Row, row, row to the second row
Bristol Bears rugby player, Marlo Boyd, tells the story of her transition from rowing to rugby after undergoing surgery for a herniated disc in her spine.
I started playing rugby during rehab for back surgery at age 24.
I was a rower for five years and unbeknownst to me was continuously wrenching my back during training and competition. For about two years I was under the illusion it was a muscular injury until it deteriorated to the point where even a sneeze would cripple me for a week. Painkillers didn’t work. I’d drive to my job as a tennis coach in tears because of the pain and in 2018 when it got really bad I was only sleeping for about four hours a night. I ended up being fast-tracked through surgery for what turned out to be a herniated disc in my lower spine. Basically, the soft cartilage in the disc had extruded from its casing and in to the nerve bed which was causing the pain. It felt as if my whole leg was a frozen rubber band – when I tried to move there was some flexibility, but it felt like it could snap at any point because of the pressure.
My recovery was really fast. Initially I was walking around like C3PO, but within a week I was walking normally and after a month I was able to jog and run. It was truly amazing to realise just how many small things you do in a day that require flexibility in your back. I couldn’t fill the kettle over the sink, washing my face was almost impossible and I couldn’t get in or out of a car. Going back into the gym was scary, but also an opportunity to fully focus on technique rather than weight. I still have to do a back-specific warm up, lots of ‘dead bugs’ and crossovers.
After my surgery in May 2018, I got accepted in to the University of Bristol to do an MSc that September. Knowing that my rowing career was over, I felt I really needed to join a sports club with lots of running because it was the only exercise that eased the sciatica down my left leg. I had always wanted to try rugby because of the mixed need for skill and grunt work, but I was always too committed to other sports. My surgeon was also a massive rugby fan and she told me that a broken bone probably wouldn’t phase me now. That year at uni was the start of my education in proper rugby and I was surrounded by a lot of girls that I admired for different reasons – whether playing at the highest level internationally or just getting PBs in the gym after a long day.
Some of those girls pushed me to trial for Bristol Bears, which I thought was a ridiculous aspiration, but since a job hadn’t yet landed I decided to sign up.
On day one of trials I cut my face, got a dead leg and tried to run too fast from a standstill and fell over! But I got called back. Getting into the squad was amazing and really scary at the same time. Being so inexperienced – I’d only had about three hours of match play at uni – but playing on the development squad was a great place to learn whilst training with top athletes. This was my first look at a professional operation so it felt like a really special and cool thing to be a part of.
Being called up to play second row in the Premier 15s after just three rounds into the season, it’s hard to describe the pressure I felt. I had played one season of rugby in total and was now supposed to hold my own at the top level. For context I had never even lifted, or jumped at lineouts before coming to the Bears. This resulted in a lot of sleepless nights, anxiety and a general feeling of not being able to relax or enjoy myself because I was so scared of either screwing up in a serious way or general embarrassment.
When complaining to my Mum she asked me why I had stayed. I guess at some level I must have enjoyed the pressure. Billie Jean King said, “Pressure is a privilege”, and I can relate to that. Luckily my desire to get better and compete was stronger than my fear of failure. I think that’s something you have control over and it’s all about mindset.
— Bristol Bears Women (@BristolBearsW) March 5, 2021
The way I feel about my position in the squad and my confidence just one year on is amazing. I’m still in a position where I can learn something new from every training session which keeps my mind engaged.
Week on week I’m able to prove, just to myself, that I can hang at this top level and improve on my own standards. This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through sport; you have to recognise what a success is to you as an individual, because everyone defines it differently. Personally, being able to go through the motion of an RDL, or a hang-clean is a physical miracle after back surgery and so I try not to dwell on seeing someone beside me lift 20kg more. Just remember, that person may look at something you do on the pitch and think they could learn from you.
This is the beautiful thing about rugby. Every day at training can be different physically and I can choose to focus on new things mentally. Rowing was harsh because the margins of improvement were so small – the day was ruined if you only beat your PB on the erg by one second. I also played competitive tennis until I was 18 and, being an individual sport, it was a lonely environment if you felt any human emotion at all. I was generally battling myself more than my opponent. So, for me, rugby is a great balance. You can train hard and improve something in every session that affects you and the team. The team ethos is crucial. Knowing your mates will pick you up if you’re down and celebrate hard with you on the wins. Essentially it means I rarely struggle with motivation to train because it’s for them as well as myself. Even when my back is sore from running around like a Golden Retriever on the 4G pitch!