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

Ellie Furneaux has a headache, every day. Even worse, once a month, a migraine grips her.

It starts innocuously. Staring at a screen at the wealth management firm where she works, she begins to see “wiggly worms” that soon morph into big white circles. The screen goes fuzzy. Pain shoots from her left temple. Her neck tightens.

This is progress. Two years ago, Furneaux’s promising career as Britain’s next great athlete in the sledding sport of skeleton came to a screeching halt when her head slammed into the ice during a race in Germany. For weeks, she struggled to recognize familiar surroundings. She could barely stay awake through a medical appointment or remember how to make a cup of tea.

What makes Furneaux’s story especially sad, though, is how inevitable its conclusion now seems, given how little attention was — and still is — paid to the dangers of repetitive brain injuries in sliding sports. Furneaux now understands, based on conversations with her neurologists, that she and her coaches appear to have misinterpreted and ignored symptoms for years that suggested she was likely experiencing a mild brain injury nearly every time she careened headfirst down a track, her head shaking and bouncing as the sled zoomed along at 75 miles per hour.

Wiped out, her brain so fried and frazzled after a run that she could not endure another, Furneaux would sleep it off and come back the next day to do it all over again, because that is all that she wanted and no one told her to stop.

“The scary thing is you can still figure out a way to slide when your brain is injured, and that is when it is most dangerous,” Furneaux, 26, said during a recent interview from her home in Bristol, in southwest England.

After a series of deaths from overdoses, suicides, and health problems among former athletes, the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, the world governing body for those sports, has been grappling with mounting evidence that sliding sports pose long-term dangers to brain health.

For years, the federation paid little attention to brain injury even as athletes suffered from chronic symptoms of concussions, what was known as “sledhead” around the sport. The federation has largely delegated decisions about whether athletes are healthy enough to compete to the athletes themselves, or their coaches and national governing bodies. Those entities though, have every incentive — money, glory, Olympic berths — not to remove themselves from competition.

At a meeting in September, Peter McCarthy, a neurophysiologist at the University of South Wales who has studied the effects of skeleton on the brain, and Mark Wood, one of the sport’s top coaches, urged members of the federation’s medical committee to screen athletes for brain injuries more regularly, set limits on training and to pursue research on brain injuries.

“What causes the injury? Are they more common at certain tracks, or after a certain number of runs?” said Aliyah Snyder, a former skeleton athlete who became a neuropsychologist at U.C.L.A. following years of struggling with concussion-like symptoms after she left the sport. Snyder is now working with McCarthy and Wood to make the sport safer. “Only then can we try to figure out the correct protocols.”

Adam Pengilly, a four-time Olympian and former I.B.S.F. officer, said the federation should pursue scientific research and, while it waits for more definitive answers, consider putting strict limits on the volume of runs to ensure athletes have time to recover.

“We don’t know enough,” Pengilly said. “We need to know more.”

In an email, Heike Groesswang, the secretary general of the international federation, said its medical committee is still considering safety and research proposals. She said a federation doctor examines athletes who crash during races and must clear them before they can compete again, but national team officials must take the lead during training. She said the federation has no plans to pursue long-term studies of brain health but will certify all helmets used in skeleton competitions for the 2022-23 season.

“It is an ongoing process within our federation to adapt our rules and regulations in order to implement the latest technologies or studies,” Groesswang said.

The British Bobsled & Skeleton Association did not respond to interview requests.


Furneaux at a track in Germany in 2016.

For a country that has little ice and does not have a proper track for sliding sports, Britain has compiled a remarkable record of success in skeleton. Since skeleton re-entered the Olympic program in 2002 after a 54-year hiatus, Britain has won seven of the 30 medals, including three in 2018. British women have won the last three gold medals.

Always athletic, Furneaux sailed competitively during her youth. In 2013, she was training at a gym at the University of Bath, where she was pursuing an arts degree and where British Skeleton is based, when she got tapped as a potential Olympian.

Furneaux, then 20, knew little about skeleton, but she accepted an invitation to a combine where coaches put hundreds of young athletes through a series of sprints, jumps and strength tests. Furneaux made the final selection of four men and four women.

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.

Furneaux said she suffered through the occasional migraine largely in silence.

“I would tell the coaches I was fine, and they would give me the benefit of the doubt,” she said.

Credit…James Beck for The New York Times
Credit…James Beck for The New York Times

Even with the brain injuries, Furneaux’s raw talent allowed her to win three races during the 2017-18 season on the Europa Cup, skeleton’s second-tier circuit. She even set the track record in Lillehammer. As she traveled to a late January competition in Altenberg, Germany, Furneaux looked like British skeleton’s next star.

There, on an early training run, she hit her head hard enough to crack her helmet. Coaches asked her if she was OK. She told them she was. After all, that groggy, fried feeling she had was similar to what she felt after nearly every run.

As a precaution, coaches made her take a standard cognitive test the following day anyway. She passed it, rested, and said she was ready to slide. She produced two of her best training runs that day.

Then came the race.

The signature turn at Altenberg is the Kreisel, a circular curve roughly halfway down the 1,400-meter track. As she exited the Kreisel, Furneaux felt the sled skid. She raised her eyes from the ice to see where she was headed. She has no idea when her head hit the ice, or how she managed to stay on the sled until the bottom.

As she limped on the ice, track officials asked if she had hurt her ankle. Then she broke down in tears and lost the ability to speak.

They drove her to her coaches at the top of the track. She collapsed on the floor. All she wanted to do was sleep. Doctors checked her neck but found no serious injuries. She returned to her hotel with her coaches and managed a telephone call with British Skelton’s doctor in Britain. He said she could sleep as long as someone watched her at all times. It was midafternoon. She slept until the next morning, then traveled home to Bath for further evaluation.

Back at her team’s headquarters, she knew she was somewhere familiar but recognized nothing. She had no idea who the people were who were speaking to her. All she could do was cry, and sleep.

An M.R.I. of her brain showed no damage, which is not uncommon with brain injuries. The doctor told her partner, Jake, to take her home and let her rest, but to wake her for meals. For two weeks, she could stay awake to eat, but not for a post-meal cup of tea. Eventually she began to want tea, but could not remember how to make it or the phone number she has had for more than a decade.

When she tried to exercise again in April, walking threw her off balance. Her initial attempts to run made her so dizzy and sick she keeled over. Then she would struggle to form sentences and remember simple details.

“It was one step forward and 10 steps back,” she said.

In the fall, she traveled with her family to New York on vacation. As she tried to lift her head to gaze at the skyscrapers, her body tilted. Her sisters had to keep her upright.

In February 2019, after doctors told her to forget about ever sliding again, she announced her retirement. Slowly, she learned to accept that she may never feel like her pre-concussion self. “This is who I am now,” she said.

Nearly two years later, she knows things could be much worse. She can finally jog, but she gets dizzy if she can’t see a clear horizon. When it’s hot, her body struggles to regulate its temperature. She can cycle, but only slowly. If she removes a hand from the handlebars to signal a turn, she loses her balance.

Her sight remains slightly blurry. Nothing is crisp, though earlier this year she did read her first book since the crash. Working in sales for a financial services firm, looking at a screen for much of the day, she knows that before too long a headache will arrive. Those migraines are always lurking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *