Kimber Gabryszak: - Skeleton racing - Mountain biking (especially downhilling) - Travel - Family - and much MUCH MORE!

Thursday, January 02, 2014

2013 In Review &...Skeleton: the Rest of the Story

What's GOING ON???
Now that the new year is upon us and USBSF press releases for upcoming races are going out without my name in them, some of you have asked "what's going on?"

I needed a little time to process it all, but now I'm ready to tell the story.

The long and short of it is that I am done sliding and will not be going to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.

But before that, let me go back and summarize the last year so you can understand the what and the why and the how. (It's a summary but is long since I didn't post much from the trenches, so if you want just skim and enjoy some fun photos.)

End of 2012
My fall 2012 season included a World Cup in Park City and two ICC races in Park City, my home track, and a World Cup in La Plagne, France.

In the PC world cup, my hand slipped at the start of my second run and with a 0.10 second slower start, I dropped back 8 places to finish in 15th. I was disappointed...
 photo 20121116-11720-UtahOlypmicPark-0015.jpg

...and came back with a vengeance in the 2 Park City ICC races...(photo courtesy of the Park Record)...
 photo 20121109__Bsports1_GALLERY.jpg

winning them both. In fact, Brad and I both medaled.
 photo 252273_10152307040250705_793061324_n.jpg

Then I flew to Europe to race the La Plagne World Cup. And just couldn't get it together. Something was going on - I couldn't relax, didn't feel well, couldn't feel the rhythm on the track. While I was happy for those that did well, I returned home utterly crushed. I went through the next couple of weeks in a fog.
 photo IMG_4331.jpg

Spring 2013
Then it turned to 2013. Brad got to race his first World Cup in Altenberg, Germany, while I headed to Igls, Austria for the ICC races there. (He was top US finisher, by the way. I was so proud!)
 photo IMG_4795.jpg

Igls is a frustrating track - I've said it before. To summarize those races, I felt as relaxed as possible and still finished outside the top 10.  Frustrating! Then we headed to Altenberg.

We love Altenberg.
 photo IMG_4426.jpg

It is a track that (usually) favors our sliding style. In fact, we both again made it on the podium.
 photo IMG_4854.jpg

 photo IMG_4839.jpg

And then, for the first time in the many years of racing, we had 5 days off before the next event, and were actually together in the same place!. So Brad and I grabbed a backpack, hopped on a train, and went to Prague...
 photo IMG_5010.jpg

...and Berlin...
 photo IMG_5060.jpg

...and Hamburg to see the incredibly detailed Miniatur Welt (miniature world)...
 photo IMG_5146.jpg

 photo IMG_5137.jpg

...and Dortmund where we watched a whole restaurant eat hamburgers with forks...
 photo IMG_4463.jpg

...before meeting back up with the rest of the team in Winterberg.
 photo IMG_5174.jpg

But something wasn't right. 

The whole time we traveled I was completely out of it. A scenic tram ride anyone?
 photo IMG_4915.jpg

I wasn't really interested in the sightseeing, and felt...flat.
 photo IMG_5020.jpg

I had headaches, was dizzy, was constantly exhausted, and was just rather blank...
 photo IMG_5177.jpg the point that at one point most of the way through the trip Brad said "Hey, there you are, you're back!" one day when I started to smile and interact. (I'm sure this isn't the exact moment, but I had a hard time finding any photos of our trip that showed me really smiling or involved! Most of the rest are like the three above.)
 photo IMG_5099.jpg

Of course, we attributed it to jetlag, having a cold, the rigors of traveling, and being depressed over not performing better in our races.

Speaking of which, Winterberg. No one did well in Winterberg. Notice the awards ceremony? None of us are up there...oops. We did our best to take it in stride though and enjoyed the hot cocoa.
 photo IMG_4494.jpg

Spring 2013 - aka "What a Concussion is Like"
It wasn't until we got home at the end of January that the extent of the problem became clear. You see, on tour, you can sleep a lot. Nap when you aren't feeling well. Eat or not eat. Talk or not talk. Think or not think. You don't have a lot of demand for high-level brain functions in terms of math or writing; you just have to perform athletically. There are also plenty of handy excuses such as jet lag, stress, a head cold, inability to focus due to training exhaustion, and more.

