‘Having a headache every day is normal’

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April 22, 2021
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    Ellie Furneaux: I struggled to speak after skeleton crash

    For Ellie Furneaux, having a headache every day is "normal".

    She has a migraine once a month and cannot look up while standing because she will fall over. Once, she slept for pretty much an entire month, waking only for meals, and forgot how to make a cup of tea.

    "It was a bit like Finding Nemo," she says.

    Those headaches, Furneaux believes, "will be there forever", the lasting effect of a skeleton career cut short by an incident in Germany in January 2018.

    Back then, she was 24 and an up-and-coming member of the Great Britain skeleton team, competing on the Europa Cup circuit – the sport's second tier – where she had recorded three wins.

    But her budding career was ended in a split second. Hurtling down the Altenberg track at 75 miles an hour, she moved her head a fraction too high and smashed into the ice.

    Almost three years on, the now 27-year-old can still only remember "bits and pieces" from that day – limping off the track, not being able to speak, collapsing on the floor.

    "I never really think about it being tough for myself. For me, I wasn't there. Because I can't remember it I don't know how I felt," Furneaux tells BBC Sport.

    "It was tough for the people around me, my family and for my partner who looked after me. One of his biggest memories was that I basically slept for a month straight – I'd wake up and say I would make a cup of tea, but then I would fall asleep before I was able to do it. And I would do that 20 times.

    "I really struggled to speak. It got to a point where I didn't want to leave the house because when I was able to go out more, I was really nervous."

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    It is easier for Furneaux now. As her Twitter bio reads, she's "enjoying her new office life". She can run and cycle, but strength training and exercising on hot days remain out of the question.

    Skeleton is not a sport for the faint-hearted. Sleds can travel as fast as 90 miles an hour and athletes will experience the force of 5Gs – five times the force of gravity.

    The Altenberg crash was not Furneaux's first. That took place in Latvia in 2016, leaving her "really tired and really unwell".

    After that, she only felt comfortable doing two runs a day in practice.

    "Some athletes might do six a day – I would never be able to manage that," she says. "The maximum I did was four in a day once across two sessions and afterwards I really struggled. I just felt fried.

    "After every training session on the ice, you do have time pencilled into your plan of the day to go home and nap. Or you have a shock 20-second ice bath and a hot shower to stop the vibrations in your body and then go and nap. You need to relax and reset everything because it really takes it out of you."

    Is Furneaux's story a one-off?

    Thankfully, crashes and injuries like Furneaux's are rare, but 'skelly head' or 'sled head' is something most, if not all, skeleton athletes have experienced – the foggy, frazzled sensation after a run.

    Peter McCarthy, a leading expert in brain injuries and sport from the University of South Wales, has called for a "concerted worldwide effort" to assess the impact completing skeleton runs can have on the head and brain.

    "The major issue is that unless a person gets concussed, it's unlikely that any of the basic head or neck issues will be addressed and the person will be able to continue based on a self-certification that they are fine," he told BBC Sport.

    "There are a number of different ways of damaging or compromising the brain. Shaking them regularly at a high or low frequency are going to cause some level of brain trauma, maybe damage over longer periods.

    "If you get them repetitively, especially the vibrational ones and the sharp shocks, and they are not noticed or addressed, it is a cumulative injury. There are issues associated with the long-term effects of that, and in the later years, it becomes akin to things like dementia and maybe Parkinson's and so on.

    "It's something which if you don't look at it seriously and across the whole sport, then it's a potential time bomb for the future."

    The British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association (BBSA), which already limits the number of runs its athletes do per day, is in its second year of a study investigating the impact of 'skelly head', and there is "significant" interest in its work from other national federations.

    "What we are trying to do is really understand what we are exposing athletes to," said Danny Holdcroft, head of performance at the BBSA.

    "We're on the right way to understanding things that means that we can then ensure that the training the athletes do is at the level we need it to be to keep the athletes in a good place and safe, not just for their careers in skeleton but for the rest of their lives."

    The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) has never carried out a long-term study into the brain health of athletes, but told the BBC in a statement that it is "constantly monitoring our sports in various aspects".

    It added: "It is an ongoing process within our federation to adapt our rules and regulations in order to implement the latest technologies or studies' outcome."

    Looking back at her career, Furneaux says there is only one thing she would change – "knowing when enough is enough".

    "It is very tough to take a step back and realise you have a life to live post-athletics and your brain is something you only have one of.

    "You don't get a second chance."

    Ellie Furneaux on the podiumEllie Furneaux (centre) won three races on the Europa Cup circuit in 2017Around the BBC iPlayer banner

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    April 22, 2021
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