Lucy’s story. Forgetting how to row.
Imagine being out on the water; you are rowing beautifully – effortlessly. The water gleams beneath your perfectly timed strokes, you are flying; gliding up the slide, on autopilot. You’ve been doing it for years.
Suddenly everything changes; the ability you took for granted has vanished. What went wrong?
For Lucy Strack, a five-time New Zealand national team member, an under-23 medallist and part of New Zealand’s lightweight women’s double sculls with Rio 2016 in her sights, this was more than just a case of a few bad strokes or sessions. Her body did not know how to row.
“After a few months battling with my stroke we decided to really stretch outside the box,” says Strack of the attempts to overcome her sudden loss of ability to do what had come so naturally for so long. “We were trying anything. I was rowing with my arms crossed on the erg. We rigged my boat up with right over left to see if we could confuse my mind into rowing again.”
She didn’t know it at first, but Strack was suffering from the “yips”.
If you have heard of the yips, it will probably be from a sport like golf, where the greatest number of high profile cases of sudden inability occur. In medical circles, the yips are sometimes classified as “task-specific dystonias”, which cause involuntary movements during performance. Psychological factors are believed to play a part, but the condition is not well understood. It is virtually unheard of in rowing.
“It seems to effect really specific repetitive movements,” Strack says, who notes that only her left side of her body appeared to be affected and only while rowing. “I was able to cycle. I did a VO2MAX test while it was all happening and got a really good test back on the bike. So I was fit, just not able to row.”
It took time for reality to sink in.
Rowing had defined Strack’s life for so long. The metaphor she chooses to describe the loss is telling: “Imagine waking up in the morning and you forget how to walk.”
“The thing that got me into and kept me in the sport right to the highest level was that feeling of gliding along the water and the challenge of finding the perfect stroke,” she recalls. “I made it my life mission to find that perfect stroke.”
Although injury left her out of the boat after qualifying the lightweight women’s double for the London 2012 Olympics, Strack’s rise through the ranks of New Zealand’s elite rowers seemed assured.
After London, Strack was back in the boat with partner Julia Edward. They finished 5th in Korea at the 2013 World Rowing Championships. Strack describes it as their best year yet and things only got better the next year where the duo took silver at the first World Rowing Cup 2014.
That is when things fell apart. “We were rowing our best before things unravelled,” says Strack who then had to watch as Edward and her new partner won gold at the 2014 World Rowing Championships. One year later it was Edward and MacKenzie – not Strack – who repeated that win to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Leaving rowing for good had never been part of the plan. From her initial catastrophic loss of rowing ability in May of 2014, Strack held out hope for another eight months before acknowledging that her Olympic dream was over.
“Nothing was changing and there came a point where there was relief in letting go,” she recalls. “I began to accept that I could put the energy into something else.”
For Strack that something else turned out to be the Ironman, where she found a natural fit for the habits of long, hard training and even harder competing.
“When I left rowing I kept training, twice a day to start with. However, I had no interest in being competitive, I was tired. My mind was tired. Two years down the track, I was ready for something to focus on. I’m not one to do things by halves so when I took up Ironman, making it to World Champs in Ironman was the obvious next step.”
Strack has also found a new balance with her life beyond elite sport. “I have spent years as an elite athlete, although it was such a great life I have now found so many other joys to focus on and challenge me. Work, friends and relationships have never felt so satisfying. I appreciate the small things, but always expect the very best from myself.”
A bit of coaching younger rowers is one way she has been able to keep the sport she has loved for so long in a life that she agrees is far more balanced than it ever was as an elite rower.
“It all kind of toppled because I didn’t have any balance,” she concludes. “We are putting our bodies on the line and asking so much of our minds and bodies all year round. Balance is just so important.”