Well, once we got home and tried to return to a normal routine we just...couldn't.
 photo IMG_5277.jpg

Thus began one of the worst periods of my life. Of OUR lives...because Brad was going through the same things:
  • Awful headaches - and I'd never had them before. 
  • No endurance - after the first week or two I could function at work, but it was much slower and took everything I had, so that back at home at the end of the day I was a rag doll with no mental or physical energy for anything.
  • Utter exhaustion - sleeping 10+ hours a night and still not recovered. 
  • Difficulty with numbers - I used to have a photographic memory, and suddenly had to look at a phone number 4 times just to dial it.
  • Eye fatigue - reading a book made me motion sick. Watching basketball (tracking the ball across the screen) made my head ache. My eyes would lose focus. 
  • Eye twitching and blinking - when tired, my right eye would twitch nonstop, almost vibrating, and make me seasick. I would also blink nonstop, hard blinks and uncontrollable. 
  • Dizziness and imbalance - constant spinning when I closed my eyes, and I would sometimes just fall over when standing with my eyes open...
  • Fogginess - my brain felt like it was wrapped in a towel, inaccessible. Everything around me felt distant and unimportant. 
  • Drifting - in meetings, in conversations, trying to watch TV, I would just drift off. Not asleep, but just away from the present moment.  I would go slack faced at lunch with a friend and come back a minute later to find her staring at me with concern. I would take copious notes in meetings so that if I drifted it would be ok. That was the scariest part...
  • Unable to find words - long pauses in conversations where I tried to find even simple words like "bookcase" and "bread."
  • Inability to exercise - the moment my heart rate hit about 100, or maybe 120 on a good day, the headache and dizziness and fog would descend mercilessly. 
  • Inability to slide - we went to the Olympic Park to slide, and within an hour of getting home I was on the couch with nausea and a headache and spinning so hard I felt like I wasn't in my body, and was set back in recovery. 
  • Sadness - we didn't really realize how depressed and sad were were, but I would burst into tears at the slightest thing, and we DID notice that as we healed, we started to feel absurdly happy! Phew!
Luckily, there are several concussion specialists in Park City and Salt Lake, and we were quickly under the care of several, one that is trained by the leading specialist in the country. Neither Brad nor I had ever actually hit our heads, so their theory was that it was from certain high pressure curves in Whistler and La Plagne, and that it may have been building up for years. (Looking back I had started symptoms in La Plagne, recall the 'fog' comment over Christmas...again written off as just being crushed by my results there and being "down" and "jet lagged.")

The next 3-4 months saw us in the hyperbaric chamber, getting cranial massage, getting all sorts of PT, and constantly doing these witchcraft-esque otolithic system drills to retrain our brains and eyes. Witchcrafty it may have been, but it worked. (And it was all quite expensive...but don't get me started on the financial costs of brain trauma, as the emotional and physical costs are enough to think about.)

We didn't do much besides work and sleep. Well, and learn about the - often surprising - things that affected us while in this fragile state. 

We tried to ski a few times until we put two and two together and realized that the reason we felt terrible for days afterward was that the vibrations were affecting our heads, and the balance demands left us drained.
 photo IMG_5300.jpg

We tried to bike - hah, I biked exactly 3 times all summer, since the neck position and vibrations (road bike included) brought on symptoms immediately. From someone who used to practically live on a bike, that's just inconceivable. 
 photo IMG_4772.jpg

A family emergency arose, and I flew across the country last minute with my parents to meet my uncle Max, my dad's brother, for the first and last time. 
 photo IMG_4720.jpg
From that we found out that the changing pressures of flying made things worse and I was set back almost to ground zero, so we stayed close to home after that. (I'm still so happy that I went. Precious memories.)

