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Learning from Injury

Kelly Fillnow, professional triathlete, tackles her recovery from injury the same way she approaches her training - with diligence, hard work, and patience.
Kelly Fillnow on her bike during a triathlon Photo provided by Kelly Fillnow

I was spectating at the IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina when I received word that my twin sister was close to breaking the tape. I headed to the finish line on my cruiser bike. The last thing I remember seeing is a diagonal set of railroad tracks. After I regained consciousness, I remember hobbling around frustrated that I would miss a few days of running before my next races.

I decided to get an MRI when the pain did not subside. The MRI revealed a torn ACL, meniscus, MCL, and MPFL. So much for not running for a few days. It would be 4 months before I could ride my bike outside, 5 months before I could swim without a buoy, and 6 months before I could run.

I gave myself 48 hours to feel all the emotions – anger, sadness, frustration, and bitterness. After 48 hours, I changed my mentality to focusing on my new sport – my recovery. I tackled my recovery the same way I trained as a professional triathlete: diligence, hard work, and patience. When a setback happened, I kept a short term memory. Sport had shown me how to deal with highs and lows, so I tried to remain steadfast while having a positive lens. My injury happened for me, not to me. This perspective change helped me to effectively focus on what I could control in each stage. I knew that I had the choice every day to work hard or sulk in my circumstances. I fought daily to choose sweat equity over pity.

There was so much that I could not do anymore – basically everything that triathlon involved. My job became figuring out what I could do in my new normal. I learned how to meditate which helped me stay calm. I learned how to bake sourdough bread which contains so many healthy nutrients. I challenged myself to do a six minute straight plank. I met a friend weekly outside to get some vitamin d while doing our physical therapy together. I was diligent with my extremely mundane physical therapy exercises and all the little things because I knew they were big things. The ordinary every day recovery modalities became what I knew could one day lead to an extraordinary comeback.

Eventually, I could begin to do some triathlon specific work. Initially, it took me 10 minutes to make one revolution around the bike. It took me days to reach 20 watts on the bike, and weeks to reach 100 watts. I would have felt completely demoralized if I constantly compared myself to the athlete I was prior to the accident. Instead, I celebrated my personal improvements and compared myself to my present self. I felt empowered by the little wins like seeing triple digit watts for the very first time.

Of course, there were moments when I wanted to quit and I took steps backwards. In those moments, I remembered my purpose. I clung to my family, physical therapists, and friends for perspective. I remembered how this injury happened for me. The injury taught me empathy and resiliency. I did not know what was on the other side of my recovery, but I did not want to give up when things became difficult. Life is hard, training is hard, triathlon is hard. I hoped that one day I would be able to suffer again in a race and could pull from this experience that anything is possible.

During my comeback, I often doubted I would compete again, yet alone race as a professional triathlete. But I was able to suffer again. I made it back. I am now on the other side of the injury. This past year I managed to PR in the Olympic, 70.3, and IRONMAN distance. I also qualified for the IRONMAN World Championships for the first time ever as a professional triathlete. However, far greater than any accomplishment, my journey taught me how hard times in life can be tools of grace to produce character in us that far outlast any accomplishment. Setbacks are worth the fight.

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