At first, Squamish downhill mountain bike racer Miranda Miller didn’t know she had broken both her arms. As she got to her feet after crashing during the 2014 World Cup in Fort William, Scotland, Miller says she was instead frustrated that she was out of the race and concerned over a gash in her leg.
“There was a lot of swearing and yelling because I was just so angry with myself for hurting myself so soon,” she said, adding that the race was her first of the season after a December surgery to repair her arm that had been broken the summer before.
In Scotland, Miller had crashed near an ambulance so she was able to walk herself over to paramedics and was soon whisked to hospital, where the full extent of her injuries became clear.
Back home in Squamish, it was a tough recovery.
“This time, it felt like it was all over and that my time was up,” she said.
Without the use of her hands she was dependent on help, mostly from her mother, to do everything from eating to bathing and brushing her teeth.
A couple of surgeries later, Miller was fully into rehabilitation with various health professionals around town, including a massage therapist and hand specialist.
A year later, Miller is racing again. Last week she was back in Scotland for the 2015 World Cup.
Miller, 25, has a philosophical approach to injury and her sport.
“No one likes getting injured, but I mean it is a possibility every time you go mountain biking,” she said. “It is also a possibility every time you walk across the street.”
Miller’s is an extreme case of an elite athlete who endures injuries as part of her career, but injuries are common in the corridor, not only to racers.
Take a look around the local grocery store mid-summer or the coffee shop mid-winter, and chances are, you will see many people visibly nursing an injury from sports.
A commonly heard response to a Squamish injury isn’t “What did you do?” but “When are you able to get back on the bike/skis/board/rockface?”
According to Susan Chapelle, a district councillor, massage therapist and owner of Squamish Integrated Health – and a mountain biker – the physical and financial cost of outdoor recreation in the corridor is underplayed.
She said during the 15 years she has had a clinic downtown, the type of injuries she sees have changed as outdoor recreation became more of Squamish’s drawing card.
“I used to treat chainsaw injuries,” she said. “In this community I went from treating repetitive strain injuries in logging and industry jobs to treating crazy orthopedic injuries from tourism.”
She said fractures, dislocations and ligament injuries are the most common ailments she treats.
The largest group of clients are mountain bikers, followed by climbers, she said.
According to a Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association (SORCA) 2014 report, the number of mountain bikers on Squamish trails quadrupled from an estimated 591 riders per week during the 26 weeks of the regular mountain biking season in 2006 to an estimated 2,600 per week in 2014.
SORCA also estimates mountain biking injects more than $8 million into the local economy.
Chapelle, who treats and sponsors Miller, said she can relate to her clients.
“I raced bikes, had a massive shoulder blowout…. It took ages to recover, months in a sling. But like everyone else, I got back. I wanted to race,” said Chapelle.
“The injuries I see in the clinic are the same. Massive. Explosive. Life-changing for those not in our community, but a bump in the road for the warriors who live a life of sports and mountains.”
Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) does not keep track of the source of injuries in Squamish, according to a spokesperson, so it is unclear how much these injuries cost the health-care system.
“Injuries go along with an active lifestyle and sports,” said Dr. Bob McCormack, chief medical officer for the Canadian Olympic Team and a professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at UBC.
McCormack said the physical and mental benefits of being active outweigh most risks.
The risks increase if you pursue sports more seriously or choose inherently dangerous activities, he said.
“Cycling is a great activity for people, and it is particularly a good activity for people who maybe have some knee problems and they want to get the muscles strong and get aerobic fitness,” he said. “If you add another level onto that, of terrain – so mountain biking – then you increase the risk of falls…. If you do it at a very high end, professionally or competitively or even something like the terrain park at Whistler, it takes it up to a whole other level of injury risk and those become more traumatic injuries.”
McCormack said some people don’t wear the right equipment, which leads to injuries.
“It is actually surprising to me when I get up there and I see people without armour, without helmets, without even glasses, and they are whipping through the bush,” he said.
He said some young people have a “gladiator mentality” and that media can play in to that when recreational athletes see professional athletes who have been badly injured several times and still come back to compete.
“That kind of, almost makes it sound like it is not a big deal,” he said. “It is just another operation.”
“Those injuries not only have a short-term cost, in terms of downtime and therapy and all those other things, with some injuries – if you have major ligament injuries, if you have fractures… you do increase the risk of getting premature degeneration in the joint,” he said. “So you want to kind of minimize the cost of the activity and still realize the benefit.”
According to Dr. McCormack, one of the keys to staying injury-free is to cross-train and to use common sense.
“There is mountain biking and then there is mountain biking. If you are going aerial at Mach 2, it is fairly predictable what is going to happen, eventually,” he said.
Squamish physiotherapist Danielle Balik is an avid skier, mountain biker, mountaineer and, most recently, kiteboarder who pursued her career because of all the injuries she had endured due to sports.
“What brought me to being a physiotherapist is being injured and going to a physio clinic and working through those injuries,” she said.
Balik said more than 75 per cent of injuries are preventable.
Seeing a physiotherapist not only after you are injured but before to get assessed can help. If you have been out of your sport for a while or if you are starting a new activity, you can get screened at many of the physiotherapy clinics in Squamish, she said.
“[Screening] is looking at any muscle weaknesses, imbalances, flexibility, just discussing any previous injuries or issues or ways to prevent that or to be mindful of what to watch for before things become a long-term issue,” she said. Some physiotherapists in town also check proper technique by having the client perform their sport in the clinic. They can do bike fittings as well, which can include watching an athlete ride to ensure the bike is well suited to the rider’s body and technique.
As for Miller, she got a flat tire halfway through her qualifying run in Scotland so couldn’t compete, but she will be off to another World Cup race in Austria this weekend.