I was invited to teach a kettlebell workshop following a competition in New Zealand. The following day, the host (Heath) planned a hike for us and his friend Claire through some of the most stunning terrains I have ever set my eyes upon. We hiked through some of the mountains where The Lord of The Rings were filmed. We spent 7 hours hiking up and across the mountains before it was time to start our descent. The descent was not what we expected. It was all rock scree. The rock was soft tiny rocks at first and we had an amazing time skating down it as it moved quickly below us forcing us forward and downward. This was a playful, fun and adrenaline filled part of the hike that quickly turned into a dangerous situation. The rocks became larger and sharper. They were between the length of our hands to the length or our forearm. It was impossible to slide safely, however, the rocks continued to slide under our feet regardless of how careful we were. We used a strategy where we would walk certain paths knowing that there was a large boulder in the way of that path to stop ourselves against the moment that the rocks would inevitably start sliding beneath our feet again.
This scraped and cut us up but it worked until we came to a section of the mountain where there weren’t any more boulders to halt our slides. We nervously continued to descend. The rocks suddenly slid below forcing me to a rapid surf above them. This time I was unable to keep my body leaning backward as a counterbalance. My head went forward and I did a fully airborne summersault slamming onto my back and sliding for at least 20 feet before digging my feet into the ground enough to stop the slide. I was cut up and bleeding even more now. My lulu pants were torn through the butt and my hands and elbows were red, bruised and cut from slamming onto the rocks and then digging into them in an attempt to stop myself. Heath came running down to me “are you ok! You did a somersault!” “I know! That is one of the craziest things that ever happened to me! Please take a picture. I want to remember this moment and tell that story. That was so scary though. I couldn’t stop myself. The rocks were moving too fast. I’m going to stay on my butt now, crab walk and stick closer to the treeline so I can try to catch their branches if I start sliding again”. Heath responded with “sounds like a good plan. I’m going to stay with Claire and hold her hand because she is scared. When you get down there just go to the left and we’ll catch up with you there. Don’t go right and obviously don’t go straight because you’ll die.”
We both had a good chuckle at the obvious because going straight meant going right off the mountain cliff to a depth we couldn’t even see. Picture those movies where you see people coming to the edge of a cliff and rocks suddenly falling beneath their feet but they catch themselves quick enough to avoid going over as they peer down into what would be an inescapable death. [Refer to the picture where you see me lying on my back and smiling. Look past my feet to the bottom where you see a cliff and then darkness]. “Ok”, I told Heath, “you two be careful. I’ll see you down there”.
I started my way down again, this time crab walking and staying as low to the ground as possible. I worked my way to a tree line to the left where there were small branches from near-dead trees extending outward. This wasn’t the best solution. Some of the branches would break during a slide and I would have to quickly look for and catch onto others. My butt and hamstrings were becoming raw and the branches were catching my face and hands creating more cuts. After 8+ hours of hiking, these little pains were becoming quite frustrating but I knew there was only one way out of those mountains and it was to go down them.
Within only minutes of crab walking and becoming frustrated with the breaking branches, I decided to go back into the open where Heath and Claire were just about 20 feet above me. I stuck with the crab walking method and fought to ignore the pain and rawness of my butt, elbows, and hands. That pain was minimal compared to the pleasurable thoughts of getting to flat ground again. Just seconds into being away from the treeline, the rocks started sliding below me again. This time they were moving ever faster. I locked out my legs and dug my heels into the ground as hard as possible. It wasn’t slowing me down. In fact, my body began to slide even faster! I pressed both of my sore palms into the sharp rocks as firmly as possible. Nothing. The speed continued to increase. I was so focused on wanting to stop the sliding and end the shooting pain coming from my legs, butt, and arms as rocks broke through my skin that I didn’t realize how far I had slid. I wasn’t thinking about the mountain cliff AT ALL and then… there it was! I looked up to see that I had come within feet of it.
