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I Fear For The Aging Brains Of Extreme Sports Athletes

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Olympic Trampoline? Check. Cable? Check. Schedule? Check. Brain? Wait a sec.

At the last Olympics in London 2012, Rosie MacLennan gave Canada our only gold medal in the sport of trampoline. As a young adult, I counted down the years for trampoline to be a Demonstration Sport in 2000. When Trampoline finally arrived as an Olympic sport in 2004, it was a big deal in my family.

My brother and I competed at the national level for many years. When offered a place as alternate on the Canadian Team in 1992, I balked at the cost: then the equivalent of my summer savings for a year's tuition at SFU. Because I was just an alternate, I declined my spot, resolving instead to fully compete with the next Team Canada. It was a tough decision and one I don't regret even if, after my coach returned from Worlds, I had a career-ending fall. My brother went on to five more years of international competition on Team Canada.

I'm grateful to the sport of trampoline, my coaches, and my teammates. They instilled in me confidence, agility, spatial awareness, core strength conditioning, fitness, muscular development, enjoyment in sport, experience with coaching and judging, and an opportunity to travel. Most of all, trampoline gave me a sense of belonging to an entire community and kept me out of real trouble when my father died.

But as much as I love the sport, this post is not really about trampoline. It's about head injuries. You see, I can't tell you how many times I banged my head or how many trips I took to the emergency room after some kind of fall or sprain during my 11 years of competitive trampoline.

Last year, after a 24-year brain injury reprieve, I sustained a concussion at work. I cut short my dark-room recovery process for a variety of reasons, primarily because I teach young children who had seen my accident and I worried that they were slightly traumatized. The other reason: preparing for substitute teachers can be almost like doing the job yourself and difficult to organize when trying to avoid mental tasks and screens. So, after three weeks, I went back to work and made a therapy plan to unplug my brain every night.

Four months later, I was a complete mess. My doctor diagnosed me with post-concussion syndrome and it has taken me most of a year to return to my previous operating state. Up until a few months ago, I found myself unable to multi-task, remember anything without post-it notes, and deeply depressed (despite a six-month heavy dose of anti-depressants). But shockingly, my experience is not uncommon for those with a history of concussions.

So when I read Rosie MacLennan's posts about concussion recovery, I worry for her aging brain and for those of similar athletes in extreme sports.

Why am I telling you this? Because we now know that concussion's effects are cumulative and that repeated head trauma effects can take two generations to show up. Doesn't that make you want to take a second look at extreme sports? Because, let's face it: extreme sports are a growing phenomenon on the Olympic and international stage.

As a teen and young adult flying through the air, I was addicted to adrenaline.

The sport of trampoline may be seven decades old, but what about the newer sports? I remember in the 80s, when some snow bums from Revelstoke crashed our practice and asked my coach to teach them how to flip with short skis. We laughed them out of our gym! But where they are now? No doubt aerials coaches. Do these coaches experience post-concussion syndrome the way it hit me? Or is it much worse, as depicted in the recent movie concussion?

Some of my trampoline coaches and mentors have died. For the others, I want to ask them, "Do you struggle with depression now, too? Or is it just me?" It's 2016. Is it too early to talk about extreme sport-induced mental impairment or illness? Or should we wait? My concern is that I don't think other extreme sports have the experience, in years, to weigh the effects, at least not like trampoline.

Maybe I'm still tentative to fully connect the dots. After all, I have no desire to know how the effects of head trauma could affect my 50s, 60s, or beyond. My grandma died last month at 102 with all her marbles. At 45, I wish I had some of my marbles back.

As a teen and young adult flying through the air, I was addicted to adrenaline. I counted the hours and minutes until I was flying again. Nothing mattered but my sport. Back then, I remember thinking about the far-flung future and concluding that it didn't matter; it was well worth sacrificing on the altar of Now. In my day we called it carpe diem. Today it's texted as YOLO (you only live once).

Before my concussion last year, I considered myself a "high-energy parent." Work all day then night ski? Done. Pack several sports-based activities into a day? Easy. Hike the grind and then bike the seawall? Sure. But in the last year, post-concussion related depression has lived as a thief in my home, and in my brain.

"We used to do things together as a family," my daughter whispered last spring, as she hugged me in bed. "Can't we do that again?"

Now that I'm finally stronger, I'm able to keep my promise and I'm filled with gratitude and relief. I still love trampoline and am going to cheer on Team Canada during the Olympics. I'm not going to live in the past because there's nothing I can do to get this last year back. I sold part of it when I was 21.

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