Epilepsy, rowing and the advantages of rhythm
Olivia Magee first found out she had epilepsy as a 21-year-old university rower. A seizure in the boat and while doing a 2k indoor rowing test brought the reality home. It was life-changing.
Based in Great Britain, Magee agreed to share her story with World Rowing.
“I have had several seizures at rowing - once in the boat (prior to being professionally diagnosed), once during a 2K test (not intentional!) and once straight after a race in a double. If it wasn’t for my friends around me I think I would’ve long given up.”
At university, before she developed epilepsy, she trained like everyone else trying to compete, most days of the week. “After being diagnosed with epilepsy I still trained most days,” she says, “with land-training at the club several week days and then water sessions before and after work when the light permitted. As my meds changed throughout the years however this went up and down.”
Magee feels that rowing took the attention away from the grim reality of having seizures, of feeling fatigued 24/7 and from the added pressure of work and a new life-changing diagnosis. “Rowing was always there for me and the people were amazing,” she says. “The sport is great for the physical and mental side of epilepsy. Many of the medications come with side effects of unexplained weight gain and rowing helps to counteract most of these without changing your routine or diet too much,” explains Magee.
Precautions that Magee took included rowing in an adaptive single scull and wearing a special lifejacket. “We were on a small river so we had no launch to help if I was ill, but I was allowed back out on the water in one of the adaptive singles,” explains Magee. “They don’t quite go as fast as normal singles but I could still work on my sculling abilities. This gave more time for people to help me if I had a seizure and after time I even held the record for fastest time in that adaptive single down the straight at the club!”
Magee tried on plenty of jackets that self-inflated, were she to fall out of the boat. “My friends found this amazing gilet that was lightweight and the only bulky part was the small canister on the top of my back. It looked like a running gilet and didn’t draw unwanted attention to me which I loved!”
Other measures are also needed, as Magee shares: “I learnt to listen to my body, to avoid rowing or practising when really fatigued (sleeping properly before a race or session), to have energy supplies available all the time, to make sure someone knew if I felt off on a particular day in case I started to turn (I don’t have warning signs unfortunately) and, at worse, sit out.”
And working with others, even if it means drawing attention to your epilepsy, is vital. “If people know what might happen,” says Magee, “when or what to look out for, then it helps those around you. Listen to your body and doctor, as pushing yourself too far will cause health problems.”
Living with epilepsy does not necessarily preclude rowing explains Matthias Koepp, Professor of Neurology at Epilepsy Society and at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, Great Britain. A rower himself, Koepp considers that “the same benefits of rowing, which apply to everyone, apply to people with epilepsy: outdoor activity, team sport, endurance all-around physical activities.”
According to Koepp, in people with epilepsy who developed the condition during childhood and adolescence (25 per cent of all people with epilepsy) rowing can help counter-act side-effects of medication, such as weight gain through valproate and balance problems.
“In general, people with so-called generalised epilepsies have subtle frontal lobe dysfunctions – they are also called ‘perpetual adolescents’”, explains Koepp. “Regular routines related to training, but also the regular and rhythmic rowing movements, together with taking on responsibilities in the crew, either as cox, stroke, bow – all this helps to mature the person.”
For those who have developed symptomatic epilepsy as a result of injury either during or after birth or later in life (due to a stroke or traumatic brain injury), Koepp states that “rowing can help with rehabilitation, strengthening the weak side, helping with balance and posture problems. If (leg)mobility is impaired, adaptive rowing can account or correct for this.”
Although safety measures should be taken, Koepp does not see any instances in which someone with epilepsy should not practice the sport of rowing. “The nice thing about adaptive rowing is that it means adapting the sport to the person’s abilities – I struggle to think about an instance when this should not be possible,” he says.
As for other sports activities, people with epilepsy should be up-front and inform other crew members about their condition. Koepp states that with water-based activities, additional safety measures should be taken. If a person were to row in a single, a life-vest and an accompanying launch should be used, as capsizing is a risk if a seizure occurs.
If the person were to row in a multi-person boat, Koepp considers that foot-straps or better rowing shoes should be sufficient to keep the rower in the boat during a seizure. “In general, there are the risks of exertion, dehydration and sleep-deprivation, which might be an issue with competitive rowers (early morning training),” says Koepp. But the benefits of related necessary routines, self-esteem and physical health out-weigh these risks in his opinion.
Since her diagnosis, Magee states that she has been up and down, and after a relocation she is currently only training at the gym although planning to join a new club. “Yet highlights of my rowing have been racing at the Metropolitan Regatta (and not losing!), training with a Paralympic gold medallist, learning to single scull properly and then cycling the London Ride100 for the epilepsy society (unaffected and in a good time!).”
For further information in Great Britain: www.epilepsysociety.org.uk
World Rowing’s Para-Rowing Commission: http://www.worldrowing.com/fisa/about-fisa/commissions/para-rowing-commission-107375