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Just over 12 months ago I posted a photo on Instagram with the words: “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade … time for the next chapter.” The photo was a copy of the MRI of my spine and the ugly protruding L5/S1 disc bulge that was compressing the nerve down my right leg. In that week last year in April, my season and career as a professional cyclist with Orica-AIS came to an end.
After having some niggling lower back pain that was being managed well with physio, I flew to Belgium to do a race with the Australian National Team before I was to join up with my Orica-AIS team mates for the spring classics. One relatively short ride in Belgium over some cobbled sections of the Flanders course was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When I tried to dismount the bike after the ride I had pain searing down my right leg into my calf and lost all power in the lower leg.
With delays getting back to Italy for scans due to the Brussels terror attack, it was nearly a week before we got a clear picture of how bad the damage was. I can remember seeing the physio’s face as the image came up on the screen; yep it was bad. I have had some pain before with various injuries but the nerve compression pain due to the protruding disc was unbearable. I don’t think I slept more than an hour at a time for over two weeks. I can see how that kind of pain could lead to a very slippery slope of pain killers and alcohol. I managed to sample many a fine Italian red wine over the two weeks.
Losing a team, losing a family
As many athletes know, when you are sick or injured on tour you tend to be rushed off to get better – either flown back to your training base or put in quarantine to fend off the lurgies – but this was a bit different. Due to everyone else being in Belgium for the racing, I was to be shipped back to Australia for surgery without seeing or effectively saying goodbye to most of my team mates who I would not race another day with. There was a massive feeling of loss and I guess grieving.
Lizzie Williams and Jess Allen were the only ones in Italy just before my departure and they saw me completely lose my shit. I had tried to hold it together but at the end of the day to realise that the dream is over, and not on your own terms, was like something inside of me died. I can’t thank those chicks enough for being there, especially Lizzie who was battling with her own demons at the time and managed to make both of us laugh with an entertaining road trip around Gavirate and the surrounding hills.
Many people ask me if I miss racing. There are some things I don’t miss, like the pressure of performing, training in the rain and binning it. Then there are things I do miss, like the adrenalin rush and the satisfaction of achieving something you worked hard for or thought was out of reach. By far the thing I miss the absolute most is the people.
For me having team mates was like having a group of sisters and to be taken out of that family so abruptly was challenging. There has been a lot more exposure recently about how difficult it is for athletes to transition back into the real world once their careers are over. The two-part programme Game Over, which aired on Australian television station SBS, really highlighted how many professional athletes struggle with mental health and specifically identity post retirement. For me, I think the day I saw that MRI and knew my cycling career was over, Chloe McConville was gone and it was time for the birth of Chloe Leighton (my married name) the physio, entrepreneur and soon-to-be-mum.
Two weeks after arriving home, via a business class insurance upgrade (thanks Cycling Australia), I underwent surgery on my back to remove the section of disc that was compressing the nerve. The physical relief was almost immediate and I could almost put full weight through my right leg for the first time in weeks. Once the physical pain was gone I was left with a big gaping mental hole of ‘what do I do now?’
The next chapter
I wasn’t allowed to lift, bend or contemplate turning a pedal for six to eight weeks, which also ruled out returning to immediate work as a physio to keep me busy. So, instead of wasting my time away binge watching Netflix – which I had already done for the four weeks from injury to surgery – I got down to sorting out this next chapter of my life. There were lots of things I wanted and hadn’t been able to have whilst racing such as more time with my husband Julian, to start a family and to have a decent income where I wouldn’t have to watch every cent that left my hand. With a lot of spare time on my hands and with one of my best mates Kate as a business partner, we hatched an idea for a new physiotherapy business.
It took a lot of hours of preparation but we officially started operating Home Health Rehab three months later. For me having another focus to throw all of my energy into was my saviour. I can’t imagine how annoying I would have been at home with nothing to do for eight weeks and unable to exercise to burn off steam. Having the business also gave me something I could get real satisfaction from seeing grow and succeed. Much like getting through a tough training session and seeing PB’s or Strava QOM’s, every new referral or positive piece of feedback delivered that sense of achievement and it gave me a new identity.
Just as the business was really starting to pick up, I had also been able to get back on the bike again. My fitness was slowly returning, but my rides were limited to about 2 to 2.5 hours as my back just couldn’t cope with anything longer and definitely not a heap of climbing. Then I started creeping pretty bad and feeling SUPER tired. That’s when I had a sneaking suspicion that I was pregnant.
Fast forward to today and I’m 37 weeks in, with the possibility of popping any day. Home Health Rehab is almost 12 months old, we have just added another physio to our team and are looking to expand further. The next chapter was kind to me, I was successful in turning my lemons into lemonade, however I also think having the right approach was critical in making sure I didn’t end up another athlete ‘lost’ at the end of my career.
Postscript: The very day after finishing writing this article Chloe gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Ruby Emma Leighton. All of us at CyclingTips wish Chloe and her new family the very best as they make their journey through this exciting new chapter.