Nikki Brammeier’s memory of the 2016 European Cyclocross Championships are a bit foggy at best. She remembers standing on the start line. She remembers the opening few hundred meters of the race.
“I remember seeing a gap open up on the inside of the corner and a chance to move forward a couple places,” Brammeier wrote in a powerful statement in which she revealed she had been struggling with concussion symptoms. “Next thing I was screaming on the floor, my helmet in bits, hanging down the side of my face. I was looking for someone, anyone to help.”
“I’d somehow face-planted in the gravel at 50 kilometres per hour,” she continued. “This stuff doesn’t happen very often, especially not in ‘cross.”
The crash required, as Brammeier starkly stated, having her face and lips stitched back together. In addition to facial pain, there was excruciating pain in her head. She had a severe concussion and all the unpleasant symptoms that accompany one. This pain masked another injury – an injury she revealed late last week.
“Obviously with all that happened with my head and my face, I was dealing with really severe pain all concentrated in one area,” said Brammeier. “My mouth was full of stitches. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t see properly. I knew I had pain in my back, but I wasn’t concerned about it, and I hadn’t walked around much – just in our bedroom – so I didn’t have the chance to explore the back pain.”
“When my headaches from my concussion died down, and I could walk and get out for fresh air, I started to feel more pain in my back and my leg than usual,” said Brammeier. “I had some physio and a doctor was there at the same time. I mentioned to him that I didn’t think it was normal pain crash.”
The doctor ordered an MRI. The MRI revealed a stress fracture in the sacrum.
“Right now I know I have a small fracture,” said Brammeier. “I’ll do another scan this week to learn more.”
“At the moment, I have been told not to put too much pressure on it, so no running or jumping,” she added. “They said once I feel ready, I can start riding my bike, which is good news, as long as I’m not putting too much pressure on the sacrum.”
Brammeier is already riding again – albeit indoors only. She’s set up her Tacx trainer at home. Late last week, less than two weeks after her crash, she climbed back in the saddle.
“It’s a massive positive mentally,” she said. “I feel so much better being able to do that. It’s a relief to do normal things. These last two weeks, I’ve been stuck in my own head with my own thoughts. I haven’t been able to speak to people. Now I can speak to people. I can get out. I can ride the trainer. I’ve made massive gains in the last few days, and I think it’s going to get better every day now.”
While Brammeier is naturally disappointed to learn about her fracture, dealing with a bone injury is more straightforward than waiting out concussion symptoms. In Brammeier’s case, the symptoms included: impaired vision, severe headaches, vomiting, loss of balance, light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, difficulty concentrating and dizziness.
She has called those symptoms the most difficult part of her own ordeal and has vowed to do her part to raise awareness of these symptoms in the future.
“I have never experienced anything like what I experienced after my concussion,” said Brammeier. “I think I was in shock when I crashed, and I didn’t really understand what had happened. Over the next few days, I came to understand, and it was a miserable time for me, really.”
“The last few days, I’ve turned a few corners,” Brammeier added. “Finding out about my back was a bit of a blow. I knew something wasn’t quite right. As an athlete you have a bit of a sixth sense about your own body. I knew that I might not get good news, but this is bad news I can deal with.”
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Brammeier convalesced in Belgium. When she was able to manage the trip, she travelled to England. She credits those around her, especially her husband Matt, with playing a key role in her recovery.
“It’s been nice to be with friends and family,” Brammeier said. “I’m not looking at anything to do with cycling at the moment. At first, it was because I couldn’t handle looking at any sort of screen but now it’s because it helps my mood to focus on what’s happening around me instead of what I’m missing.”
“Obviously this is a shit situation, but we know how to deal with it,” she said. “And how we deal with it is by getting on with it. There’s nothing else I can do.”
If Brammeier’s concussion symptoms continue to steadily improve, she’s hopeful she can return to racing in mid-December, a week or two before the busy Christmas period of racing.
“That’s what I’m going to aim for,” she said. “I think if I have that goal, I’ll work as hard as I can to get to do that, but I’m not going to rush it. I’m going to listen to my body. I’m prepared to take my recovery day by day.”