Anna Tsyganova is an athlete, focused on the result, a fighter from climbing. So, having learned about her injury last summer, we were upset by the entire editorial team. But quite quickly it turned out that Anya was not only one of the most motivated, but also the most positive Russian climber. And since, unfortunately, any person inspired by climbing can be in her place, we think that Anna’s experience of getting over trauma and recovery will be useful for you. In blog format.
By Anna Tsyganova
Photos: Courtesy of Author
Hello! I am Tsyganova. Once Lena (editor-in-chief – ed.) wrote me: “Anya, let’s make an article about your injury, your getting over it, etc.” I took notes both before and after my fall, so although it’s hard to describe everything, I’ll try to write the main thing. Not only about sports, but also about personal concerns, which often were my motives for action.
For those who don’t know my story, I’ll summarize briefly how I see it. In 2016, I won the world championship in speed climbing. It was one of the “streaming” states and the peak of my career in speed climbing. In the same year it became known, that climbing was included into the program of Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Not thinking for long (ha, I thought a lot until the last time, and, frankly, these thoughts are still coming), I decided to try to get there. And I got into it so seriously that at some point I lost connection with reality. I shut myself out. On training, on preparations, on my body, on myself. There were injuries and my private life has changed. At first I was lucky – inflammations of ligaments from overtraining was kicking me out of the process for only a week. But I’m getting ready for the Olympics, I have to work hard and endure. In 2018 there were four such injuries, in 2019 I realized that I had to change something. Although I thought I was recovering well and rested enough…
At the end of May, the shoulder got inflamed again, and then it seemed to became a little better, but the “you have to work and endure” setup was imprinted already in my brain. I tolerated, worked hard, and performed not very good (although it was enough in fact, but who knew it?), so I was making conclusion “I don’t train much”, getting into self-destruction, and giving new portions of activity. And I was waiting, that things would be better now. Rock climbing was saving me, because I felt myself free there, but you won’t stay long there – it’s time for Olympics preparations. It is a climbing season, trainings – everything is serious. Behind this seriousness I began to lose the reality, the process, the idea of why I do this all. I began to lose my gear, my health, my loved ones. I stopped noticing simple, but such important values.
July 15, 2019. Monday. I didn’t get enough sleep, I have a feeling of incomplete recovery, but I’m an athlete and getting ready for the qualifying for the Olympics on the World Championship, where it will be terribly hard (oh, this wonderful holiday of sports – hanging out with friends, sushi, fun ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha). Suddenly happens something that turns EVERYTHING over – directly (for a month I am only laying in a horizontal position) and figuratively. During speed climbing training I just forget to do the main thing (to tie the rope on a harness. – ed.), I’m falling and breaking the spine in four places. Three are not so scary – just compression and stable fractures in the thoracic, lumbar and sacral parts. But in the cervical spine situation was not so simple. In the C2 segment, the arches flew off (a fracture of the arcs. – ed.), and the intervertebral disc protruded towards the spinal cord for 2 mm. In short, a few millimeters more – and the vagus nerve would be blocked, followed by my death or paralysis (as neurosurgeons explained to me).
The first seconds after the fall? Arms and legs moves. There wasn’t much pain. I’m alive. Thank God.
Then there’s a whirlwind of events: CT / MRI, explanatory papers, on the third day I’m getting an offer to fly to Moscow for surgery, but we (parents and some doctors form Krasnoyarsk) refuse. I’m still in shock. The condition is incomprehensible. There was no severe pain, but it was scary, my head hurts from time to time, I just can’t take a sober and thoughtful decision in this state. Time goes by / heals. Time, energy, care and love of folks helped me a lot: they called, wrote in social networks, prayed for me all around the world. Everything slowly falls into place – in my head and others.
Anxiety, uncertainty is the norm. The awareness that I was three millimeters from leaving this body made me realize how valuable these seconds, minutes, years are. These moments right now. To hold Mom’s hand, to eat Grandma’s cottage cheese, to discuss rock climbing with friends, to drink coffee lying down. I hardly cried (a couple of times while mom was near me) – I realized I had no right to let sadness in. How were the days of lying down – a lot of prayer, ideomotor spinal fusion, pranayama and meditation (as much as possible).
Friends and family visited me. Sometimes I felt their anxiety, I wanted silence. I watched Fullmetal Alchemist, moved everything as much as I could. But the most fun was sleeping. In my sleep I could walk, swim and, of course, climb! So a couple of weeks went by – like in a resort.
