When Specialized-lululemon sprinter, German national champion and 32-year cycling veteran Ina Yoko Teutenberg went down in a crash at Acht van Dwingeloo earlier this year, I didn’t think much of it. Teutenberg, who’s been racing since she was 6 years old, has seen a crash or two. Unfortunately, crashing now and then is part of her job.
But a few weeks later I noticed she was still side-lined. I raised an eyebrow. Then, because we stalk one another on Strava, I noticed that when she finally did get back on the bike, she was only riding four miles at a time - at a crawling pace. Her bike rides looked like runs. I had to triple check to be sure what I was seeing. Then I sent a note to see if she was ok.
“Not really.” she replied.
Over the next few weeks, her responses to my check in notes varied from very positive, “I think I’m on the upswing!” to “Took a turn for the worse.” It was clear that her healing process was not following the usual pattern of a bike racer who has gone down in a pack crash and was on the way back. It was clear that her head injury was worse than most had first suspected.
Last week, I caught up with Teutenberg via Skype to chat about the crash, her injuries, her progress, her prognosis, the future and the profound psychological effect that such a serious injury can have on an athlete. On Monday, Specialized-lululemon officially announced the news that Teutenberg had already shared with me: her 2013 season is overWhat happened in the crash at Acht van Dwingeloo?
You know, it was a totally normal crash. I mean, flat race - we weren’t even going that fast. It was even one of the widest roads. But somebody got tangled up just like it always happens. Three or four went down in front of me and I went over. But I had a crash like this at Worlds last year... you usually just get up and keep going.
I don’t really know exactly what happened this time, think I probably just landed straight on my face. Nothing else was broken, the bike was totally fine, my helmet was broken, I only had impact on my face - nowhere else on my body.
I was unconscious. I had a seizure. In the YouTube video* I am just laying there and there is this one girl freaking out just because I think they pretty much thought I was dead. There was blood everywhere. Eventually I walked away from it and they brought me to the hospital. Everything seemed fine - I mean, my neck was out of whack but it was ok.
*You can view the video of the aftermath of the crash here... How were the first few weeks of recovery?
My face was pretty swollen but I knew that would go away. I’ve had that before - you look awful for a few days and then you’re fine. My neck was out of whack but that got better. But it was clear I had a really bad concussion. I slept about 18 hours a day for the first month. I just had no energy. I got up and walked [my dog] Sophie for an hour and then I would have to sleep for two hours.
I couldn’t handle any light the first two weeks, I couldn’t handle any noise. I could talk to one person at a time - but I couldn’t handle two sources of noise: if my parents had the radio on in the morning and they were talking I had to ask them to turn the radio off. I still haven’t been able to read. I can read a little bit in the morning but I haven’t opened a book since the crash. The two or three times I’ve tried I get really sick and I can’t do it.
At the start I tried to ride the week after the crash and it just didn’t work - I couldn’t hold up my neck and I would get nauseous and feel a dizzy. The next week was a little better, but my eyes kept hurting and whenever I did a bit of speed or if I sat in a car I would get nauseous. The nausea was so bad it would get to the point where I thought I would pass out.Was there a point when you thought you were on the way back?
Four weeks after the crash I could finally drive and not get sick and I thought I was probably good to go, but then I started riding again and my eyes would hurt so bad and I would get a terrible headache so I decided to take another two weeks off.
I flew back to America [from my parents house where I’d been healing] after about 6 weeks thinking I could probably start training. Then I just got really bad again. I just couldn’t handle the days - I had to go to bed at 6pm and my head was exploding and my eyes were hurting all day.
I went to see a specialist and he told me that I was mostly ok, but that I needed to slow down even more. After that I just did one hour of indoor riding every day. Acupuncture started to help the pain and eventually I could ride outside again but if I did two hard days in a row, my eyes would start to ache again.What finally led to the decision to cut your 2013 season short?
Kristy [Scrymgeour], Ronnie [Lauke] and I have been talking about it and we just figured out that it’s the best solution. I don’t think I’m going to make it back for the Giro because I can’t really train yet. I can ride a little, you know, but I can’t just think I can go to a bike race after I’ve been off for three months. We all decided it’s the safest thing not to try to do this.
Also, I don’t want to be a pack filler, to be honest. I want to either go back and at least be helpful for the team and also try to make the TTT team. But right now I just don’t see that happening so I will rest it out until I’m totally better and not try to push it.
I am really lucky to have the bosses behind me that I have because they gave me all the time I have taken and now they give me more. I’m pretty fortunate - probably on some other teams I would have to try to risk my health to go out and start racing again...
The concussion specialist says I’m pretty good. He thinks my brain is pretty good, but as long as my eyes keep hurting I can’t race. If it was the Olympics in 2 months then I would probably start riding and I would avoid listening to my body, but because it is the season it is, Kristy and I made this decision together that we are just not going to risk my health. I talked to lots of people who’d had really bad concussions and had tried to come back too early and it wasn’t worth it. Some still had problems six months after or even a year after because they had rushed it too much.
Would you call this the worst crash of your career?
I had bad crashes and I had broken bones and I had to finish a season early once before but this one was the worst because it took away my normal life. That’s the thing, I can’t even sit at a desk and look at a computer for very long. Last weekend I had to go to a wedding in San Francisco from San Luis Obispo and I was worried about making a 3-and-a-half hour drive.
There comes a point where you just want to have your normal life back... I mean, fuck cycling or being an athlete. You just want to be able to go to the coffee shop and talk to people and have other people talking around you without getting a headache and having to leave. Sure, riding is important in my life but at the end I just want to have my normal life back.
I also always have to remember that something could have happened to my neck, so I’m pretty lucky that this is the extent of it.How have you been handling things emotionally and mentally?
You go through quite a depression after something like this, because you are in this dark cave and you can’t do anything, you feel like crap, you can’t be around people, you can’ read, you can’t watch TV. The cave was my friend. It was hard - mentally hard - they say with concussions it can happen that you get depression afterwards, they say it’s a normal cycle.
The crash was so bad it slowed me down for the first time in 20 years and I couldn’t run away anymore, so it was a good thing too. I had to face my demons a little bit in the last 3 months. We’re all good actors - athletes are all good actors - because being weak is not a good thing to show to most of your opponents... but I really hit rock bottom and I actually had to stay put in one place and ask for help, which I haven’t done in a very long time.
I wasn’t at the best mental state before the crash to start with - I’ve been fairly low because I wasn’t super motivated and riding wasn’t working. Normally I could always get on the bike or go walk the dog when I had problems, but that had stopped working. I was ok by the time I got to the races and I had the girls around and I think I would have been totally fine if I’d been able to race the last few months, but because I had the crash I really had to face all that stuff. And I just had to work it out. I really had to look at myself and reflect.
Even without going through injury, because you’re living on such a pattern of up and down, I think nearly every athlete goes through a certain point of depression. It might be more severe with some than others, but you are always working up to a big event and then you have nothing afterwards for a while so you are always kind of always falling in a hole.
Any thoughts about the future?
Right now I am considering racing again next year because I really don’t want to end like this. But this whole thing has taught me patience. I found the Buddha in me [laughing] and I’m just letting this all happen. I’m not stressing anymore.
I try to run a little bit now because it doesn’t have the speed component that makes me nauseous when I am on the bike. I might ride a little because I can take three days off if my eyes get bad - that’s the thing, I can ride but riding and training are two different things and I definitely can’t train.