KEARNS — Brittany Bowe didn’t know what was happening to her, but she knew it was bad enough she needed to get help.
“I woke up with a terrible headache, and later that afternoon, I started to feel really, really bad,” said Olympic speed skater. “I didn’t know what was happening to me, and it was like this really weird sensation overtook me. I tried to get to my neighbor’s house because I was scared. I was home alone, and I didn’t know what was happening to me.”
As she attempted to walk a few hundred feet from her Salt Lake City home to her neighbor’s front door, the world around her began to twist and go dark.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to pass out’,” she said during U.S. team selections in October. “And then I did pass out. Actually, I passed out a few times.”
Each time, the rushing sound in her ears and the tunnel vision signaled that she was about to lose consciousness, so she lay down to avoid a fall.
“When I came to, I kind of tried to scramble to my fee because I like to be in control of what’s going on,” she said, smiling slightly. “I didn’t even make it into her house. That went on for what felt like an eternity, but it was probably just a few minutes. And that was kind of the start of all of this craziness that’s been going on the past year.”
That ‘craziness’ is that one of the world’s top long track speed skaters — and world record holder in the 1000 meters — lost nearly an entire year to concussion symptoms after she and a teammate collided during training at the Kearns Olympic Oval in July of 2016.
Despite playing college basketball, competing as an elite inline skater for years and working to become one of the world’s top long track athletes, Bowe had never had a serious injury.
That changed when the collision knocked her off her feet and onto the ice.
“I didn’t lose consciousness, but I knew I’d never been hit that hard in the head,” she said. “It was just kind of a freak accident. He was going one way, and I was going the other way, and (it) blindsided me. I got up and skated around a little bit, and then, like after a few minutes, I was like, ‘I really got my head rocked there.’”
A few minutes after the collision, she began feeling pressure in her head.
“I thought, ‘I should probably stop and just chill’,” she said. “I had never had a concussion before, so it never really crossed my mind.”
As she was leaving the ice, however, she couldn’t remember where she’d left changed from shoes to skates.
“It kind of freaked me out,” she said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is kind of weird.’ It wasn’t completely alarming, but it was noticeable and it began to freak me out.”
She underwent “concussion protocol” that the team has in place. She seemed fine, and she went home. For about a week, it seemed that except for an occasional headache, which wasn’t unusual for her after a challenging training session, she was on the mend.
Then came that incident where she repeatedly passed out trying to walk from her house to her next door neighbor’s home, and the gravity of the injury began to show.
It would, however, be a much longer, slower, more difficult journey than Bowe, her teammates or coaches could imagine. There were times when it wasn’t just speed skating that was in doubt, but just a return to anything that resembled a normal life.
Almost immediately after that fainting episode, the ability to workout became a peripheral problem to just being able to do things like walk through a grocery store.
“I started having these weird concussion symptoms,” she said. “The most alarming symptoms were those visual stimuli, I guess you could say, bright colors, crowded areas, were triggers or problems that set me off and would really, really overwhelm me. They triggered anxiety, which I have never struggled with in my past. So this whole new world came crashing down on me.”
She endured a long list of medical tests and treatments in an effort to salvage her 2016-17 season. As soon as she was cleared to skate, she began having low blood pressure that led to more fainting spells.
“Nobody really knew what was going on with that,” she said.
More tests led doctors to conclude she had Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), which causes an increased heart rate when a person stands up and can cause lightheadedness, fainting and rapid heartbeat.
“I was on these salt tablets for months and months, and it never really helped,” she said. “I was having these fainting episodes, in addition to these vestibular issues from my concussion, like dizziness, visual input and inner ear, brain function, obviously. Those were just a mess.”
She was cleared to race in the Heerenveen (Netherlands) World Cup with “little to no training under my belt.”
She won silver in the 1,000 meters.
“I missed out on gold by just a few 10ths,” she said, “and I was like ‘Ok, this is the turning point.’”
She returned to Salt Lake City and began training for the U.S. championships. The day before those races in early January, she had a fainting episode.
“I obviously wasn’t cleared to skate,” she said. “It was devastating. I had just hung onto the hope that I would somehow be ready for World Singles. Like that was my goal. I thought, ‘Ok, if I can just get through this winter and stay patient, and maybe we can do something special at World Singles. So knowing that wasn’t going to be the case, it was devastating.”
That disappointment was followed by serious soul-searching. It was clear, she needed a long-term break from the ice.
“Stepping away from the sport was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” she said. “I sat here, in this very room with the coaching staff and the medical staff, and we all went back and forth so many times because nobody really knew what was going on, and skating is my identity. When skating is going well, I was feeling good about myself, so nobody wanted to take that away from me.” But the evidence was clear, and so she went home to Florida so her mom could help her recover not just her career but her health.
“It was devastating to make that decision to step away from the sport,” she said. “It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.”
After some time in Florida, she went to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for three months.
“I got completely re-evaluated by a team of doctors there as well as by a neurosurgeon in Denver, who is a consultant for the Denver Broncos,” she said.
She took up yoga, practices a mindfulness routine, and has developed patience with her body as it tries to recover from the injury.
“We were really trying to untangle so many systems, and I’m happy to say I haven’t had a fainting episode in quite sometimes now,” she said. “I struggle with some anxiety with the visual in crowded places still, but I manage well for the most part. I just take it step by step.”
Most importantly, Bowe is back to training hard. She made the World Cup team this fall and won the B Division in the 500 and 1,000-meter races Heerenveen. She skipped the Calgary World Cup last weekend due to an undisclosed illness, but she will be competing in this weekend’s World Cup at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns.
The races begin with the women’s 500-meter event at 12:30 p.m. and they continue through Sunday. This is the last World Cup before the Olympic Trials next month in Milwaukee.
“It’s been a process, to say the least,” Bowe said, laughing. “There are no timelines. But everybody is hopeful that I can return to “normal” in everyday situations, and I would say on good days, I’m very close to that. On days when I’m tired, the symptoms arise a little bit more like with antsy-ness and anxiety.”
The support of her family and teammates has been a lifeline throughout the healing process. Through it all, she said she never considered giving up the sport or her Olympic dream.
The fact that she’s dedicated almost all of the last few years of her life to the pursuit of an Olympic medal only made her struggle more painful.
“I mean, if you’re passionate about what you do, it doesn’t matter what it is,” she said. “If that gets taken away from you, it’s very hard to deal with. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard (you’re more than a speed skater), and deep down, I know that. I have a college education, I’m an intelligent person. I’m kind.”
She did not let herself consider quitting, but she did yearn for normal.
“I know life will take me exactly where I’m supposed to go,” she said. “But for that to be taken away from me, when I’ve put so much time and sacrifice, I’m just not ready to be done. It was very hard for a very long time. But being able to be out there now, and maybe I’m not hitting the times that I want, but being able to be out there and give full efforts, I’m so grateful for that.”