Well, “well-deserved rest.” It gets better every day. I am completely horizontal, in this position I did absolutely everything. On day seven, they brought me a hangboard. Oh, that was such happiness!!! And just holding on to it, straining my fingers a little, I felt hope and joy – like the very essence of the movement that brings me joy, and hope that maybe I’ll return to climbing after all. Although I tried to avoid this subject at the time, I believed that I would climb, and I really, really wanted to. (But if you told me that I would try climbing 8a in the New Year’s Eve in Spain, I would think you kidding me).
Holding hands of friends and family is very warm and valuable. To see the guys I haven’t met for a long time, to get messages from all over the world. Many of them were writing me “you’re strong”, etc., but I did not put any effort into it – it was just not possible to be sad in all this situation.
Acceptance came almost immediately. The fact, that I won’t be at the World Championship in Tokyo 2019 (for which I was preparing for the last 2–3 years), was clear. But what about the Tokyo 2020 Olympics – a big goal? Will it remain a dream? It does not matter. The important things are that here and now.
In my mind I was not at that training session on July 15, the day of my Guru – Pilot Babaji (famous yogi. – ed.) – Appearance (is it coincidence? or blessing?). That morning I read on a pen: “Pilot,” – this usually just doesn’t happen that way, and I remembered it and that it was his birthday. And, apparently, mine. (You can consider me fatalistic, but you should not play games with such powers). Something in me died that day, but something very bright and new was born, or something forgotten long ago was resurrected. But the most important thing now is that every day, every hour, I understand how lucky I am, that I live and my heart beats, how much I am grateful to everyone for this event and gift.
Time is running. I already clearly understand that in the future I want to live peacefully and climb – for this I need surgery. Everything is simple. I explained this to parents and everyone around. The slight fear was that my fracture was unstable in the cervical spine and displacement could be dangerous. And air transportation is not the easiest thing. We worried about it, of course, in vain, but things you don’t know has the feature to cause concern.
We supposed to fly (thanks to the Russian Federation of Sport Climbing for the ticket) to Moscow on August 7. Also in horizontal position. This, of course, was one of the most memorable flights in my life. What a delight I had when I went to the airport from the hospital room!!! I saw a beautiful ceiling, everything is beautiful and fun in general. Sky, air, oh-oh-oh!!!
Oh-oh-oh! Great! There was no shaking during the flight, compared to ground transport on our roads. Well, Moscow, hello! Neurosurgery Department of A.I. Burnazyan FMBC of Russia. Mom and Alexander Kukharev, the neurosurgeon, who guided me all the time in Krasnoyarsk, are nearby. We arrived on Wednesday, the operation was scheduled for Friday afternoon. And they wanted to invite the star neurosurgeon Nekrasov, but on Thursday evening there was an accident at some nuclear station (an explosion at the Russian Navy’s Nyonoks rocket range in the Arkhangelsk region during tests of new military equipment. – ed.), and in the morning, they say, Nikolay Nikolaevich Nikolaev (thank you to heaven!) was working or we used to reschedule my surgery for next week. The surgery is as follows: they cut the neck to the left of the trachea, get to the spine, looking through a microscope, remove the C2–C3 disc, put a piece of my bone from the pelvis and fix it with a titanium plate and screws. In general, an armful of firewood and pilaf is ready. (A joke. – ed.) All this is somewhere in 1.5 hours (pilaf is cooked longer). The prospect of getting out of bed on Monday was a serious motivator, but even more I didn’t want to lie down and worry about waiting all weekend.
Somewhere at 10 a.m. we started. Further, as in the film, the radio was playing Sunshine Reggae: “Don’t worry, don’t hurry, take it easy.”
They gave me anesthesia, I counted to two, then I remember nothing.
When I woke up, I couldn’t move my throat, but I was alive. Mom is nearby, “Bormental” says that the plate was set perfectly. Everything is cool! Okay.
Then again, as in the movie. In intensive care, downplaying, not comfortable. You are so attached to pipes, something (pulse) beeps there, you can’t move, it’s difficult to breathe, swallow too, but you need to take pills somehow. Lying, reading a mantra, trying to sleep. The next day I got to the ward. It seems that everything is okay, only the throat sore from the tube and the mouth does not obey me. Next thing I got known, that I’m allowed to roll over from side to side.
