HEERENVEEN, Netherlands — Bump into a skating teammate on the ice, and besides some black and blue bruises, chances are it ends up being a bunch of laughs, too.
Not for Brittany Bowe.
One such clash turned her world class career upside down at the height of her powers — a personal nightmare from which she is emerging only just in time for the Olympics.
At first, the July 2016 collision in Kearns, Utah, left her dazed and with a sore head, which was diagnosed as a concussion. Still, expectations were that a few weeks would take care of it.
“A few weeks turned into a few months, turned into a year,” Bowe said. And then some.
At 28, she was the double world sprint champion and had won 10 gold medals in the previous World Cup season. The way she hugged the inner curves of the oval, her sheer speed — she was simply among the very best in the world.
“Things had been going awesome,” she said.
Then she was flat on the ice, barely knowing what had happened after she was blindsided into the crash. She was able to get up quickly and gingerly skate around a bit, unawares that, in a blink of a moment, she had just hit a fundamental point in her life. Nothing would be the same in far too long a time.
Super competitive, she wanted to be back as quickly as possible and, somehow took a bronze in the 1,000 meters when she came to the historic home of Dutch skating in Heerenveen for the World Cup that December. It was the equivalent of a mirage — a sudden dash of hope belying disastrous circumstances.
One year later, she still cannot get over it.
“I came out here to a World Cup and lost out on a gold medal by just a couple of tenths of a second, and then two weeks later, saying I can’t skate anymore,” she said.
And like so many Olympians can attest, at the height of their career, competing is the be-all end-all of their life. “If I am not skating, then what am I doing,” was her existential question.
She would go back home to Ocala, Florida, to put the pieces together again, but it didn’t work out at first.
“With concussions, it is kind of an invisible injury,” she said, and it could leave even teammates or friends oblivious to her real problems. It sometimes left her exasperated.
“There’d be times where people, I wouldn’t see them for a while — ‘you look great. You look so healthy, you look great’ — and inside, I’m dying inside, because I know my head is not on my shoulders where it normally sits,” Bowe said.
At that point, it was not so much returning as a sports star but more recovering as a normal human being that was her prime concern.
She had “crazy symptoms.”
“My equilibrium was kind of off, I would have dizzy spells, I would have fainting episodes. And with those negative episodes came panic, came anxiety, things that I had never struggled with mentally,” she said.
Fortunately for Bowe, time did its essential work — ever so slowly.
As spring beckoned, she went to the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, ready to start all over again, from scratch. The change was daunting, from “skating at a high level on the World Cup circuit to being on a recumbent bike being able to bike for five minutes at a time.”
Yet, she pulled through. Over the summer, she returned to the Salt Lake City skating center for training among her teammates, and it made all the difference. She was back on the World Cup circuit in Heerenveen in November, winning races in the 500 and 1,000, even if only in the second-tier B division.
And she capped her recovery at the U.S. national trials, where she qualified for the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters in South Korea, again the star on the Olympic women’s team together with Heather Bergsma.
Suddenly, she has that tunnel vision and narrow focus again, the mark of a champion.
“Ultimately this year, the only thing that matters is the Olympic Games,” she said. “I mean, we get one chance every four years to prove ourselves.”
What preceded it though, may be life-changing.
“I’ve learned some things about myself that I am going to take with me on the ice and in the future of my life,” she said.