Instant terror. Everything suddenly became slow motion. I could see, feel, think and remember many things at once. I heard Heath’s voice joking and saying “don’t go straight or you’ll die”. I felt fear, sadness, loss, hopelessness, defeat, and acceptance followed swiftly by desperation, hope and focus. I wanted to live but knew the odds were next to impossible. I was headed with an accelerating pace towards a cliff where there was only darkness ahead and below. Digging my heels and palms into the rocks was proving to be useless so I quickly rolled to the right hoping that I would get out of the slide created by my body and land myself onto unmoving rocks. This didn’t happen as the reason the speed of this slide had escalated was that it was an accumulation of my own rock slide combined with slides created from the rocks moving below both Heath and Claire from above me. Turning to the right didn’t work as I just found myself in the sliding rocks created by their movements above.
I quickly returned to sliding on my back just before my feet led my body off the cliff as my eyes caught sight of a large rock attached to the mountain standing upward. I knew this was my last chance and grabbed onto it hard with my left arm. I remember clearly looking up at it, as the world around me slowed down, and thinking “Ahhh but it’s my left arm, my weak arm. Who cares Jen it’s your last chance! Hold on with everything!” and then BAM, amongst the thousands of rocks beating down on me was a large boulder that knocked me on the left side of my jaw. Between the pace I flew off the mountain cliff at and the speed in which the boulder hit me, along with its size, I never had a chance. This all happened in what was likely fractions of a second. My body turned in the air so as my butt was down again and I was looking forward. Not that I could see though. I was surrounded by thick brown dust from the rockslide. I couldn’t see but I could feel and hear. I was being hammered by endless rocks smashing into every part of my body as they joined me on the trip off the mountain cliff. Everything was loud and quite all at once. The sound went from thunder and then into complete silence as my mind went to a place of acceptance. I remember very clearly seeing only dark brown dust all around me while I fell and contemplating how much longer the fall would be since I could not see the bottom. My exact thoughts were “Well, this is it. I can’t win this. I just flew off a giant rock. I’m being battered by rocks and I’m going to land on rock.” I was very aware of how fast I was falling and how the only possible outcome was being shattered into pieces.. It was just a matter of when and I was waiting for it.
Woah! I hit rock HARD. I bounced and slid as if I was going through a water slide and wave pool at the same time, moving quickly downward and being tossed violently, without consent, simultaneously. The rocks continued to thrash against my body from above and below. Some of the worst pain was flying down this part of the mountain and catching my tailbone (unknowingly broken by this point) against larger boulders that stuck out a little higher than the other rocks. I suddenly had a quick thought “Wait, I’m alive! I must not have gone off the cliff Heath was talking about”. I knew I had gone off a cliff but remembered the words from Heath and thought that the cliff he was talking about must be ahead of me since I was still alive. I was wrong as I had gone off the cliff that he was referring to but was blessed to survive it. My mind went back into survival mode. I had a new chance and was on a mission to avoid flying off the mountain cliff I anticipated was ahead of me. I was past my feelings of accepting death and now recycling the feelings of fear, hope, desperation, and focus.
My instant solution was to seek out a boulder to grab onto. Think about those movies where people are caught in white water rapids and there is a waterfall ahead so they try to grab onto rocks sticking out above the water to hold onto and stop themselves from going over. This is what I was envisioning and attempting to do. I saw one large rock and anxiously grabbed onto it. My body was flying too fast and I couldn’t hold on hard enough to fight the speed. Another large boulder appeared and I desperately reached for it with open arms trying to hug it hard while continuing to have my pants ripped below me and dealing with large rocks smashing against every part of my head and body. I slipped off yet again. I felt defeated and started to cry while still flying at a continuingly accelerating pace. The rocks below me and above me were forcing me forward at a faster pace. I remember thinking to myself after missing the second large rock that I just gave up my chance to survive. I was desperate beyond words.and suddenly saw my potential future in my mind’s eye. This vision made me want to live with every part of me. I screamed out loud “God, please give me a rock!!! I need a rock!!!” Just like what you would see in the movies, the dark brown dust cleared and there was a rock just wide enough to fit both feet onto. I reached my right leg out to quickly reach it, locked it hard, pulled my right leg onto it and laid back to keep my entire body against the mountain.