It feels like you drank a lot, or poor alcohol, and try to sleep – and the “helicopters” are the biggest, most modern and with special effects. You adapt with practice.
On the third day they raised me from the bed. Oh-oh-oh, I felt such a vertigo that I could faint (it’s because the body after spending a month horizontally does not understand where to pump the blood). Fortunately, a cold towel and strong hands of Nikolai Nikolayevich (a neurosurgeon) helps to rub the face, and to pump the blood towards brain.
First steps to the bathroom, to the hallway. The next day, I went outside. Uh-oh! A-a-h! Who-o! I’m walking around like I’m drunk. Staggering, but walking!!! Oh, my God, it’s so beautiful around here! Flowers, trees, air, Mom, people. Oh, I’m so impressed with the ivy! Its leaves, moustache and curls, and how the plant climbs so nicely.
After sometime I started going out on my own. It was a feat to get up to the fifth floor. Then every next moment was about 1000 times brighter! Seeing friends and family who came to the hospital, was and is 1000 or millions times more valuable and important!
At first I could not walk for a long time. The leg went numb, the back hurt, but it was not important (it’s part of the game). Well, after a month of bedding, simple pleasures, such as going to the toilet traditional way, brushing my teeth, going to the canteen myself, taking a ride on the subway, washing myself … oh-oh-oh. Such a joy.
Many thanks to the life hack consultant for living with a fracture of the spine (try to wash yourself in two corsets without special technique) Ira Kuzmenko, and simply for the fact that she is. I began to feel clearly, that behind a bunch of things: race, aspiration, ambition, anxiety – very simple moments are getting lost, turning into a routine.
The way out of this routine makes one realize how cool it is to just be alive, what great things people invented (shower or underground, for example). Now this trend of awareness is very actively moving to the masses, but if you will not live and feel it on your own skin so far – you will not understand.
I was discharged in a week after the surgery. We went for a walk with my mom. Then we took the train home to Krasnoyarsk. I decided to recover there (in the Center of Physical Rehabilitation under the leadership of Evgeny Vladimirovich Portnyagin). It was possible to do it in Moscow, but the home is still the home. I wanted my Dad to see me walking, family and friends, plus simplicity with logistics and of course – local landscapes. It’s all in Krasnoyarsk. My rehabilitation is a month of “grandmother’s gymnastics” (two or three times a day for 20 minutes) and to be as much as possible outdoors.
To touch the Stolby and their granite – Ooh-ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh! What a bliss! I went to gym – I switched on the music, walked on the mat, and my hands held the holds – in my mind I climbed (well, crazy, but I don’t care – I was happy and I was myself).
It’s February, I’m writing this text after training, when it feels almost the same as before, even better somewhere… God, I can’t believe it!!! Just thank you, thank you! My restorative procedures were prayer, meditation, pranayamas, ideomotor spinal fusion. And being outside.
Fortunately, it was autumn – a golden fairy tale without ticks. By the end of September, I was already allowed to do simple exercises on TRX, exercises for controlling the core, working with light weights. I was wearing a “collar” and a corset. Two months after the operation, at the last warm autumn days, I “threw out” the collar. And I was allowed to climb, slowly!
Five moves. This is happiness! Then more. Then traverses in the Yujniy (other climbing walls are too overhanging for now). And the traverses, because I can’t jump, I can’t sit (the top rope is not allowed). So traverses, taking various positions in bouldering, pull-ups, push-ups, light hangs, isometry. Step by step, without too much pressure. One day I’m training, one day – relaxing.
October is coming to the end, I’m starting to hang at maximum strength according to the method of Eva Lopez-Rivera. The first trip – Ekaterinburg. Just to hang out, see friends and share motivation (the first master class was organized somehow by itself) – so great! Well, the speed began to grow further, life began to flow the usual fun rhythm.
In mid-November, I was allowed to take off the lower corset. Trainings went more fun. New trips – Moscow for competitions as a spectator, St. Petersburg with family and friends, another master class, the first climb top rope in the Severnaya Stena gym – category 6c, but it’s painful / scary to raise my legs up due to limited mobility in the lower back.
December – and the main recovery event – Thailand! Oooh, so many discoveries were made there! Here are some:
- Stretching in water and heat is a huge pleasure, especially when the lower back does not move.
