Fighting pain with adventure. An interview with Olivia.
Standing on the beach with the sun shining and the wind blowing her hair across her face. We catch up with Olivia. She is out of breath and dripping sea water, but grinning from ear to ear. The typical scene after a kite-surfing session at Rosebud beach, Melbourne, Australia. At first glance you might think that this is a kite-surfer who has always been gifted at the sport. A natural from her first time on the water. That couldn't be further from the truth. Olivia tells us her story about how she comes to be standing here glowing form a wicked session.
Give us a few details about yourself? Name, where you are from?
I'm Olivia, 28 from Mitcham Beach (Haha, there's no beach near Mitcham) Melbourne.
So when did you start getting in to adventure sports and why?
I got into adventure sports about 10 years ago, once I finished school when I realised I wasn't going to become a famous performer - you have to have talent for that! A good friend of mine got a job at the local climbing gym, and I went along to the gym to check it out. I quite quickly took to it, and had a few older more experienced (strong) climbers mentor me and took me outdoors climbing.
So once you started how did you feel about it?
I was buzzing! It was so nice to find a sport that I was a natural at, that I could marker my progression from week to week, seeing myself become stronger and climbing harder routes. I had a gymnastic background as a child and a young teen, and it seemed a lot of those skills I had were transferable (Thanks Mum for taking me to gym for so many years!)
What kept you going in the sport at the beginning?
The Melbourne climbing scene back them was very small and very connected, I had a great network of climbers around me keeping me psyched. The fact I finished high school and didn't get into University left me with a lot of time. I jumped into the lifestyle wholeheartedly, determined to achieve my goal.
A move to England was a natural next step, offering the opportunity to take on some of the world's big climbs. To live in the Peak District in Sheffield which is a well-established climbing scene, where you could be at the crags 5 mins from your house/work and climb as much as you like was like a dream come true. It cemented my goal, which was to get strong enough to climb something hard on gritstone. There’s a saying in the climbing world, 'how hard can you climb on gritstone' and I was happy to answer 6C (Steep Traverse Stanage Boulders) and then my back got really bad.
How did you 1st injury happen?
I remember at the time starting to experience shooting burning pains in my legs with no apparent cause. There was no huge fall or accident, just a slow increase of pain. The years of gymnastics and training started to catch up with me.
Around about this time I moved to the UK, the Peak District/Sheffield (Climbing Mecca). Where I wanted to be but the pain in my legs grew. It was burning hot and making it hard to stand up all day. Thanks to the NHS I was swiftly put through to an Orthopaedic Surgeon who diagnosed me. The onset of a spinal injury called a spondylolisthesis of the L5/S1 was the root cause. I've ever since been doing rehab to keep my back and core strength up.
What was the effect on your sport and yourself?
Sitting around in a harness became very painful, making me become hyper vigilant. Scared to take a fall, scared to lead routes, scared to get hurt. So naturally I turned to bouldering, a sport where no ropes or harnesses are needed. It also meant carrying around a large crash pad I could sleep on/lay on between moves, a sport where I down climbed and jump off safely. The fear of getting hurt really impeded my climbing, and getting a diagnosis and being told to never extend your spine backwards really limits you and what you think you can do.
When you took up bouldering, how did you feel about it? Did you still get the same feelings as before when you were out there?
To be honest, Bouldering is a lot more chilled out than sport climbing or traditional climbing. It was nice to move to a sport that was still physically demanding, but I could easily rest and still challenge myself. At this point I decided to learn more about the human body, so I started studying a bachelor of health sciences in clinical myotherapy.
How did it change your relationship to climbing?
Learning about the human body and mechanisms of movement really kept me interested in climbing, however at this point my pain was pretty extreme and university and studying whilst working at the gear shop begun taking up all my time. I believe everyone goes to University to help themselves. Mine literally was so I could learn how to treat my back injury and other climbing injuries.
How did you get injured again?
It was at this time my pain was getting worse and I couldn't do a lot of things anymore. I was diagnosed with Central sensitization, which to put it simply; it is a rare condition where my brain was confusing pain signals. Normal movements became extremely painful. Weight bearing on my fingers; accidentally brushing my legs against some holds, landing without preparing would become unbearable. I don't think that I consciously decided to stop climbing, but at this point my sessions became shorter. The pain was now so severe, it was impeding day to day life and I spent more time studying and doing other fitness activities such as Pilates.
How did you feel about it?
Had I had a good run climbing? Did I have more to offer? Yes, I felt gibbed. I was just 18 when I first started climbing; I always said I was going to climb my age. I should be climbing gr 28s now! This was successful until the age of 22-23, but I think I changed my goals. If I could climb, I would treat climbers!
How did you manage the pain?
I had been put on a plethora of pain/neuropathic drugs, which I didn't like taking, the biggest thing for me was pain psychology and exercise (Pilates & Rehab)
In my degree, we did quite a few units on pain and pain psychology and it was fair to say I was in the disablement mind set. This is where I was 'woe is me' and not living. I spent a lot of time re assessing my relationship with pain and what I was going to do with my life to keep living. The unthinkable was now reality, stepping away from climbing. When I stepped back from Climbing, I also stepped back from treating as it turned out that treating people was really hard on my body. If not harder than climbing itself.
How did you get into the get back into the adventure sports?
Funnily enough I'm now the Territory Manager for Sea to Summit, an outdoor adventure gear company. All those years of working at a gear shop landed me in an adventure job. Giving
me the freedom to travelling around the country. To still be involved with adventurous people and adrenaline sports. I was actually visiting the SUP and Kite stores and I got talking to a pro kiter. After a good month of visiting these stores I booked in with the same pro kiter for lessons for my birthday. He was so passionate about it that I was convinced bout giving it a chance, and haven't looked back! I was hooked. At the first lesson all the emotions came rushes back. "The buzz, the joy, it was all still there.
How has it helped you?
At first Kiting was so hard, I earned the nickname 12 o'clock as I was always standing around in the middle with my kite at 12. It took me a long time to be able to ride my board as my legs weren't strong enough, and I was still scared of hurting myself. I chose to wear a seat harness instead of a waist harness because of the same fears I had from climbing in a harness. After 3 months of persistence the strangest thing began to happen, my pain started seriously decreasing, I was noticeably less in pain and uninhibited, my glutes started working the best they ever had, and finally I had strong legs that could edge on a board. I could ride! It took me months to get to this stage, which is quite slow, but for me the fact a sport, no less an extreme sport was allowing me a new burst of freedom, fitness, community, confidence and purpose.
What has kept you wanting to get out there?
Melbourne has an excellent community of Kiters who are keen to get out together and look out for one another, I believe this drive and stoke from the other kiters really kept me going. Like Climbing, Kiting is a sport where you notice yourself becoming better. That kicker coming at you, you pop off it and land it, that wave that is about to break, you can ride it, finally learning how to ride toe side by accident, landing a back roll without stacking..Priceless!
How do you feel now, when you are out there?
Kiting is an extreme sport with lots of elements to it that are out of your control. It’s an opportunity for me to be completely focused, not distracted by my thoughts and kite. You need to be vigilant, watching the waves, feeling the wind, watching your mates. It's a relaxing time not to think about things going on at work, my pain, the freedom to detach. A very different feeling to climbing for sure.
Where to next?
This season I learned how to snowboard, quickly learning some freestyle tricks (180's and butter, nothing special) and then I went snow kiting this season. I'm definitely ramping up and challenging my body, not letting pain stop me. No stopping now and no looking back. There is always a way to be adventurous. There is always another path. Something we can all take note of and apply to our own experience. Just keep following your joy!