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  • Writer's pictureKristen Bujnowski

fight on.

About a year ago I was sitting in a cubical. I had a rough weekend but I was trying to block it out. It was time to focus on my job but my mind kept wandering elsewhere. I tried to fight it – I reminded myself –you are 25 years old – this is not the age to start a new sport. Not to mention: you are a research and development engineer at a medical device company – exactly what you studied to be, you are being paid well, you have great coworkers who you like being around, you are paying off your student loans, you finally have a vehicle, you are independent, so many people struggle to get a job right out of university but you didn’t, you are doing what your parents want – WHY ISN’T THAT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU? Before long I gave into my better judgment and started I stated researching late entry speed/power sports. There was a local bobsleigh testing camp in two weeks. I had not sprinted in over two years, my spikes were packed away in a different city – but I was suddenly more hopeful than I had been in years.

In high school I was a fairly talented long jumper. There were a number of times when I was few painful centimeters away from being a member for Team Canada – and that was all I ever wanted. My goal was never to be an Olympian – frankly that just seemed ridiculously impossible, I could never be that good. What I wanted more than anything was to compete for Canada. I wanted to earn the right to wear the maple leaf. I wanted it so badly it was literally all I thought about. I knew I was fast and strong so in my mind if I worked my ass off – trained harder and longer than my competition there was no way I wouldn’t achieve my goals. Training became my addiction and ultimately my downfall.

I would lift ALL the time – I would skip lunch with my friends to spend time in the weight room and I would head there again after school – if you are stronger you will jump the standards required to be on team Canada. I was wrong - or at least not without a properly structured training and recovery program. I gave myself massive muscle imbalances and when I was sixteen I ripped my left hamstring which led to knee problems the following year.

Youth Nationals 2009 - at the Team Ontario qualification meet I pulled my hamstring, but I also qualified for my first ever team. I didn't train between provincials and nationals to try to let it heal. I powered through and completed one jump, re-pulled my hammy and sat and watch the rest of the competition. I finished 3rd.

I took the summer off to try to recover but this made no difference. When I started university the following fall it was clear I was still very broken. But I kept fighting. Giving up was not an option. I attempted to balance engineering, training and countless hours in physio. The therapists were stumped, they tried everything but I wasn’t getting better. I kept fighting. I joined the throws group where I spent most of my time longingly watching the adjacent jumps practice – biding my time. You can’t be injured forever, one day your body will do what you want. My heart was definitely not in throwing and I didn’t improve at all.

Throwin for the Mustangs

My physiotherapist convinced me that I had the right body type for rowing and transitioning to a low impact sport would allow me to train at full capacity. Rowing could be a new avenue to achieve my dream so I was ready to fight. I tried out for the novice rowing team the fall of my second year. This was an amazing experience – everyone in the boat was brand new and we bonded over the shared struggle of learning a new skill and dying from the grueling endurance training rowing is known for. The best part was the meritocracy of the sport. If you worked hard you would get better, simple as that. If there was one thing I liked to do it was work hard. After two years of waking up at 4am to train my rowing career came to an end. The reason I gave up a sport I loved comes with a long story which I am not positive I am strong enough to share at this time. Regardless, my talents have always been speed and power so I am not sure I would have ever achieved my dreams if I had continued to peruse an endurance sport.

Rowin for the Mustangs

After my third year of university I took some time off. I got involved with ParaSport and spent the summer guide running with Sara who is visually impaired. This was perfect the perfect way to get through what was happening in my life– I was training and competing without any actual pressure on myself. The experience also reminded me how much I loved and missed track and field. I started doing a little training on my own and eventually one of my coaches suggested that if I wanted to jump again I could try switching my takeoff leg. I wanted to jump so badly – the fight ahead was an easy choice. It was very difficult at first – like learning to write with your non-dominant hand but eventually I started hitting numbers similar to those I had seen before. This was almost more frustrating because all I could think was: how good could I have been if I could jump off my dominant leg?

Jumpin for the Mustangs

I graduated in 2015 with concurrent degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Kinesiology from the University of Western Ontario. On top of competing in varsity sports and spending many hours a week in physio I was also enrolled in 7 class at almost all times (the average student takes 5 – most varsity athletes will opt for 4). At the time of my graduation it was pretty clear to everyone around me that my dream of being a top level athlete were not in the cards. At the time I was spending more time in tears than happy – but I wasn’t a quitter – I was prepared to keep pushing, keep fighting, I couldn’t be done. My mom intervened – when the time came to sign up for the next season of training she looked at me and – as kind as possible – said she thought it was time for me to make new goals and focus on my career. She wasn’t wrong. My athletic career had come to a complete stand still – years ago. With my most faithful supporter out of corner I no longer believed in myself and just like that – I didn’t have any fight left. The only option I felt I had was to disappear from sport.

I had a very unhealthy relationship with sport which hard gotten worse with each passing year, probably since I sustained my first serious injury as a teenager. Not matter what I achieved in other areas of my life, all my self-worth was tied to how I performed as an athlete. So when my dreams seemed to be over the only way to get by was to completely cut sports and athleticism out of my life.

Doing the career thing

I dragged my ass the gym maybe eight times in the 18 months following that conversation with my mom. I also became the worst sister. My little brother also fell in love with track, he was rising through the ranks and showing the same kind of dedication and determination that I had been known for when I was training. Mutual coaches would make it a point to tell me that his character and talent were very similar to mine. I know this was meant to be flattering, but it would just make me sad. He was doing so well – improving all the time, staying injury free – if we were the same then why did he get to take the path I only dreamed of?

