ended up at the beach for a childhood dream come true: learning how to surf. Soon I started stand-up-paddle (SUP) boarding - racesup and wavesup - which became my biggest passion ever!
I met my current boyfriend, Fabrice, on the water and he promised to teach me how ski. Another one of my biggest sporty dreams, was learning how to ski or snowboard. I wanted to snowboard, but he convinced me to learn to ski.
So I went with my pro (Fabrice), his daughter and a friend of her’s on a skitrip to the Jura. It was like another dream come true. I felt so happy and as I’m very sportive, and made progress very fast. Maybe too fast, because on the third day, I felt pretty tired and mentioned it. But Fabrice did not know that word. I tried to explain that I wanted to stop, but he overestimated my abilities and convinced me to move on. So on the final ski trail, which was already over my limits (I prefer easy breezy learning where I can take your time), I kept on turning and my ski did not come loose. Then I heard my right leg snap. I knew immediately that something was seriously wrong. Having been involved in sports all my life, I knew my body (I’m a teacher in primary school and teach gym. I also studied as a fitness trainer). So that moment of the crash was like: “PAIN - HELL - NO MORE SPORTS for months…”
At the hospital, I was initially misdiagnosed, but after going to Belgium and having an MRI, I received the verdict: a torn ACL..
2. What was the hardest part of the recovery?
2018 did not start as I hoped… and it became harder and harder emotionally.
The hardest period was the beginning phase, right after the injury. I love my job teaching gym to primary students, and knew immediately that I would not be able to go to school till summer holidays. That’s like 5 months away from my job, and I love to work!!!!I had to wait 6 weeks until surgery and I was so scared, because I heard so many stories of bacterial infections and botched surgeries… so I chose a surgeon who is also a sailor at our surf club. That was a good decision and I felt comfortable with him and trusted him. That was very important to me.
After the 6 weeks of pre-revalidation (pre-rehab), it was time for surgery. My mam (mother) went with me, but I was a little disappointed that my boyfriend did not come to visit me… I think he felt guilty for continuing to push me to go on more aggressive ski trails and BAM. He’s a champ in windsurfing, but he’s also a champ in all the sports he is involved in. I’m more like a soul surfer though - typically I’m not interested in pushing myself to extreme limits. I have some goals in life, but I always go for safe. So I thought I started to have doubts about this relationship. But my mam told me, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and if you survive this as a couple, it will bring you closer than ever”. She was right in the end, and our relationship is stronger than ever (I really feel that we can move mountains now together!) Fabrice, his daughter Amelie, and the dog, all took good care of me when I arrived home.
The first week was dominated by pain - a burning pain in my leg. It appears that not everyone has this kind of pain, and it is different for everyone - but every time I lowered my leg, I could compare it with a bucket of liquid fire going through my leg. I cried for 5 days and nights and only lived on water and painkillers. But then my loved ones forced to eat well, good power food. It was over before I knew it, and I was so happy when I finally had the stitches removed. NOW I could take a real shower!!!!! YEAH, because I have always been a shower addict!
It was also very hard to rely on other people, because I have lived alone for some years and became a very independent woman. In the first 8 weeks, I needed a driver if I wanted to go anywhere. I can be stubborn at times, and wanted to do as much as possible, and everything on my own. So I walked like a lot, and I love walking. After 3 weeks, I already took the train to go from Bredene to Bruges, because my mom lives in Bruges. So I did that beautiful walk with two crutches and my brace, and then with one crutch and my brace, then only with my brace and one day, just like that… I was finally walking again.
Also my physiotherapist was in Bruges, Belgium. He treated me in the past after a car-accident with whiplash, and I decided to stick with him.
The fact that I was not working made me feel like I was not needed anymore. I have always been a passionate teacher… so I went looking for a new creative hobby. So I started writing in my ACL-diary and making drawings again, like I used to do when I was young.
The first time, I went to the surfclub, there were like major clean waves. It was the start of the season and I knew I could not surf or stand-up paddle (sup) for months. I could not hold my tears in. I also realized that my days in the fitness classes at the gym were over after surgery and I was on my own. No more BBB workouts, no Zumba, no boxing, no more TRX, no challenge, nothing. So my social life at the gym was gone as well…
3) How did you stay motivated during the recovery?
My motivation was a deep inner monster, that never gave up.
I went to the store, Decathlon, and bought everything I could to create my own gym at home. Physiotherapy was for deep tissue massage and to learn exercises that I could do at home. I was very disciplined and respected the time, but I tried to stay fit with a program I made for myself - to train the whole body without using force on my bad knee…
I couldn’t dance, run, or surf… but I did push myself on the bike - first a spin bike, and after getting the green light from my surgeon, I went on my bike for a ride outside. That was a fantastic feeling!!!!
After 4 weeks, I was already in the pool having swimming lessons to learn how to swim crawl. It was amazing: I was like drowning but felt so alive!
4 weeks after that, I also went into the Northsea with my stand-up paddleboard (sup). I bought a kajakpaddle and instead of stand up paddling, I did sit-down-paddling! My mam was always my biggest supporter. She stood next to me when I got on the bike in physiotherapy, and she helped me into the waves when I got on my sup for the first time. But also my boyfriend, his daughter and the Maltese dog were a big support during these difficult times.
One of the ladies of the sup-team was also injured one week after me. In a way, I was fortunate that I was not alone. Stephanie became my true friend and ACL-buddy. But her story was far more severe than mine, because it will be a 3 year revalidation (rehabilitation).
4) Do you have any tips or tricks for recovery?
I would recommend that everybody keep a journal documenting your progress. Each day is step forward and sometimes it’s in the little things that matter. I counted my steps and wrote down the sports I did, but also the positive things that happened during each day.
Even more than before, I realized how important family and friends are. It also made me realize that happiness is everywhere - it’s hidden in the little things: drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, walking on the beach with that crazy enthusiast little white dog (she made me smile everyday! Alice was my biggest therapist). A dog is a really a big support.
My addiction to the ocean and the sea became even bigger than before. It gave me the power when I needed strength and it gave me calm vibes when I needed a peace of mind. It’s also very good for outdoor swimming if you can swim crawl, walk in the water, and balance on the surfboard: VITAMIN SEA is the message!
5) Has this injury changed you in any way?
It has changed me forever…
My legs still don’t feel the same after 9 months, but I have high hopes!
It made me realize the importance of surfing and stand-up-paddling in my life. So I went and got a surf-tattoo on my arm. It will remind me of the hard times that I have overcome and the new chapters in life!
I learned to be patient as I respected the recovery timelines that were given to me, and did not force anything. I promised myself to follow my instincts and to never let myself be talked into things that I do not feel comfortable with. Now I know my limits. Like if the waves are too big, but it is epic… then I’m sorry, if doesn’t feel right, I won’t go in.
I trust my own instincts.
I fear that my ski-adventure that just begun could be over forever if I make the wrong decisions. There are so many cool sports I love - like skating and surfing and gym. And to risk losing it all by returning to skiing too soon, just ain’t worth it.
So when my boyfriend goes skiing with his daughter Amélie this year, I will go to Lanzarote with my mam. Special thanks to my mam (my big hero), my boyfriend for keeping me in his arms when I was sad, Amelie for the wonderful conversations we had, and the surf sessions together, my little white furry friend for the endless walks together on the beach, my physiotherapist Johan for the perfect treatment, my surgeon Hans for the good surgery, and Stephanie my brace buddy for keeping me motivated throughout the recovery.
Thank you Sarah for sharing your story with athletes across the globe!