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Carmen Small Journal: Unsung heroes

Small faces illness and disappointment at track world championships, but notes how important team staff can be in the face of adversity

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Lying sick on the bathroom floor in a hotel is probably one of the worst feelings. But that’s where I was, three days before the world track championships, last month in France. It was like a wave washing over me — cold, chills, goosebumps, nausea. I hadn’t felt very good a few hours before, but I chalked it up to hunger. I soon realized it was much worse than that. I went back to my room still in denial that I was going to be sick. Then I curled up in my bed and prayed.

When it struck, I couldn’t believe the timing. This was happening days before one of my most important races.

We, as elite athletes, are always on the verge of getting sick. We push our bodies to the limit every day and try to do everything in our power to stay healthy. The majority of the time, we can maintain this rigorous physical routine without succumbing, but sometimes our bodies can’t fight illness. This can happen at the most inconvenient time, and lately, that has been my luck.

So the question becomes, what keeps us going? What keeps our spirits up besides our sheer determination? … TEAM STAFF! A cycling team’s support crew is the most underrated, under-appreciated, but important, part of that team. Riders get the glory, the press, the medals. And staff gets, well hopefully, a lot of “thank yous,” sometimes a salary, but certainly not enough for all that they do. They are the backbone of the team, and I don’t believe their amazing efforts get enough recognition.

During my recent bout with the flu, I had Andy Sparks and Neal Henderson in my corner. Andy’s natural sense of humor had him commentating my sickness: “It’s Carmen and her teammate, Tamiflu, goal one is to kick the flu’s a— … hashtag go time!” His humor helped as much as any medication. Neal and Andy cheered for me on the sidelines, took care of me, brought me food, and there’s no doubt it helped speed up my recovery.

By the next day I was feeling better, still quarantined and not moving around much, but I had graduated to eating “food with color.” By that evening I was thinking it was possible to still race on Thursday. I would miss the qualifying round on Wednesday, but I could make it for the finals. I woke up on Tuesday, went down for breakfast (a big step) and realized I had some strange-looking bumps on my arm. I had Neal look at them. We took a picture to show the doctor at the track so they could report back. I rode the rollers that morning and noticed a small red streak had started migrating up my arm. Not good. I went to the French hospital and was completely shocked.

To paraphrase the doctor’s words, I was told to take antibiotics and come back in the morning. If it’s not better then we do surgery.

Thankfully, I had Karissa, my team manager, with me. Otherwise, I think I would have had a complete meltdown. Once again, the staff was there to support me and navigate these treacherous waters at my side. Karisssa made sure I had a smile on my face and we joked … What could go wrong … In the morning we will just have some arm surgery … No problem! That’s normal for some spider bites or a rash. … Right!?

She helped take the edge off with sarcasm and a bit of cursing. After all, it wasn’t like I was at the world championships and not getting to race. I had done all the hard work and no reward. Even in my darkest moments the staff was amazing, they did everything they could think of to keep my spirits up. But above all, they truly cared about how I was doing. And that’s a great feeling, a feeling of family. It’s hard enough to be violently ill, let alone in a foreign county. Having caring people around me made the ordeal so much easier.

As an athlete, I couldn’t reach my full potential without having great support. Our job is to train hard, take care of ourselves, and race fast. I couldn’t do any of this without the staff. Whether it’s track racing or road racing, or any other discipline, they are a crucial part of a team. I want to thank the staff for all that they do for the athletes. We should celebrate them more, because without them, teams and riders alike wouldn’t be successful.

Not to mention all the needless “arm surgeries” we might have to endure.