For judo star Kelly Edwards, even the simplest of tasks has become a chore. Bending over to take clean clothes out of the washing machine or feeding the cat made the room spin and left her with splitting headaches. These were the all-consuming symptoms of four concussions sustained competing around the world, from Mongolia to Uzbekistan, before the final hit in Paris. They are the tell-tale signs of repetitive concussion that has forced 25-year-old Edwards to withdraw from the qualification process for Rio 2016.
Heartbreaking doesn’t seem a strong enough word to describe how an athlete must feel when told their Olympic dream is over. And now, she must focus on recovery, with the support of loved ones including her fiancé and the Olympic judo strength and conditioning coach, Alan MacDonald.
“I was devastated for a couple of days,” the Commonwealth Games silver medallist admitted. “I’ve been upset, angry, I’ve experienced every emotion. My friends and family have been very supportive. Alan has been my rock and I cannot thank him enough. But it’s been over a week now since I was told by the judo medical staff I would need an extended break to recover. I have to accept it, if you’re an athlete you will get injuries. I know that, I’ve had a few over the years. They help you learn and grow as a person and athlete. I can use my prior experience to get through this.
“I knew after I suffered the fourth concussion at the Paris Open something wasn’t right. I am so disappointed I won’t be able to qualify for the Olympics, but my health is obviously at risk. I can’t be Olympic and world champion if I’m not fit. I have to now focus on getting fit and healthy. The brain is so complex. It controls everything and for that not to be right – I’ve never experienced something like that before. With a shoulder or a knee injury, you can see it. In the brain you can’t see the damage and that was very hard to deal with.”
Concussion often hits the headlines for all the wrong reasons, as reports of rugby players, footballers and American footballers playing on despite their obvious symptoms become more prevalent. Indeed, actor Will Smith’s latest blockbuster Concussion deals with these very issues in NFL. Based on a true story, Dr Bennet Omalu discovers neurological deterioration during an autopsy of a former player and embarks on a mission to raise public awareness about the dangers of head trauma and brain damage in American football.
Concussion in sport is no laughing matter. It is an invisible injury which is initially short-lived, but the risk of post-concussion syndrome is real. Headaches, dizziness, nausea, a lack of energy, depression, forgetfulness and anxiety are just a few of the cognitive, psychological and physical symptoms that can plague sufferers day in, day out.
“It’s a very scary injury,” explained Edwards, a London 2012 Olympian. “That’s why it is so important to take medical advice. I wanted to qualify for Rio, of course, but when the medical advice is that I need a break to recover, I have to take that. I am now much more informed of the short and long-term effects and I reckon I could spot the symptoms in someone else as well.
“There is so much I want to achieve in judo, but there is also life after sport and I want to be fit and healthy for that. After the first concussion at the Mongolian Grand Prix last July, I didn’t take it seriously enough. I wasn’t informed and probably wasn’t fully recovered before the second one in Uzbekistan in October. I was more at risk. I tried to go back on the mat but the symptoms came straight back. The medical team around me were really good in supporting me. I knew things were quite serious. I wanted to push on, but I could barely keep my balance let alone do judo.
“I can see why and how athletes, like rugby players and footballers, do push through it. We’ve always got goals, training sessions, the next tournament, and the urge to meet results and targets; you don’t want to fail and will do everything you can to make sure you hit them.
“But now I am well informed; ultimately you are risking your life. If you have concussion, and you’re not saying how bad it is, the impact of secondary concussion can be devastating. I’m glad concussion is in the media to educate athletes and raise awareness of the signs, symptoms and protocols that are in place. Now I am informed and I can help share that.”
Edwards, a former gymnast, seems surprisingly pragmatic about her decision to step away from her Rio 2016 Olympic dream. She enjoyed a rapid rise through the junior and cadet ranks of the sport, making her senior debut aged just 19 in 2010 at the European Championships in Vienna. Competing in the 48kg category, she won gold in the European Cup in Malaga in 2011 and gold in the British Open European Cup, before earning selection for the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Edwards now competes in the 52kg category and trains in Walsall. After winning silver at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, her focus had been on qualifying for Rio. But all is not lost, and a medal at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest is now in sight.
“I’m fortunate I still have a lot to do in my career and I’m young enough to do another Olympic cycle for Tokyo 2020,” Shropshire-born Edwards said. “I can still medal at major events, I still haven’t reached my peak. I have competitions lined up this winter, before aiming for the World Championships.
“I am really excited to have a solid six-month block of training now in the gym and eventually getting back on the mat. I have no fear of that. I have had lots of injuries, thumb and hip operations, that I have come back from fully fit and that have pushed me on to be a better athlete. I’m confident I will come back from this, too.
“My family know I have been doing this since I was 11 and they know how much it means. They have been there to support me and pick me back up. Something like this has actually made me more focused. Judo is my passion and when I’m not on the mat, I think about it even more. That’s reassured me. I still have a burning passion for this sport and for doing what I love every day.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.