Looking back now – I hope that they were right. He is not only talented but incredibly gritty, committed and passionate. It is extremely flattering to think that coaches may have though those things about me.

OFSAA 2013 - the first of many provincial and national titles (photo cred to myself)

Time might heal wounds but not if they are constantly being ripped open again. There came a point where I would no longer attend his meets because it would take me so long to emotionally recover. The meets were reminders that he still had all the time in the world to do the things I couldn’t and I would be sad and disappointed in myself for days after.

This only continued to spiral. When I would go home to visit or call my parents my brother’s athletic accomplishments and training was all they could talk about. It tore me apart. They were so proud. I’m not sure if they thought it didn’t bother me or I wanted to hear it but I was a mess. I didn’t want to go home or to call them because I would be in tears by the time I made an excuse to end the call or head home. It baffled me how they couldn’t see what they were doing to me.

I moved to Oakville (two hours from my parent’s house) when I started a new job. This helped because I could create a little distance between myself and the constant reminders of my inadequacy. Shortly after, in December of 2016, I found Crossfit and I was instantly in love. It wasn’t just working out - there were goals I could attach to my training and always something new to work on. But the most addicting thing of all was the community. I missed having athlete friends and Crossfit gyms are full of the kindest and most supportive people you will ever meet. Not long after joining a gym I was in there 6 days a week. Then I was finding ways to sneak in two workouts a day or I was staying for extra hours in the evening.

Two things became very clear: (1) despite all the time I had taken off I was still strong as hell and (2) I was still in love with being an athlete. I would spend my lunch at work looking up strategies for that evening’s workout. I could not wait for 4pm - I could head the gym, see my friends and work my ass off. Crossfit, like rowing, is a sport where if you work hard you will see results and I loved working hard. I was starting to feel happy in my Oakville bubble.

My first Crossfit Competition

But like clockwork - even with the constant high I was getting from exercise induced endorphins - I was still reduced to tears each time I hung up the phone with my parents. As soon as I would call home or visit I was sent into deep miserable sadness – you are not good enough, you never were. There where even points when I would imagine what it would be like if my brother made it the Olympics – the panicle of athleticism and the height I never even let myself dream I was good enough to reach. I could not picture myself surviving it.

About a year ago this time was the tipping point for me. I had gone home for father’s day and my parents announced to my extended family that my brother had qualified for his first national team. In July he would represent Canada at PamAmerican Juniors in Lima, Peru. He had earned the right to wear the maple leaf. Everyone was so proud – as they should be – he had worked so hard and it was paying off. I tried my best to paint on a smile and be the supportive proud sister I really wanted to be, but inside I was dying. I was going to throw up or pass out or burst into tears if I didn’t get out of there. I made an excuse to head home and when I was about 50m out of sight of my parent’s house I burst into body shaking with uncontrollable sobs.

Mark coming home from his Team Canada debut

You are a failure, you aren’t good enough, you never were good enough, he has done what you couldn’t – the only thing you really ever wanted, nothing you do is worth anything, you are a waste of time, a waste of space.

I am not sure how long it took me to calm down enough to drive.

The next day I was back in that cubical – feebly telling myself I was happy and that life was good and that I am doing what I should be doing – but that day at lunch rather than preparing for that evening’s workout I started researching late entry speed-power sports and I very quickly found out I still had options. I enrolled for bobsleigh testing camp that was in 2 weeks. At this point I was strong and fit but I hadn’t sprinted in over 2 years. I drove home that weekend to get my spikes from my parent’s house. I didn’t tell them what I was doing because I knew they wouldn’t approve and honestly I didn’t have too much faith that I would do well.

It turned out sprinting is kinda like riding a bike. Two days following the camp the recruiter called me up and asked if I wanted to go to Calgary for a week to try pushing in the ice house (the artificial start national teams from all over the world come to train on). I couldn’t say no.

At this point I told my parents and understandably they weren’t happy – reiterated all of the same thoughts that had popped into my head before - why was are you trying to peruse sport again? You have a good job – don’t screw it up. Why isn’t a normal life good enough for you?

The difference was now I didn’t care – I had been working for a while and had a bit of savings so I didn’t need their financial support and for the first time in my life – I didn’t care if I had their approval. I felt a little fight coming back.

At the camp I wasn’t a stand out or a natural (my coaches will attest to this) but by the end I was really having a lot of fun and enjoying the challenge. I was good enough to be invited back to the prospect camp in September – the feeder camp for the national team trials. From there the coaches invited me to the national team push competition.

Visiting Lake Louise during my first trip to Calgary

I wasn’t going to go – this was crazy, people just don’t make the national team with no experience, especially not you– plus you was out of vacation days, what will work say if you ask for more time off? – No. You are going to go home, save money, work you ass off and get stronger and faster and come back next year ready to train for the 2022 games. That is the smart, logical and safe thing to do. And you are smart, logical and safe.

But the Monday after the camp I was sitting at my desk and I got a call from the National Team Push Coach. He laid out some facts for me: there was a great chance that the women’s team out qualify 3 sled for the games – that would mean 5 breakwomen at the Olympics– and based on what he had seen me do he thought I could be one of them.

I was sold. This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I hung up the phone and booked a one way ticket to Calgary. This was it. Time to fight. With five icehouse sessions under my belt I tied for third place at the National Team Push Competition – securing myself a spot on the World Cup Team and four months later – the Olympic Team.

After coming home from the games I got a small tattoo along my hairline. It’s only visible when I pull my hair back. It says fight on. It represents the fight that I had, the fight that I lost, and the fight I have coming my way. When I pull my hair back it’s game time – time to fight.

fight on

This is just the beginning.

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