‘Concussion made me feel like I was drowning’

'Concussion made me feel like I was drowning'

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“The only way I could explain it to people it was like I was drowning, my whole body was just underwater and I had just enough air to breathe, but not enough for it to be comfortable.”

Downhill mountain biking is not for the faint-hearted. In a sport where riders throw themselves down frighteningly steep tracks of rough terrain, adrenaline coursing through their veins as they navigate gravity-defying jumps, loose mud and slippery roots at blistering speeds, things can and do go wrong.

Tahnee Seagrave knows that all too well. Her list of past injuries as long as that of her achievements, it was her latest that proved her most serious.

As a household name in the sport, she has had crashes “10 times worse” than the one that occurred in April 2022 in Wales but this time, flipped over her handlebars after coming up short on a jump, she hit her head.

“I was super nauseous. I felt so, so anxious. I had double vision, but I didn’t feel like I’d been knocked out,” the 28-year-old tells BBC Sport.

“You kind of are ok because you think, oh, I’ve got nothing broken.”

Her body physically in one piece but diagnosed with a concussion, the next few days passed in a blur. Rest seemed to be doing the trick, but after braving a ride, “everything plummeted”.

“I could barely get out the car and I stumbled into the spare room. I drew the curtains and I just slept for what felt like ages,” Seagrave – a multiple World Championship medallist – says.

“But every time I opened my eyes, it was just not a world I wanted to be in. It was really cloudy. I was so anxious. I was petrified of anything and everything.

“My body didn’t feel like mine.”

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Tahnee Seagrave
Seagrave has eight World Cup titles to her name

It had been a tricky few years for Seagrave. Having dominated the World Cup circuit and feeling “pretty much untouchable” by 2019, one injury followed another, from broken bones and muscular tears to slipped discs in her neck.

Pushing herself so hard to return to her previous level, she struggled with fatigue and, by her own admission, burned herself out. She managed a podium finish at the first World Cup of 2022, but tested positive for Covid on her return home.

Her concussion, as it proved, “broke the camel’s back”.

“We’ve learned this injury was much more than a bang to the head,” her father, Tony, tells BBC Sport. “It was like a post-traumatic stress from all the other injuries she’s had.”

Scans and tests by doctors and psychologists followed but Seagrave passed with flying colours. Consumed by anxiety and depression, socialising was near-impossible and she struggled to leave the safety of her parents’ sides.

“She was regressing into a small child,” adds Tony, also manager of his daughter’s team FMD Racing.

“It got to a point where she couldn’t be around anybody. She had to either hold the hand of my wife or me. And at 27 years old, it was a little bit weird. It was like having a small child in the house again.

“There was a time when she came into the room, there were friends there, and I saw her out of the corner of my eye come into the room, and she backed out. When I went to see her, she just didn’t know who was there, what was going on and she couldn’t handle the noise.

“It definitely broke me,” her father emotionally recounts.

For months the light did not appear at the end of the tunnel. Both Seagrave and her father were questioning if she would ever take to two wheels again, a return to racing seemingly even further off the cards.

At first Seagrave was thinking ahead in four-week periods, but “kept disappointing myself” when she was “nowhere near better” each time.

“I feel like I needed to think that, in order for my brain to have its time and rest,” the Red Bull athlete says.

“As soon as I dropped all expectations and just completely dropped the mountain bike side of my life, I started to heal and get a lot better.”

Tahnee Seagrave competing in downhill mountain biking, pictured racing through a forest
Seagrave is a three-time World Championship medallist

Seagrave, now 28, didn’t want to ride her bike “being scared” but by the end of September 2022, the clouds that had descended slowly started to lift.

“I had to re-learn to live normally and still now I’m very reserved of how much energy I give out just because I get so tired and I’m still paranoid every now and then that my symptoms will come back.”

She adds: “Eventually I got back on my bike. It was just so natural. One day I was like, I just want to go for a pedal. And I was ok and I didn’t have any symptoms. And then it just slowly got better from there.”

Seagrave returned to racing earlier this year, finishing seventh at her first mountain bike World Cup back in June, and she has been named in the Great Britain squad for the World Championships in Fort William in August.

“The problem was before I always wanted more, so I was never happy even when I won World Cups. I was like, yeah, that’s cool, but I’d like to win by more. It was just a very unhealthy way of competing,” she says.

“I’ve definitely changed, like I’m still very competitive and I definitely want to win a lot more, but I just don’t want to do it with a bully in my head all the time, so it might take longer to get there.

“But I feel like it would definitely feel a lot more rewarding when it does happen.”

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