Sophie's Story: Sport and Concussion

August 20, 2022

BIA Week

As a part of Brain Injury Awareness Week in 2022, BIAT caught up with Tasmanian mountain bike rider Sophie Kirkham.

A brief backstory of you (name, age, location) and your sport, how you got involved, what you love, etc.

My name is Sophie Kirkham. I am 19 years old from Branxholm, Tasmania. I race downhill and Enduro [mountain bike riding].

I got involved with mountain biking when I was 14 when I got my first job in Derby. My boss at the time said I needed to tell customers what the trails were like if they asked. So, I set out on a bike and found myself hooked from there. For me, I love riding bikes because of the atmosphere and riding down hills fast. The best thing I love about mountain biking is the people you meet and continue to meet. I have met so many amazing people that I am still friends with today.

Meet Tasmanian mountain bike rider Sophie Kirkham.

How did you experience your concussion/s – what happened, when did it happen?

I was racing Enduro World Series (EWS) in Derby, Tasmania, on the 30of March 2019. The last thing I remember I was dropping into stage 5 which was Shearpin, super gnarly steep tech trail that with speed can pull you undone pretty quickly. I remember getting about halfway down the trail, middle of the straight when a silly line choice pulled me over the bars and that was it.

After that moment everything was a big blur. I was lucky I had some friends up there at the time that caught my crash on camera and helped me out. Also believe I scared them quite a bit (sorry about that).

My friends said they sat me down for a bit so I could come to. When I came to, we ventured out of the trail and walked back to black stump where I passed out again on the car ride down. I remember waking up to my mum at the trailhead and in the medic tent crying. I felt like I didn’t know where I was and what had happened. Super confused. At the time I was treated for a broken wrist and told to rest and my head would be fine.  

Seven months later after a big break off the bike, I felt ready to ride again. I was back at work and enjoying life as I was before, but things changed very quickly from there. We had received a new bike at work, so I thought I would take it out for a little test ride. Heading down the trails going back to work I hit a step down that didn’t go to plan ...

I was going to hit the tree straight after it, and heading down fast I swerved to miss the tree but ended up on the other side of the trail hitting another tree. This accident resulted in another hit to the head in the same year with a broken collarbone. This accident was actually the wakeup call that was needed to go back and realise that the first accident I had at EWS was ... my [first] concussion.

What were the immediate, short term and long term impacts of your concussion?

After the EWS and the second crash, I suffered a lot of symptoms. This included depression, headaches all the time, loss of concentration, memory loss; I lost my balance and ability to put words together into sentences, or even start a conversation and stop to try and remember what I just said. At times my mum would be like Sophie, you’ve told us that already. For me this was hard because I just couldn’t remember saying it. I felt dumb. I had to come home and stop everything. It was at the point where even going to school was hard.

It would make me tired all the time. Meaning more confusion, and not knowing where I was.

Doctors said that with the concussion I experienced that I had to limit screen time. Which was annoying because it meant I couldn’t watch TV, use my phone, nothing. I had to just let my brain rest. I do remember after the race just lying there looking at the ceiling and going for occasional walks when all I wanted to do was go and celebrate a big race with everyone.

Have there been any wider impacts following your concussion in terms of ability to communicate, recovery, return to sport, etc.?

I spent a good two years off the bike and only got back on in late 2021.

Getting back on the bike was tough because I was only allowed to start with small rides on pretty flat grounding nothing too crazy. I would go for a small ride 30mins to an hour, and I’d get a headache and need to rest for the rest of the day just because my brain was so exhausted. So, trying to come back after such a big knock to the head was hard. It meant that every time I wanted to go and do something it was going to take time and patience. Conversations and memory slowly became better, but it was difficult and recovery was very important.  

Would you like to share any message or feedback to other athletes?

For me, after my accidents, I feel strongly about head injury awareness and protecting your head.

I was told that if I wasn’t wearing my full face [helmet] both times along with other protection I would be struggling to walk and talk and be where I am today.

So, my advice is: just wear a helmet. Whether it be just down the road or to the park. I would feel incredibly bad if I hadn’t warned someone about wearing a helmet, then later on picking them up off the trail or road. It’s so important to wear a helmet and protection. Please remember next time you’re heading up the road to see a mate or go to the shops – it could save you and prevent lifelong injuries, both physical and cognitive.

You can check out a little more of Sophie in action at (source: Simon Holmes/@bigshedstudios).

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