Track sprinter Victoria Williamson has said that she was just two millimetres away from being paralysed from the neck down following a crash at the Rotterdam Six-Day a year ago. In an interview with the Guardian, Williamson detailed her lengthy recovery process, and her desire to compete at next year's Commonwealth Games and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Last January, Williamson was on course for a spot on Great Britain's track squad at the Rio Olympic Games but her hopes were ended when she tangled with Elis Ligtlee on the third day of action in Rotterdam. She had a litany of injuries including a large cut to her right side that exposed her bare spine, a prolapsed disc, a fractured and dislocated pelvis, and multiple fractures in her back. But it was the injury to Williamson's C3 vertebra that worried her doctors the most.
"My back and pelvis were broken, but, actually, the back fractures were quite far from the spinal cord, so that didn't cause the paralysis danger. It was my neck," she told the Guardian. "The surgeon measured that break on the MRI scan and it was two millimetres from my spinal cord. Another 2mm and from here down (gesturing from her neck down) I would have had absolutely nothing left, no movement."
Following her crash, Williamson had to endure lengthy operations, both in Rotterdam and at home in the UK, to stabilise her injuries. With each procedure, she explained, there remained the potential threat of paralysis, which required her to sign disclaimers acknowledging that she may come through the surgery unable to use parts of her body. She tried to put the risks out of her mind.
"My dad said: 'Don't think about that – there's danger with any back operation.' Obviously, mine was a bit different with the broken neck as well," she said, later adding, "I blocked that out. If I had paid too much attention to it, I would have been in utter meltdown. It was just a case of thinking differently."
Pins were fitted to secure the injury to her flank but when it came to her neck, Williamson opted for the lengthier recovery process of a neck brace. "They found out about the 2mm then – and I was lucky enough not to have another pin in my neck," she explained. "The surgeon gave me the option. He said: 'If you have the neck brace it has to be on solid for four months. If you have a pin in the neck, you can crack on straight away. But if you have the pin your range of movement will be limited forever.' So it's a no-brainer really."
"If I was to match sprint, how could I race like this? I'd need a wing mirror, which I'm sure would be illegal. But look at my neck movement now. You wouldn't even know."
Missing Rio and aiming for Tokyo
Williamson's accident was one of several issues for the British sprint line-up ahead of Rio. They would fail to qualify for the team event following a fifth place at the World Championships in London. Following the controversial dismissal of Jess Varnish from the elite programme, Becky James represented the team in the Keirin and the individual sprint, while Katy Marchant took up the second spot in the sprint. James would leave Rio with two silver medals, and Marchant added a bronze to the team's tally. Ligtlee, the rider who crashed with Williamson all those months before, took the gold medal in the Keirin.
Williamson believes that she could have made the cut for Rio and it was hard to see her teammates competing without her.
"I would have gone for the second GB sprint place behind Becky James. I was making serious ground, and that was why it came as such a blow," she said.
"I've not seen the video yet but our team doctor said I was coming round Elis at speed when it happened. I'm not saying I would have won an Olympic medal – but Elis actually won gold. So, if I was going faster than her last January that proves how my form was progressing.
"I was just miserable for two weeks. You train for four years to make the Olympics, and it's a big smack in the face when you can't go… I'm not an envious person, and I was behind the team 100 per cent, but I did think: 'God, I wish that was me.'"
Williamson has made huge strides in her recovery progress and, on the outside, there is little left of her horrific accident, other than an ever-diminishing scar on her back. Her medical care will soon be switching to British Cycling and hopes to be racing again in the near future.
"I've got time on my side because 2020 is the long-term goal.
"The Tokyo Olympics would be amazing," she said. "Six months from now they'll assess where I'm at, but it is hard not to look ahead. I do really want to get to the Commonwealth Games next year – but you've got to be like a racehorse and put the blinkers on."