She Seemed Destined for Olympic Glory. Brain Injuries Ended That.

That winter in Lillehammer, Norway, she took her first run down a real track. The experience produced the same rush of adrenaline as the afternoons she spent racing 16-foot boats on the English Channel, hiking out on a trapeze to keep from tipping in the brisk winds.

She relished the challenge of making subtle adjustments required to steer the sled at high speed — the tiny shift of a shoulder or a knee, or a tilt of the head, even changing the focal point of her eyes.

“I loved the speed,” she said.

Her first major crash, in 2015, didn’t change that, even though her sled slammed into her left leg and nearly severed a major nerve. For weeks she had no feeling in the lower part of the leg and could not use it.

She eventually recovered, but during a training run ahead of the junior world championships in Sigulda, Latvia, in 2016, she steered the sled high on a turn when she should have steered it low. Then everything went black. She was mostly conscious, but had (and still has) zero recollection of the crash. When her teammates trained that evening, she felt out of it and decided to rest.

The next day she told her coaches she was fine, even though she wasn’t. She tried, unsuccessfully, to cheat her way through a cognitive and balance test. Her coaches told her she would have to miss the competition. She continued to insist that she was fine and was doing training runs again roughly six weeks later.

Everything was different, though. Her teammates would do three or four runs a day in training. Her brain felt so depleted after a second run she could not focus hard enough to think her way through all the adjustments needed to survive 14 treacherous turns, with punishing gravitational forces pushing down on her head.

McCarthy, the neurophysiologist, said his research on skeleton suggests that Furneaux and other athletes who compile so many runs, especially after an injury, are susceptible to a decline in neck function that can lead to high-impact “whiplash-like events.” The athletes, McCarthy said, often do not report their symptoms.

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