Sugar and dairy and grains made symptoms worse, so I learned to make all sorts of sugar-free grain-free dairy-free foods.  Like crockpot pumpkin beef chili.
 photo IMG_5569.jpg

And key lime pie. (Yes, that is dairy, grain, and sugar free, and delicious!)
 photo IMG_0080.jpg

We pretty much just sat around and took a lot of photos of Jean Luc. 
 photo IMG_4653.jpg

 photo IMG_5289.jpg

 photo IMG_0171.jpg
(You know I have thousands more but these will do for an example...)

By May, we felt better enough to do a little gardening and decided to recreate a bunch of our wedding photos.

 photo image290.jpg

Grubby garden recreation:
 photo CIMG2151.jpg

Summer 2013 - aka "Recovery, Yay!"
By June we could (finally) start training again From there it seemed promising: my memory abilities were mostly back, a normal night's sleep was adequate, headaches were only occasional, we could train, we could travel, and we would be ready for the next season. After a spring from hell, the summer was great!

I received a (somewhat expected due to ongoing pain) bombshell that I am going to need double hip surgery, but was able to push through with the help of a hip specialist and train to the point where I was stronger and faster than last season. I set new personal bests in all my lifts and felt great. (This pic is of a warm up set.)
 photo IMG_5633.jpg

And Brad set new personal bests as well. (This pic is an actual personal best.)
 photo IMG_5236.jpg

While most of our time was training and working, we found time to enjoy the summer.

Brad ate a CHEESEburger, shocking.
 photo IMG_4933.jpg

We threw a surprise Mad-Hatter Unbirthday party for a friend.
 photo IMG_4911.jpg

By July we could fly safely, and flew to Lake Placid for the national team camp, where the team was kitted out in 1980s USA hockey jerseys...

 photo IMG_4959.png

...and where I got some serious PT...
 photo IMG_5519.jpg

...blame the PT for the rockin' was apparently shockingly painful (but effective!)...P.S. Peter is amazing...
 photo IMG_5525.jpg

...we dolled up for the team gala...
 photo IMG_4979.jpg

...and signed autographs at an event at the Placid ski jumps.
 photo IMG_6046.jpg

We flew to Minnesota to visit Brad's family, a long overdue and promised visit. 
 photo DSCN1604.jpg

We also finally flew to Alaska to visit my family, also a long overdue and promised visit. 
 photo IMG_5102.jpg

Trap shooting Alaska style - if one misses, the others won't? (Yes, I know rifles aren't usually used for trap shooting, but there was only one shotgun, and my dad took out several clays with the .22!)
 photo IMG_5608.jpg

I was invited to the USANA convention and did my best to offer inspiration in English and Chinese. 
 photo IMG_5027.jpg

I must have been at least mostly recovered by August, since I interviewed well and got an AMAZING new job as Planning Director at the City of Saratoga Springs (Utah version, sorry NY friends)- and they agreed to give me the same time off for skeleton that Summit County would have (thanks Summit County for all the years of support, and thank you Saratoga Springs for the new family and support!).

Things were falling into place nicely and I couldn't have been happier!
 photo IMG_5265.jpg

On a cool side note, as part of the job, they let me participate at a training burn...
 photo IMG_5598.jpg

...and I was IN this area when it burned, "helping" run the hoses to keep it under "control"...while the ceiling fell in on us and windows exploded and the crews-in-training cut in from outside. Flames all around, heat coming in through my breathing apparatus - it was amazing. But back to the story...
 photo IMG_5611.jpg

We dressed up as He-Man and She-Ra for a fundraiser. 
 photo IMG_4631.jpg

Less fun - I got charged by a moose that was 4 feet away and was 110% sure I was going to die (I was doing a warm-up jog in the gutter in this pic, she was on the immediate other side of the gravel) in the dark of 5am, with her baby behind her. Sprinting backwards and falling into a neighbor's landscaping. Um...
 photo IMG_5238.jpg

But I miraculously survived (mostly) unscathed. (She stopped in the street when I fell - I think my shrieking scared her.) 

