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Standing tall: Jessica Ashwood is finally on the straight and narrow

by ZwemZa on May 25th, 2019

Jessica Ashwood (zimbio)

After two Olympic Games, two World Championships, a pair of Commonwealth Games and countless meets in between, Jessica Ashwood’s major concern when she stepped into the pool on this occasion was that she would sink like a stone.

She was too afraid to give herself over to water and attempt to float, so she crept along and cautiously paddled her hands through the ripples, trying to establish which movements would cause her pain and which her rebuilt body would deem acceptable.

“I started walking and moving my hands… does this hurt? Does this hurt? Ok, cool. Then I did some breaststroke and that was ok,” Ashwood recalls. “Then I did backstroke and practiced floating, because I was scared I was going to sink. I don’t know why. I was scared it would hurt my back to float and I would have to sink.”

So far, so good. Ashwood would spin face down and attempt some freestyle, the stroke that had allowed her to become one of the better distance swimmers in the world and an Australian record holder from 400m up to 1500m, the latter of which she still owns, even in retirement.

One arm over, than the other, then a two-beat kick to give it a familiar tempo. It was a start. Seven days later, Ashwood would return to the water and grind out an entire kilometre, a distance she used to consider a warm-up for her warm-ups. With dozens of screws now pinning two steel rods that run the length of her fused spine – and a full-length scar to match – it was a one of the most gratifying swims of her life.

Part of me: Jessica Ashwood shows off the scar from her back surgery. 
Part of me: Jessica Ashwood shows off the scar from her back surgery. Credit:Paul Harris

When she was 13-year-old, Ashwood, from Newington in Sydney’s west, was already deeply serious about her swimming when her school offered testing for scoliosis, a condition that causes curvature of the spine. It’s not uncommon in girls of in that age group, so there was little immediate concern when she was diagnosed with a mild case.

“But during that… literally within a year… it went from being mild to severe,” Ashwood says. “They measure the curves and it depends on the degrees. My first x-rays… I had two curves… they were both in the 40s [degrees].

“Normally if you are young and it’s in the 40s, you would get the surgery done, because it always progresses, just because of gravity. You can get a brace, a plastic thing you wear outside your clothes, but you have to wear it 22 hours a day.

“I would have had to quit swimming. I wasn’t in any pain at that time so we didn’t go ahead with the surgery.”

Ashwood's spine, pre-surgery.
Ashwood’s spine, pre-surgery.

Instead, Ashwood learned to train and compete with a curved torso in a sport that cherishes and rewards straight lines. Most of the time, the now 26-year-old rarely spoke about a spine that looked more and more like a question mark as she grew and the endless frustrations it provided her and her coaches.

She had known girls that had endured severe pain, underwent surgery and had to quit the sport completely, so it never felt right to draw attention to her condition when she was still racing and achieving at the highest levels.

“Because that wasn’t me, I wasn’t in pain, so I didn’t have to sacrifice swimming. Somehow having two curves balanced me out a bit and I had been swimming since I was so young. That must have helped.”

Maybe it did, fractionally, but the truth was Ashwood had to reinvent her swimming stroke and learn to ignore the conflicting perceptions swirling around her head, one of which being the mind-bending notion of ‘straightness’.

Despite virtually everything being out of alignment, Ashwood would usually feel as plumb as a spirit level. It was posing for photos when she began to realise that what she thought she looked like and what she actually looked like were different conversations.

Ashwod's spine, pre- and post-surgery.
Ashwod’s spine, pre- and post-surgery.

“It’s a perception thing. I would have one shoulder up, my head would be on the side and my hips were out but I felt dead straight. I felt dead straight. Your brain counteracts everything.

“In photos, people had to correct me, so I started to learn to get everything together and level, even though in my head that felt strange.”

Trying to feel ‘straight’ for a static photo was one thing. Trying to streamline and perfect her stroke was another thing entirely. With the help of her coach Vince Raleigh, who Ashwood joined in Brisbane in 2014, the pair navigated regular tears and often battled her natural instincts to settle on a technique that was sustainable and fast.

“For me, in the water, I felt straight. When we watched videos, Vince would say: ‘You are over here, you need to bring your arm here.’ I had to try and feel like my hand was on the other side of the pool, reaching past the other side of my head.

“To me, it felt ridiculous but on video, it looked fine. We had to constantly assess that because the other arm had to come across from the other side as well. They would say: ‘This is perfect.’ And I would feel like I was falling, with my arms everywhere, or trying to swim in a circle.

“That was a challenge, because I had to rely on coaches and video because my internal feedback wasn’t very good. It could be pretty upsetting. There were times when I got out of the pool and just stood in the shower crying.”

