Carmen Small: I don't want my career to end like this

American rider struggling to come back from concussion after Drenthe crash

For Carmen Small, the 2017 season was meant to be a year of transition. She would continue to race for one last year while learning the ropes as a DS and mentor to her Team Veloconcept teammates.

That has all but taken a backseat as she battles with the lingering symptoms of a concussion after a heavy crash at the Ronde van Drenthe in March. The crash briefly left Small unconscious, and in the following weeks and months she had to deal with vestibular problems that gave her vertigo, her eyes were not tracking properly, and she struggled with her balance.

Most of the symptoms have been alleviated, but she still struggles with a headache that is with her every day. Having tried everything from traditional western medicine, yoga, acupuncture and herbal remedies, the headache refuses to go away. For a person who has dedicated themselves to a passion for over a decade, it is very difficult to deal with.

“My balance has got almost perfect, but it’s still not 100 per cent, and now we’re just trying to figure out the headaches,” an emotional Small told Cyclingnews. “I will literally try anything to make the headache go away. A lot of people are like 'Carmen it just takes time. You had a head trauma. It’s just going to take time'. I think that’s the hardest thing for athletes because we’re so goal oriented.

“Time really matters to us so it’s hard because you just want to get back to being normal and participating and doing what you love and what your passion is. It’s really difficult not to be able to participate. Nationals are coming up and I don’t think that I’ve missed nationals in my entire career. I don’t even get a chance to defend the jersey. It’s so emotional, and it’s so hard.”

Small had been in a breakaway when a rider, looking behind at the chasing bunch, moved across and took her out. When she fell, she landed on her head and shoulder. She has been able to get back to training, but it is a day to day approach, with her headaches determining when she can and cannot get out on the bike. As frustrating as it is, she is not allowed to race until she is completely symptom-free. Doctors are unable to give her a timeline for recovery – it could be tomorrow, it could be in 12 months - and it seems that only time will tell if and when it will eventually dissipate.

“The problem is they don’t know; nobody can give me a direct answer. They can’t tell you that because they don’t know. They can only say that they’ll keep working at it,” she explained.

“Every concussion is different. I have a lot of people reaching out to me and giving me suggestions, but they’re symptoms aren’t necessarily the same as my symptoms. The headache is normal, but people have it for a week, or people can have it for years. It’s kind of an unknown.”

Living like a normal person

While she hasn’t been able to take on DS duties properly, the team has made sure to include her. With nationals approaching, it has been a particularly hard time for her, but she has been able to put her focus in helping her teammates succeed.

“I was getting quite depressed being in Durango and trying to get better.,” Small explained to Cyclingnews. “I want to be with the team and help the team do whatever that means. It’s really hard when half the time I don’t feel good, but I still want to be a part of the team. At least they incorporate me, and I can help the girls prepare for nationals.

“I’ve been talking to them about time trial courses and how to prepare. My teammate Shani [Blochi-Daviov] just won the Israeli TT nationals, and that was really awesome to see because we spent a lot of time on the phone together talking about the course and it’s really hot there, so I was trying to give her ideas about how to cool her body before the race. That’s really fun for me, and I’ve enjoyed that coaching aspect and sharing my knowledge with them and making sure they have the best equipment and giving that piece of confidence to them.”

Despite the setbacks, Small is determined that this will be her final season of racing. She still maintains the hope that she will be able to race before the end of the season. The team time trial at the World Championships is a big goal for the former time trial world championships medallist.

“I was hoping to do the Giro that was meant to be my first race back with the team, but the problem is the headache. If the headache isn’t gone, then I can’t race. I have to be symptom-free to race. I can’t hit my head again and still have concussion symptoms. That would be stupid. I want to be able to live a normal life after the fact. We don’t know if I will feel better. Maybe tomorrow I won’t have a headache. I don’t know.

“I had aspirations. The team time trial now with Linda [Villumsen] in the team we have a pretty bad ass team for Worlds. It makes it hard because I want to get better for that and I don’t want it to end like this.

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