Amongst the chaos and focus of wanting to stop my body, I had forgotten that I was still being pummeled by rocks and that they were continuing to fall. Laying back and seeing a large white boulder just clear my head and face quickly brought me back to the reality that this was still not over. I covered my head with both arms and allowed them to receive most of the blows until hundreds of rocks had hit me and the thunder slowed to a ripple of smaller rocks and eventually silence and dust.
Heath and Claire were positive that they just watched me die. Claire hiked back 7 hours in tears about what she had just seen. Our cell phones couldn’t get service so she headed back to call for a helicopter and Heath worked his way down the mountain to “stay with the body”.
Heath found me alive and convinced me to slide to him where he could catch me and we could walk the rest of the way out of the mountains. It took a long time to realize that I could walk as I was in shock, my glutes and hamstrings were raw, embedded with stones and swollen and my tailbone was broken from the slam of landing from the fall combined with riding down thousands of stones on it. We hiked another 8 hours in the dark until we could get to the car and work our way to the hospital. That 8-hour hike is actually a very interesting second half of this dangerous adventure but I will have to leave it out for time sake.
I survived. My body was obviously beaten up and broken but it took months for me to recognize how much my head/brain was damaged from the physical beating, as well as, the trauma of waiting to die. I started to have debilitating anxiety. There were times I literally couldn’t find the strength to stand up on both feet because of the amount of shaking happening in my body. I worried about everything to a severely anxious degree, felt unmotivated, tired all of the time, afraid and sad. I spent weeks where I would be working online daily in a cafe and have to get up immediately to leave. I would leave my laptop and all of my belongings because I knew I was about to breakdown and it was going to happen FAST. I would feel overwhelmed by sadness, tension in my throat and a heart that felt as if it was being squeezed. I felt completely lost and helpless about how to change these terrible feelings in my body. I didn’t know who to call or how to fix this but it felt BAD and I desperately needed to stop feeling it. I would get in my car and drive for hours, crying and sobbing until I had no tears left to cry. I would often find myself in places I had never been and have to google map my way back to the cafe.
While teaching bootcamp classes in my gym, I started having difficulty talking loudly or seeing people move quickly. One day I dropped to the floor because talking loud while coaching caused me to be so dizzy I couldn’t keep myself on my feet. My left ear started hurting really badly and I stopped hearing out of it clearly for over a year (this is the side of the head where the boulder hit me when I was hanging off the ledge – I finally had my jaw put back in place a few months ago). I started getting violent headaches that never went away. By never, I mean that they lasted for over a year without relief. I just came to accept that this was how my head felt and persisted. The dizziness I was experiencing was diagnosed as vertigo. It was the WORST feeling and I was terrified that it would never go away as the doctor told me it could be chronic. I couldn’t handle teaching classes unless I was sitting, walking downstairs, driving at night or doing exercises that involved seeing fast movement in front of me (ie. Kettlebell snatches).
I truly felt as if I could not manage my life. I was in a long distance relationship at the time and felt the pressure of trying to keep myself and everything in my life together so that I wouldn’t lose him. The distance was defeating for him and I wanted to get to him to remind him that we could make things work (I know, silly to have to “remind” someone they love you but this is yet another example of how when I fall in love I can end up unwisely sacrificing parts of myself and my life to try to make it easier on my partner). I made the decision to close my gym and invest my time and energy into my online business which meant that I could be with him in South Africa. He broke up with me the following week.