- Leading 6b is easy, but scary; so when you understand, that fear is holding you in, nothing threatens life and the route is not difficult – what you are afraid of?
- If you want to jump, but the compression load is forbidden – jump in the water. You are pushed well, you land in water, there is no shock load.
- Motion is health. Not necessarily climbing. You can move in any way.
Step by step, with hours of daily stretching, funny exercises, new movements on the rock, in the mode “day climbing – a day or two rest” the old perception return. I’m top roping. It’s already boring on 6a–6b routes – I want to work harder, 6c+ onsite – ooh! Then 7b from the first attempt, twitching at 7c – how wonderful it is: to revive the active holds, think how to make a move, adapt them to the current level of mobility.
Previously, I would worry that I did not climb 7a from the first try, now I am glad that I just got hung up there. This is followed by the sea, sunset, people in love with climbing from all over the world, the full moon, the road from Tonsai through the jungle with fireflies to Railay, full of stars and luminous plankton, a sense of being part of this world and dedication to everything here and now.
Five months after the fall were gone in such way. Everything returns, moves and changes. Thanks to mom and dad for creating me and being there in this wonderful place. Then planes, affairs, slowness, New Year creeps up. New projects and wild moments of happiness, that people around give and you can create yourself, coming with it.
Six months after the injury. I still can’t believe that things happening now is reality.
On January 1st, at 6 am, I boarded a plane in Krasnoyarsk, and in the evening I already ate pasta in the Goma bar in Cornudella de Montsant, where I celebrated the beginning of 2020 on Spanish rocks. And again, it was something incredible. Again, peel off fingers on the holes of Margalef, watch the sunsets in Siurana, try hard routes again, spend time with friends and just be alive!
I top-roped few 7c, made good attempts on 8 grade, even tried several quickdraws of La Rambla – the range of my moves increases every day. Health comes first, I don’t hack “amuerte”, I try not to overexert. The load in the buzz, rest in the buzz, motion in the buzz, work in the buzz. And to be here and now. No, right now!
Due to the long period of time, spent outside, and inspiring people around me, I began to try more new things: make winter solo at Stolby or recall my forgotten hobbies (music, art). Everything has become somehow easier and more productive. I take former amount of training, sometimes I just relax. Of course, it’s impossible to achieve without discipline (exercise, training) and concentration on practice, but in relaxed, comfortable pace (someone would not pull my “comfortable” pace at all).
I will go further, being honest, sincere with my body, nature and others. Where to? Now I am in Tyumen at the speed climbers training camp, I don’t make any further plans. I think there will be rocks, and master classes, and maybe competitions, it does not matter, most importantly, to move. There are some plans, but the awareness that they might disappear at any moment, immerses me in the present.
There is only one way out – just to do what you need and not be afraid. You won’t know, until you try. I’m very grateful to everyone who gave me this life. First – Mom, Dad! All family members, relatives and friends. All great teachers and masters. The Universe and the Creator. I want to thank endlessly everyone by name. You are ALL beautiful! Love, appreciate and respect yourself, your loved ones, your motion, every moment. Be sincere with everyone around you. And be happy!
What you need to know and be able to do as person with a broken spine
Everything is very individual. What you need to know – doctors will tell. But a few words about the main things.
– If you need to lay down for a month, you still need to try to move – without discomfort, but not to get bedsores. I was warming up my fingers, feet and everything that could move. Hang my hangbord and gave a small load on each finger one by one. (Fingers in general have become stronger over the past six months, since the hangs are not very time-consuming). As I was allowed to hang – immediately began to make hangs on the maximum strength of the fingers. I did exercises on antagonists with a rubber band.
– It is better to have someone near, when you are in the hospital: to help with food, bedpan, etc.
– To wash wet wipes come in handy; there is Semi foam for washing.
– Compression stockings – I was forced to lie in them.
– Try to pump the blood – the roller and applicators Lyapko helped me a lot.
– Autotraining and ideomotor work – with closed eyes you can imagine how the vertebrae recover. I could not twirl my neck, my eyes look only up. Therefore, to help your hands with the phone / book (which you need to hold in front of your eyes) use belay glasses, just flip them with the lenses on the contrary (I still read / work on the computer while lying down – it’s very convenient, the neck is in normal position).