Nothing, not a new job nor a fire and not even a moose attack, was keeping me from being ready for Team Trials; this was the season to either make it or break it. 

Team Trials
The time was finally upon us, we were as physically and mentally prepared as could be, and we headed to Placid. Brad won an amazing award (the Randy Price Memorial award).
 photo IMG_5327.jpg

 photo ScreenShot2014-01-02at71307AM.png

As for sliding...I think it was fear of hitting our heads but we weren't able to relax as much as normal. I had also strained my quad prior to trials (aggravated by sprinting away from the moose, yay) so was pushing about 2 tenths of a second slower. So, the races didn't go as well as we would have liked, but we still had home ice in Park City yet to come.

Farewell Placid!
 photo IMG_5354.jpg

We slid much more relaxed and so performed better in Park City, but had a lot of ground to make up from the Placid races.  It all came down to the last race, but my quad was half-healed and I was finally able to push, and I made the team I needed to make in order to have a chance.

Relief at the finish of the last race (photo courtesy of the AP).
 photo RickBrowerKimberTrials.jpg

Brad did very well in Park City also, but was one spot off the team he needed to make in order to have a shot at the Games and decided to retire. Instead, he would accompany me on tour. There were lots of tears all around and a nice speech by the coaches, but I only have video so no photos to post, sorry!  

Then there was a month of time to prepare for the first ICC races. The US women needed to do well enough to earn a third spot in the Olympics and I needed to be the next in line, so there was a lot of work to do. I trained hard, did mind runs, got PT to help my quad heal, packed, and prepared. I was optimistic!

Then a week before we left I stubbed and, um, broke a toe. Haha, right? But I was STILL optimistic.

A broken toe was not going to stop me!
 photo IMG_5652.jpg

And it didn't. On tour in Igls, Austria I was still able to push only one hundredth of a second off of my personal best, and that with sticky (slow) ice at the start. I was in great condition. 
 photo IMG_7026.jpg

And funny enough, Brad got to race in Igls due to an injury (we jokingly told everyone that Mike was kicked by a horse since a random group of horses showed up at the track one day, and they believed it, but the truth is he tore his quad).
 photo IMG_7052.jpg

This isn't Brad's sled, and he had only had 2 runs on it, and he was still retired, so it's rather funny. 
 photo IMG_5696.jpg

But even so, the races were terrible, with none of us even breaking the top 10. We made the most of it and when we got to Altenberg later we ate consolation ice cream - the team made me order extra since I'm the only one that speaks any German, hah. And we needed a lot of ice cream. 
 photo IMG_7416.jpg

Yes, it was that good. 
 photo IMG_5955.jpg

And spent an hour or so unwinding at the nearby Dresden medieval Christmas market.
 photo IMG_5879.jpg

Oh, I almost forgot: we also visited Innsbruck after the races, before leaving for Altenberg, and saw the Krampus again. Always uplifting?
 photo IMG_5762.jpg

Regardless of results we had a great team, with lots of good times and good teamwork and good attitudes, probably one of the best combinations I've had the pleasure of traveling with. You all rock!
 photo IMG_7292.jpg

Then it was on to Altenberg.

The fat lady hadn't sung...good results in Altenberg could change things. 

And I love Altenberg! I was on the podium here last season, remember?
 photo IMG_7284.jpg

But apparently Altenberg decided to break up with me. Or, make that with us. Brad took one run, felt unsafe on the unfamiliar sled, and decided not to race, while the officials made me get x-rays after the first day. 
 photo IMG_7293.jpg

Luckily, just bone bruises. So I kept sliding.

There was still a chance - if I could only podium again the door might crack. 

But it was not meant to be. I still couldn't relax and so wasn't sliding as well as last year, and the last day I hit my head. And broke my visor. And cracked my helmet (creaking is good right?)