After 9 years of building my dream to a place where it was successful, I was now left alone, without my gym and without the ability to train my pain away (injuries) while full of anxiety, depression, helplessness, and feelings of being unwanted and unworthy. I felt as if I let it all go for someone who let me go. The truth is, this was never about him. I was experiencing anxiety (coupled with depression), vertigo and other neurological symptoms that were related to the accident.. I just hadn’t made the connection until both a therapist and a doctor made the assessments that 1: My mind experienced death in life and that his trauma had to be addressed and 2. There was physical damage to my brain affecting me in these ways and several others.
In addition to the brain injury, my hormones were affected and I gained over 30lbs in the year following this accident. As someone who was once obese, you could imagine how this added to the anxiety as I continued eating healthy and staying active only to see the scale continue to climb weekly. I called my sister and told her “I PROMISE that I won’t. I promise! I won’t kill myself… but I don’t want to live anymore. I can’t explain it but it’s how I feel with every part of me. I don’t want to be here anymore. I swear I would never ‘do it’ but I don’t want to live anymore.” I was so completely lost and at a loss for a solution to feeling better. I also had the pressure of not knowing what I would do next professionally. She believed I needed to get out of Ontario and told me to come and stay with her and her family until I could figure out my next steps.
I owe a lot to my sister and her family. They gave me a safe place to live and be around loving people. I stayed for about 3 weeks until my coach at the time, Abigail Johnston, invited me to stay with her in Scotland without worrying about a return ticket. She simply said “just come” and talked to me about going to the British Championships in England, World Champs in Italy, followed by a week in the mountains in Switzerland. We did all of this, plus, ended up teaching a workshop together in Ireland. The trip was 3 months in total and I couldn’t be more blessed to have such a compassionate, generous and insightful friend in my life. It took almost the entire 3 months before I could say to Abi “the sadness is gone.. It’s just not there anymore”. It is so difficult to explain but every day I felt a heavy sadness in my heart.. Even though I was with the most amazing person doing things that I loved and experiencing many other wonderful countries.. the sadness was often sitting there within me like my headaches, it just became a part of me. My anxiety and “sadness” went away during these 3 months but the physical trauma was still there. My hormones would not find balance and my weight continued to climb.
I continued to eat healthy and exercise because my health is important to me. The scale would bring me down at times but it would never dictate what I did as far as exercise and nutrition. I am still 20lbs up since that accident but, through consistency, I am strong again and surpassing several of my records in kettlebell sport. My tailbone, low back, elbow, jaw, shoulders (torn lat caused issues with my AC and SC joints) and head/eyes (from brain injury) are still not fully recovered, and may never be, but I am able to work around them and continue to progress physically.
Relating this back to the beginning of this short novel (lol), the physical pain of that mountain was nothing compared to the mental and emotional pain and trauma. My physical body also couldn’t begin healing until my mental and emotional health was addressed first. People constantly tell me that I’m so “mentally tough”. I hope that all that I have shared above shows that sometimes being mentally tough means having the strength to acknowledge that we are not ok and recognizing that pushing through will only make us weaker instead of stronger. Our minds can be our greatest assets. My mind has brought me utmost success in kettlebell sport and many carried me through the experiences above that would have broken down most people.
Most of the situations above (child abuse, watching my brother die, overcoming food addiction, dating a sex addict, working my way from obese to multiple world record holder, etc) show how well I was able to use my mind to overcome. The final situation, the mountain cliff accident, showed how it took an unhealthy mind to break me. I could stand on my own two feet with a broken tailbone yet I was literally unable to stand on them when my anxiety had taken over. My best lesson to date may be this: Yes, our minds hold the power to our success. This was shown in my ability to overcome several terrible situations. We CAN change our lives by changing our minds but we have to care for and train our brains the way we so deeply dedicate ourselves to training and nutrition. Mental health has to be a priority, before focusing on strengthening our mindset. We can tell ourselves that we just need to “suck it up” or be “mentally tough” but if WE don’t work to have a healthy mind our mind can’t work FOR us to create the lives and health that we desire.
My sincerest gratitude for the opportunity to share some of my stories and for all of you who took the time to read. Wishing you the very best in health and happiness always! <3