– When you are allowed to get up – move. And anyway, move. As much as possible. Only motion accelerates the bloodstream, which delivers nutrients. After compression fractures, you can usually not sit for a long time. This has become my habit: “not to sit still.” There may be limitations and misunderstanding of people around, but I did not care. At restaurants I ate, kneeling, or preferred a food service with a bar counter.
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2nd week of my active rehab is on 💃 Workin’ on my core and feet stability. @cfr_team @evgenyiportnyagin @alexei_1992 🤟🏽🔥 @skalodrom.ru @scarpa_russia @teamcska @russiaclimbing @sportmedicalgroup @scarpaspa . . Идёт вторая неделя «ЛФК по-веселее». Возвращаю мышцы корпуса, кровь в плечо и легонько жму ногами. На видео пространственная планка (всего 8 углов) без нагрузки на шею/плечи. Заряжена ⚡️. Под контролем Центра Физической Реабилитации СКЦ фМБА России 😎 @krasfmba #tsygahome #rehab
– On the contrary, I was able to lay down in airplanes (as a precaution I took a thin rug from decathlon with me) on the floor among the seats. At first people react weird, but when you explain, that you have a “compression fracture of the spine in the consolidation phase”, fast and in confident manner, usually you negotiate with adequate people without problems, letting them put their feet on you, etc. I have never been afraid to do this: right position of my back is more important. Of course, take-off / landing I had to sit (you can put a plaid roller under the lower back), sleep like a crayfish, when the plane was completely full or the cabin crew acted too “according to the instructions”, but when possible, I bent my line.
– When all the corsets removed, it’s time to restore mobility. And here – go to the heat and the sea. At least for three weeks. Water is a wonderful cure. If it is difficult to do any movements, do them in water. I even started to jump in the water (emphasis on pushing out so that the muscles remember what “explosion” is (I dreamed of returning to the standard wall)). And make landing to the depth, to have no blow from below.
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5 months after the fall. Here is the part of my daily routine – movement is the best rehab ⭐️ Slowly returning my spine mobility. And Enjoy last days of my outdoor gym in Thailand 🌴🌊 Thank all of you for support ❤️🔥🙌 @skalodrom.ru @scarpa_russia @scarpaspa @cfr_team @russiaclimbing @teamcska @beal.official @verticalsport . . Ну что, 5 месяцев после полёта. Движение – это жизнь. В шоке конечно как наш организм способен восстанавливаться, главное не спешить и делать все в кайф⭐️ Огромное спасибо всем за поддержку ❤️😘 #tsygatrip2019 #tsygatraining #rehab #scarpa #scarpa_russia #scarpa_climb #verticalsport #weareBEAL #bealropes #sportmedicalgroup #cfr_team #arestape #climbing #sportclimbing2020 #sportclimbing #krasclimb #скалолазание #цска #скалодромру #skalodromru #russiaclimbing #climbinglife #iloveclimbing #спорт #реабилитация
– Well, slowly do the “cat” exercise to keep your back muscles in good shape. By the seventh month I felt that my back was stronger than before! I lifted the bar of the barbell (for fun) and did not feel its weight – how it is possible? Eugene said: “You made your back for six months, of course, your muscles became stronger.” So do exercises on deep muscles: all the planks, exercises for body control, this is not only for health, but also for climbing. You would feel positive effect.
– Gymnastics and exercises EVERY DAY!!! It is very important! For me, to stop moving means to feel bad. Usually I do in the morning – if there is absolutely no time – a “cat” and light exercises to activate the back / core.
– Neck. Maintaining muscle tone begins with the neck. Massage a little bit, only in the sixth month after the injury. I already know at what points I need to press to get the clamped muscle “released”. But you need to know / feel / have practice. Or contact a specialist.
– Well, the most important thing. Do not break the spine! Ha!
But if you have already have spinal fracture:
1. Do not be afraid, life goes on, and the body is a very smart self-healing thing.
2. You would be afraid at every stage, but you can negotiate with it, more precisely, if you fully soberly explain to yourself that nothing threatens your life and health (as permitted by the doctor), then fear itself becomes absurd and nonsense. If you don’t have the strength to talk to yourself soberly – relax or ask for help / ass kick (with love, of course).
3. Listen to doctors, whom you trust, but remember to listen to yourself.
4. Do not rush, everything takes time. If you were said that you need to do gymnastics for a month (although it seems that you can already climb and stop the horse), then do it a month.
5. For the rest I am not an adviser, because injuries are always different and each specific case requires an individual approach!