Four-time speed skating world champion Brittany Bowe is favored to take gold at the Beijing Olympics next month. She’s a powerhouse on skates—and racked up 32 world championship medals as an inline skater before ever hitting the ice. Since switching to the winter sport, she brought home a bronze medal at the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018 and broke the world record in the 1,000 meter sprint.
But a concussion in 2016 almost derailed all of that. “I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to skate at all,” she said in a new interview with Team USA.
As with so many things in sports, women face a gender gap when it comes to concussions. Women athletes face a “significantly greater risk of a traumatic brain injury,” according to Nature. There’s no consensus as to why—a fact not helped by the gender gap in medical research. Women are grossly underrepresented in medical studies, which means doctors are often working with data pulled from a population with vast physiological differences. Concussions are no different in that most of the existing medical research was conducted among male athletes. “We take all of these data, primarily from studies on men; we apply them to women. That’s just got to change,” Michael Grey, a neuroscientist at the University of East Anglia, told Nature. Early research and theories about why concussion outcomes differ in women athletes suggest everything from differences in brain structure to hormones to coaching styles.
In addition to the higher risk of getting a concussion, women are also hit with disproportionate side effects, taking longer to recover and often suffering more long-term complications, research shows. And that’s exactly what happened to Bowe.
In 2016, Bowe got a concussion after a collision in training. She was cleared to get back on the ice after a few weeks, according to NBC Sports, but continued to experience lingering symptoms. “A number of challenges arose after my injury,” she wrote in an essay for Team USA in 2017. She was showing prolonged symptoms of vestibular dysfunction, which has symptoms like dizziness, nausea, vertigo, and balance problems. Ultimately she was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, which can last for months, according to the Mayo Clinic, and is more common in women.
But Bowe also suffered another, less common complication from her concussion: postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). The condition became a “daunting part of my everyday life,” Bowe wrote in 2017, and it ultimately forced her to cut her season short.
“I needed to do myself a favor and heal,” she wrote in the same essay. “I went home to Florida to escape the thought of ‘pushing through’ and give my body the time it needed to repair itself…but in this case, going home to Florida to take time to relax only escalated dysfunction for me. There were days I would walk outside to get some fresh air and after about 10 minutes of being on my feet, my heart rate would be in the 140s and I would nearly faint. Scared, frustrated, and completely demoralized, I wasn’t sure if returning to sport would even be an option for me.”