Jennifer Nicely: On Coming Back From a Nearly Career-Ending Injury

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The author, Jennifer Nicely.

The author, Jennifer Nicely.

My fingers curled around the microscopic hold. I could feel that familiar sensation rise up through me, a combination of exhilaration and calm. My heart pounded, but my focus remained on the move. My left hand snagged the next hold. It was a pebble. I urged my body to do everything at once. Hurry up. DON’T RUSH. Breathe. Just go for it! I lunged upwards. My right hand latched the top of the wall, catching my swing as I committed to the final move. I’d just nailed my hardest onsight to date. I was elated. I dropped down to the mat and glanced at my left arm. My medical ID bracelet gleamed and a white scar sketched it’s way up my elbow. I could see my pulse beating inside, where surgeons had reconstructed my brachial artery. I glanced down at my left arm because there was a time when losing it was nearly a reality.

In April 2012, I had a freak accident at the gym. I fell from the top of a boulder. My left arm took the full impact, severely dislocating my elbow and severing almost everything under the skin. I remember that night vividly. I remember it often. I can still feel my mascara running down my flushed cheeks in the hospital. Everyone assumed it was a simple dislocation, but the situation turned serious in an instant. I had severed my brachial artery. If the doctors didn’t act quickly, I would lose my arm. My vascular surgeon, Dr. Mendes, told me that they were taking me to the OR. He handed me a phone to speak to my parents before the operation. Through the commotion and tears, one thought ran through my head: I don’t care if I have to do it with one arm, I’m going to climb again.

Jennifer Nicely ANW ICU

I woke up in the ICU seven hours later. I held my breath as I looked—my arm was still there. Dr. Callaway and Dr. Mendes spoke with me about how massive my injuries were, but also encouraged me to push myself. I pictured my outdoor bouldering projects in minute detail, and thought about gym problems left unsent. I visualized myself sending the problem that I fell on. I knew that there was a long road to recovery ahead; I was determined and ready. What I didn’t know, was that it would involve much more than healing my body. It would be a lifelong mental journey.

My recovery has had many phases. First, we worked to regain motor function in my hand, stabilize my arm, and then progressed into a wider range of motion. Regaining full extension proved to be the most problematic—and painful—aspect of my physical recovery. My therapist would give me an encouraging look and say, “Take a deep breath.” I knew to brace myself as she cranked my arm out to a position that an uninjured person would already be able to reach.

My injury involved muscular, vascular, and neural deficiencies. There was a lot to tackle. I had to re-teach my hand how to function. It was humbling. At 25-years-old, zipping my pants or tying my shoes became huge successes. I had to do texture therapy so my brain could once again interpret different surfaces. I'd pick up small objects like Scrabble tiles, hard velcro, and soft velcro to figure out what textures they were. (“This is soft. This is rough.”)

As I regained basic functions, and continued targeting my nerve damage, we were able to rebuild my strength. I remember the first time my therapist told me I was allowed to do a pull-up. I did three. I was so proud that I cried. Physical therapy was exhausting, but I loved it. I knew that every small success I made was because of how hard I was working, and how diligently everyone was working with me. Even in my weaknesses, I felt strength and gratitude. I knew that the more I dedicated myself to my recovery, the better a climber—and person—I could become.

Jennifer Nicely ANW texture therapy

Physically, I improved quickly. I was climbing 4.5 months after the accident, but with significant limitations. My doctors warned me against hanging directly on my left arm and doing moves that might shock-load my elbow. Dynos were out of the question. After climbing sessions, I had to watch for bruising to ensure my graft hadn’t been compromised. In addition to the restrictions, my nerve damage made certain holds almost impossible to feel, let alone use. I had to start trusting my body in ways that I never had before. Despite all of this, 10 months after my accident I was climbing harder than I ever had before, and competing in toprope competitions again. Bouldering, however, took quite a bit longer.

For years I told everyone that I wasn’t allowed to boulder, and likely never would be again. This was partly true. My doctor explained, "We are in uncharted territory here. You are certainly at a higher risk for serious injury than the ordinary person." We weren’t sure my arm could sustain another fall. If I fall on my arm, I might lose my arm. The risk-to-reward ratio was extremely unbalanced. Everyone accepted that—except me. I knew the real reason that I’d succeeded so tenaciously at roped climbing, yet hadn’t returned to bouldering: I was scared. I worried that I might re-injure myself, or that my body wouldn’t climb as hard as my soul desired. I worried other people wouldn’t understand, or that I might realize I had lost myself somewhere along the way. I hated admitting it to myself. But at a certain point, I realized that in denying the fear and mental trauma that I was still dealing with, I was also denying myself the ability to be who I truly am. I am a rock climber. I am a boulderer. 

I started bouldering three years after my accident. It was a slow process. I had to trick myself into it. The first time, I drove almost three hours to a gym with short walls. I told myself I was only going to use their auto-belays. I went alone. I played around on the roped walls at first, stalling, before finally stepping into the bouldering area. There was this problem, steep and pumpy, stretching up and across an archway. I knew in that moment that I didn’t just want to climb that problem, I needed to.

I started by telling myself to do the first couple of moves and drop down. I did. Then I urged myself to go a little bit further, just a few more moves. I did. Then dropped down. I could feel the emotion rising up in me. My heart was beating quickly. My breath was short and fast. I looked up at the jugs branching out above me. I told myself, “One more go. Connect all the moves you just did and drop down from there.” And I did. I dropped down at the halfway point—my mental limit, not my physical one. In that moment, I was content. A huge part of me had just found its way back to who I am as an athlete; I wanted to relish the accomplishment, knowing it was only the beginning.

Getting back into bouldering was a long and tumultuous journey. Some things were hard. I would refuse to top out, get frustrated, and cry. Sometimes I missed the ignorance of having never been injured. But other things, like steep moves and micro-crimps, just worked. Physically, I had no limiting issues. As soon as I pulled myself back on the wall, my long hair falling into space behind me, I was home. That feeling always kept me coming back for more.

big swing

It’s been five years since I nearly lost my arm. I still have flashbacks. There are still tough days. I refuse to commit to high moves when I’m bouldering, and I have major mental battles when I’m training and competing. But I wouldn’t change any of it. It's a part of my journey. I also have days where I send harder than I ever imagined. I embrace the emotional days because they build the strong ones, and I remain patient with myself as much as possible. Most importantly, I feel like myself again. I’m climbing.

Through my recovery, I have had to face my fears head on. And when I can’t fight through them physically, I force myself to work through them mentally. If I avoided these opportunities to feel, to learn, and to grow, I would be denying the truth in it all—that almost losing my arm made me who I am today. It changed my life forever, in the most amazing and unbelievable ways. I am grateful for who I have become, not in spite of my accident, but because of it. I struggle, but I work the problem. I smile, and I enjoy every bit of it. That’s what recovery—and life—is all about.