Big shout-out to USANA for their support - unexpected benefit was their sticker helping stop the break (it goes almost to the top of the sticker) which saved me from more damage. And you can see the burned off lettering from wherever it was that I smacked my face. (Curve 4? 10? 13? 15? I really can't remember for sure.)
 photo IMG_6006.jpg

A British slider loaned me her helmet for another run, which I (foolishly) took in order to end on a good note, but I knew already I wasn't quite right. I was rattled. Foggy. Headache-y. Dizzy. Seeing sparks. I could tell this concussion wasn't as bad as last season's, but it was still dangerous to slide. (If you didn't know, some of the worst damage from a concussion comes from hitting your head WHILE you are already concussed.)

It took the rest of the day and night for me to make the smart decision: not to race.

I didn't want to ever go through what I went through with the last one. 

But making the decision to not race wasn't that simple; it wasn't just deciding to miss 2 races and then come back later in the season.

Without those 2 races, there would be absolutely NO chance.
No door cracking.

No chance for me to get enough points for the Olympics, or even enough points to help the team earn or hold a spot. Therefore, the decision was excruciating. But, even so, I know I made the right decision. Brian (the coach) supported it. My teammates supported it. Brad supported it.

And the kicker, as I found out later, is that Brad was so concerned that he was considering asking the officials pull me from the race if I didn't sit out. That's how awful it was for us this spring and how risky it would have been.

It took some processing and struggling. 9 years of training and competing for this chance, 5 years on the National Team, only to lose it at the last.

I'm pretty sure I yelled at Brad for these photos, but am somewhat glad to have them now.
 photo IMG_7388.jpg

 photo IMG_7390.jpg

I cried it out that night, and the next, and admit to actually crying a lot over the next week or so. Have to go through the 5 stages of grief...I'm still in it somewhere of course but am coming to terms.

Aww, buck up li'l cowgirl!
 photo IMG_5932.jpg

Brad and I left Altenberg early; I felt guilty for abandoning the team but was too on-the-verge-of-weeping every time someone spoke to me to go and cheer for everyone. And since not everyone (other countries included) knew this meant the end for me, I didn't want to talk about it.

(You see, the next ICC races are in Whistler, a track well known for its difficulty, high speed, high pressure, and history of concussion issues. With a barely healed concussion and no chance of the Games, the risk was also too high for those races so I am staying home to heal, and have now been replaced on tour for the remainder of the season.)

Paris - Letting Go
So Brad and I drove to Munich and hopped a train for Paris (our flights were into Munich out of Paris, hurrah), where we had a total of a whole day! imagine! to sightsee! And I'd never been there. (By the way, the Mona Lisa is behind Brad's head. I'm awesome at selfies...oops.)
 photo IMG_7592.jpg

We finished the trip on a high note. I was definitely out of it and concussed, but not as badly as before so was optimistic for recovery coming home.
 photo IMG_7553.jpg

Now we are home; we had an excellent Christmas; we are back to work; Jean Luc is happy to see us; and I am doing great.
 photo IMG_6040.jpg

I'm healed enough that I can work all day and still be somewhat functional in the evenings, can sleep normally and feel mostly rested, can do moderate workouts, and am only a little dizzy / sparky on occasion. And after writing this whole thing I only have a moderate headache, haha!

So there you have it. I made the decision to close the door on the small remaining chance of the Olympics to protect a somewhat important part of the body that you can't replace. I have the rest of my life to need it...

So though it's painful and disappointing, it was / is the right thing to do.

If you want to call it a Resolution, my goal for 2014 it is just to heal and be fully healthy. I am having my first hip surgery at the end of January, the second hip sometime in the fall (hip-one rehab dependent), my poor toe is still creaky but can finally start to heal now (sprinting and sliding on it is great rehab right?), and I am back under the care of the concussion specialists to make sure I finish my (already-great) healing process.

I can't thank all my friends, family, sponsors, fans, employers, and coworkers enough for the support and encouragement. You got me SO CLOSE, so close that as I'm recovering next month I get to watch friends from all over the world compete in the Olympics. Friends that I competed with, that I was neck-and-neck with at various races, that I stood on podiums with, that offered me great sportsmanship over and over, and that gave me memories I'll cherish forever.

Thank you.