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Paige Railey: Grateful, Humbled, Determined

Published on December 7th, 2015

Honored as the 2006 ISAF World Sailor of the Year Award, American Paige Railey seeks the final award… an Olympic medal. Beat out in the trials for 2008, and finishing a disappointing 8th at the 2012 London Games, Paige was fully focused on fulfilling her quest at the 2016 Games when on August 24, 2014 she was involved in a bike accident. It has made the climb steeper, but she remains no less determined.

2015-12-07_15-05-00Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck checked in with Paige for this report.

How did the accident occur?
I was home in Clearwater (FL), in a cycling group when I fell off my bike. I was going about 21 mph and literally landed on my face. I wore a helmet, but that didn’t take the impact.

How much do you remember of the accident?
I believe I remember everything from the accident, but there are some things that are blurry. Let’s say the months after the accident are very blurry. I know there were days that I couldn’t remember what I did 20 minutes before.

What were your injuries?
Fractured spine, concussion, lesions all over my body, nerve damage (lost feeling in parts of face, back, hands, smell). Not all of my nerves have grown back so I can’t feel parts of my body, had to go to physical therapy to re-teach my hands how to open and close. I had about 50 stitches, luckily i didn’t break my jaw, but it doesn’t work the same. Physical therapy for my spine…etc

Describe the period following the accident.
I was taken away in an ambulance and went to the ER. In my mind I was fine because I couldn’t feel pain. I had always seen on TV with people that experience severe trauma that they don’t feel pain…well I was finally one of them.

I didn’t even think I had a concussion. I got an MRI of my neck and hands and all seemed good so I told them to sew me up so I get going. I had convinced myself I was fine because I had my World Championships in two weeks. I didn’t think I was that bad.

I got home and passed out from my head. I didn’t tell anyone and went to strategizing on what I was going to do to get to the Worlds. I immediately started going to physical therapy. I later then discovered the fractured spine and told people about the concussion. You have a realization something is wrong when you are dry heaving for a solid three months every day because your brain is exhausted from all the processing it does.

I had a neurologist tell me, “Paige, you need rest. Stop trying to force the recovery. You need to go home, lay on your couch and NOT THINK. Sit in a black room and let your brain heal.” I was in physical therapy for three months and in and out of doctors about 3 to 5 times a week for four months. I then was exhausted in January and decided that I just needed to let it happen naturally and let time do its work.

When were you able to safely exercise and sail again?
I went sailing in October, but wasn’t the same person. I was the pink helmet girl determined to feel normal again, trying to compete in November and December. In January, I held a weight lifting bar for my first time. My hands and back had grown very very weak. I wasn’t able to start real lifting until February, but I had to be very careful because of my spine. I also couldn’t do intense cardio, because I would get too lightheaded from the concussion. I started to push myself in March this year. Before that I was just trying to get my body used to training again.

Through all this my coach was amazing…he watched me closely. He would cancel sessions or make me go in when it wasn’t right. He knew my goal was just to feel normal so he was there standing by me. My family was also a crucial part in this. They didn’t want me to return so early or be competing for the rest of 2014, but they knew how determined I was. So they supported and helped me the whole way.

It was so important to feel normal and not broken. I was scared that I would suffer lifelong consequences, so I believe my fear kept me so motivated that I would be okay. I was staying positive and went back to life. I definitely wasn’t the same when I competed, but I kept telling myself, “one foot in front of the other and you will get there.”

So you are now wearing a helmet?
I wore the helmet all the time until March. That was what I was told to do. After that I started taking it off in light air, but wore it in breeze. My next step was not wearing it in medium breeze, but always when towing. Now I am at the point where I wear it always on tows and only in big breeze or when doing boat handling drills.

What has helped in your healing?

Staying strong. It’s been hell coming back and it’s very hard for people to fully understand. So staying determined and positive helps you keep going on the road to recovery. The number one thing I am learning is patience. It takes time and I am definitely the type of person that likes to solve things NOW.

I’ve healed a lot and things are still healing but I won’t let anything hold me back on the road to the Olympic Games. What I have been through has and continues to make me a stronger person. You don’t realize how precious life really is until you have a realization your current state can all change and be taken from you. I have been humbled and I truly know what it means to be grateful for all the wonderful things that I have experienced, loved and are able to do and will continue doing.

Paige Railey (Clearwater, Fla.), a Pan American Games gold and bronze medalist in the Laser Radial class. (Download. Password: "USA"). Image: Will Ricketson/US Sailing.

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