Even as she dealt with daily hurdles that would have convinced lesser athletes to concede defeat, Ashwood carved out a remarkable career. She held three national records, one of which (800m) only fell at last year’s Commonwealth Games to Ariarne Titmus, a genuine once-in-a-generation talent.

There was an 800m silver medal at Commonwealth level and a bronze in the 400m freestyle at the FINA World Championships in Russia in 2015, as well as relay silver (4 x 200m freestyle) at the Rio Olympic Games.

How much more could she have achieved in perfect health? Ashwood doesn’t love the question.

“I’ve had people say to me: ‘Imagine what you could have done with a straight back.’ What’s the point of thinking like that? I finished the sport in a way where I still loved it and had no negative feelings. I’m grateful for what I was able to do.”

Ashwood retired soon after the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, leaving behind the swimmer’s life of unceasing dedication, relentless training and a revolving door of mental and physical anguish.

What came next would dwarf any of the challenges she faced as an athlete and test her resolve in ways she never thought possible. It would also allow her to stand tall – really stand tall – for the first time in her adult life.

Surgery was always a matter of when, not if, for Ashwood but imaging done post-Commonwealth Games would hasten the timeline. Her day-to-day comfort levels were decreasing at the same rate the angles in her warped spine were increasing.

“When I finished, I still wasn’t in heaps of pain but it was uncomfortable, especially when you were travelling and sitting or standing for long periods of time. I got X-rays done after Comm Games and it had changed from both in the 40s to one in the mid-60s and one at 56.

I’ve had people say to me: ‘Imagine what you could have done with a straight back.’ What’s the point of thinking like that? I finished the sport in a way where I still loved it and had no negative feelings. I’m grateful for what I was able to do.

Jessica Ashwood

“I was always going to get it done and the timing was right. I knew it was getting worse and I wanted to plan for a family, I wanted to be able to pick up my kids one day.”

Partly because she was so focused on her swimming and studies in criminology – and partly because she didn’t really want to know the gruesome details – Ashwood had always avoided deep-diving into what the surgery would truly entail. After almost six hours on the table, which left a back full of steel scaffolding and a scar that runs the length of her newly straightened spine, she was about to find out the hard way.

She can recall being in hospital and asking boyfriend Josh Maude to count down between morpheine hits, so she could hammer the button as soon as the time limit reset. It seemed like there was no let up to the pain and the recovery timeline she had visualised pre-surgery was already out the window.

Teenagers bounce back relatively quickly from what is major and complex operation. Ashwood did not.

“It was the consistency of the pain. It was constant … it’s hard to describe … you have a button in hospital to push to help with the pain. You could only do it every six minutes and I had Josh with a timer telling me when I could get some more medicine.

“I would lie there clicking it until it would dispense every six minutes. I would press it 50 times in one minute. I had never been on any sort of heavy painkillers like that.

“A lot of the information is aimed at 13 or 14-year-old girls. That didn’t really apply to me. And I thought the pain meds would stop all the pain but of course that’s not the case. The recovery time was the hardest … I thought I would be back up and exercising after six weeks. At that point, I was still on heavy narcotics.”

Her body had changed overnight. She went into surgery shorter than Josh but emerged taller. By the time her spine fully heals, Ashwood will be some 10cm taller than her pre-operative height. When it was time to leave hospital, she couldn’t bend down to get into a car, so her chariot home was a maxi taxi.

The recovery period felt glacial to Ashwood, who had always been used to being in peak physical shape and being in relative command of her body. Now, her torso was like a jigsaw trying to re-arrange itself, filling voids created by her new posture and discovering muscles that had barely been activated.

“I had lived for 25 years with my back a certain way. Surgery fixes that but certain things have never been used before. Mine always crunched in one side of my ribs, so after that it was going to create some pain. Your hips move, so that creates some pain. Everything gets moved around.

“The big thing for me, as a swimmer, you are a planner. You plan your year to the day. With surgery, you have to wait and let your body heal. After six weeks, I thought ‘I’m supposed to be better now’. People would tell me ‘You just had spinal surgery!’

“I get it now. When I see the X-rays… they have literally screwed it into my spine. That’s big.”

When Ashwood gets into the water now, there is another new sensation … the cold. A spine full of surgical steel amplifies the smallest of chills, which then radiate throughout her entire body. A wetsuit should help keep the goosebumps at bay when she tries the 1.5km swim leg at November’s Noosa Triathlon, a goal that has helped drive her recovery.

And then there is the scar, a mark of resilience that descends from her neck down and bears testament to her travels and tribulations. “I’m proud of it,” Ashwood says. “It’s part of me now and I know I’ve earned it.”

Phil Lutton | The Sydney Morning Herald

 

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