By Kate O’Brien, 2016 Rio Olympian, Para-cycling World Champion and World Record Holder
My name is Katie.
I love nerdy science stuff – when I was seven, I used my birthday money to buy myself a little microscope. I love music – playing, singing, listening (not that I’m very good at the first two, but still. . .) I love mountains; I tend to be a fairly anxious person and mountains are the stable and calm brought to my life.
I’m also a massively competitive person, so naturally I love sports. I like to do speedy things; I was a bobsledder for about five years before I became a track cyclist.
I remember one Christmas Santa gave me a basketball hoop. No backboard. No stand. Just a hoop. There are few times in my life that I’ve ever been happier. My dad immediately went out to our little backyard and screwed it to the side of the garage. I went out—in the knee-high Calgary snow—and practiced by myself for hours.
Sounds kind of awful when I describe it now, but I still remember the feeling. I have spent my life seeking that feeling; wondering where it came from and how to get it back.
I played basketball for years but stopped when I started high school because I was worried about it negatively affecting my grades. I had a plan – I was going to be a doctor, so that was first and foremost. I didn’t want basketball to get in the way of that goal.
In grade eleven, I realized I had more time than I thought, so I tested out a new sport: track and field. I loved it! It fit in with my plan nicely: track and field in university on my way to med school. Perfect. Unfortunately, my knee thought otherwise when I smoked it on a hurdle. What I thought was a sprain ended up needing three surgeries and placed me on the sidelines.
Despite the surgeries and another bump in the road, my knee didn’t stop me. I got into bobsleigh in my last year of my undergraduate degree. My first run down, I pushed that sled as fast as I could, jumped in, felt the speed. . . and felt it as we crashed. When we stopped (sideways) at the bottom, I got out of the sled and knew that I had fallen in love. When the idea of being able to qualify for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games appeared, it was a surprise to me, but I liked that idea.
I allowed my competitive nature to emerge and gave training everything. I took a year off of my master’s degree to focus on trying to push a bobsleigh as fast as I could. Despite the heart I put into the sport I loved for five years, history repeated itself. Unfortunately, I got injured just before Sochi and couldn’t compete.
I felt lost. I felt like an utter failure. I didn’t know where to go from there.
Not all hope was lost though, because during that time I was recruited to track cycling. Apparently bobsleigh athletes put out fairly good power (but only for a few seconds, true delicate sprinters that we are. . .) I competed in bobsleigh and track cycling for the 2014-2015 season, then hung up my sled and decided to focus on track cycling. Despite the literal and figurative hurdles I went through, I had another shot of making an Olympic team.
I trained and competed without anything in mind besides doing something that I loved. In the end, I qualified for the 2016 Olympics and it was amazing. I’ll be totally honest – it wasn’t quite like what they show it as in movies. There was a fair amount of pressure to perform, but it was in looking past that, much like with qualifying, that I saw what I love in sport.
During the 2016-2017 season, things seemed to be getting better – my teammate Amelia and I won silver in the Team Sprint at the LA World Cup, a first for Canada. But, as a senior member of the team, there was pressure to race and perform at quite a high level. I felt like if I didn’t lead the team, I would be a failure. I forgot why I was even doing the sport to start with. I felt like I had to keep pushing to the 2020 Olympics because if I didn’t, I was a huge loss for the sport system; like investing in a stock that never succeeds.
Training leading into my second Olympic Games took a turn when I crashed during training in July 2017. I had some scrapes and broken bones, but the main concern was my head injury. I was in the hospital for three months. Doctors didn’t know if I would walk, talk or eat on my own again, never mind ride a bike. But I started talking (sorry about that!), eating on my own and eventually hopped back on a bike – I even went back to competing.
It wasn’t straightforward; two steps forward, one step back. When things were looking up, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic epilepsy. I kept going, with a lot of support from the physicians who work with me, as well as friends and family. I began competing in the Para program, something that took some time to wrap my head around, but they welcomed me with open arms. Not once did they see me as a disabled person who used to be an athlete, rather as an athlete who happens to have a disability.
It’s the best team I have ever been a part of because it reminded me of my why. I love the sport itself, not the labels put on it. Not the medals won or the number of world cups or Games in which I have competed. I realized that was the feeling I had with my basketball hoop in the backyard. I was playing basketball because I love basketball, nothing more. I am realizing that plans for life don’t always stay on the track we think they will.
I guess the point of this long-winded ramble is that I have found that being human can be, well, uncertain. . . and that’s hard. It took a lot for me to realize that the feeling of happiness I had when I first started doing the things I loved was simply because I loved doing them.
It took having a significant injury to force me to take a step back and realize what I wanted to do. It’s not easy to stay in that headspace, but maybe we could all give it a shot, just as an experiment (I’m still a scientist at heart, one who thanks you for reading her ramblings!)