I spent 2019 being uncomfortable in airplanes, at black-tie gala events, and on the front row at Paris Fashion Week. I was uncomfortable in interviews with celebrities, at lunch with luxury brands, and pitching big campaigns to even bigger companies. An athlete my whole life, a traumatic back injury in 2017 where my L4 vertebrae collapsed onto my L5 set me back in ways I never expected. The great irony of the injury is that I got it from two-a-day workouts. Every day I was going to the gym for an hour and then walking/running 5-10 kms.
I was in the best shape of my life, and then one day, I woke up in excruciating take-me-straight-to-the-hospital pain. There had been no warning signs, no tweaks or twinges to signal that my body was about to give out on me. It was a super shock. I was literally laid out flat on my back for seven months straight. I went to physical therapy and the chiropractor five days a week for those seven months. I was on such heavy painkillers the first week that I don’t remember any of it. That time is lost to me forever. My medical bills shot through the roof. I fell into a black hole of depression. From my best self to my worst, just like that. I felt like my body had betrayed me.
When I was young, my family was smashed head-on in a horrific collision, severely injuring everyone in our big white family van. I escaped with what looked to be minor cuts and bruises and was dismissed from the hospital. That night, my forehead and side of my head started swelling so much that I couldn’t fit my glasses on. I was rushed back to the hospital where they did X-rays to reveal a double concussion and severe whiplash. When the car hit us, my head flew forward and hit the seat in front of me, and then I was knocked sideways where my temple collided with the van’s window. I don’t know how they didn’t catch that the first time.
Several years later, I was playing hide-and-go seek with friends at dusk, when a friend rushed toward me, slipped on the wet ground, and hit me head on. Once again, I was distracted by a minor injury. The impact of his shoulder hitting me in the face split my lip open and injured my gums. It seemed minor so I went home, a little battered and shaken and none the worse for wear. When I woke up in the morning, I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move. I screamed for someone to help me, and was taken straight to the hospital. A disc had slipped in my neck from a combined fall and shoulder bludgeoning. “You broke your neck,” a nurse informed me, bereft of tact. It scared the crap out of me regardless. I spent the next month absent from school in a neck brace.
When my vertebrae collapsed, my doctor showed me an X-ray of my spine. The image is seared into my memory. It didn’t look like a human spine at all. From the neck down, my spine had been twisting to compensate for the injuries I had sustained when I was younger, which raised my left hip a whole three centimeters higher than my left. Inside, I look deformed. The thing that was at the very center of me was all wrong, twisted, malformed, hideous. I cry just to think of that X-ray. The two-a-day workouts and intense physical training I had been undergoing had exacerbated the collapse, but the original childhood injuries were the real cause. It would be a slog to overcome, requiring a whole lot of not moving and even more therapy and treatment.
On my slow road to recovery, I put on 14 kilos. When you throw hypothyroidism (which slows my metabolism to a tortugal crawl) and PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) into the mix, you get a body that is ferociously resistant to weight loss. If I ate nothing but air for a week, I would still gain a kilo. Frustrating doesn’t even begin to describe it.
As a lifelong athlete, a lover of working out, and someone who eats very healthily, trying to lose weight has become the one hurdle I can’t jump. It’s also a demoralizing one, especially working in an industry that is so obsessed with a certain physical and beauty standard. No amount of inclusive casting on a runway translates to real, deep, psychological change when it comes to the fashion industry. They might pay lip service to all sizes, but they secretly resent bigger bodies. Actually, I’d hardly qualify it as a secret.
But there’s only so much of reading myself the same tired script of self-pity before I was officially over it, ready to get myself back. If this unhinged year had taught me anything it was that my health and well-being were the most important things I had, and they were mine to look after. A few weeks after I had committed to moving my body, relaxing my mind, and nourishing my spirit, I got a call from out of the blue.
Dear Reader, I tell you I was stunned by who was on the other line. Nike, the Nike, was reaching out for a collaboration for its 30-Day Challenge, which coincided with the upcoming annual Dubai Fitness Challenge 2020. Surely they had the wrong gal? Why would any monolithic athletic company want little old me to collaborate with them? There goes that annoying self-pity script again.
It was fate. Getting better has to be done for yourself, which means the commitment can only be made by you – and I was nothing if not committed. The Nike team poured heaps of support into my journey, and suddenly, confidence that had wandered away from me three years ago rushed back. The timing was cosmic. I said, ‘I don’t have workout clothes’. They said, ‘Well, that’s kind of what we do best’ (duh, Grace). I told them about my fitness challenges – damaged back, arthritic knee and ankle – and they said, ‘We’ll give you a Nike Coach that can meet you where you are.’
Enter: Coach Jade Palmer.
Coach Jade is a spry Aussie – and official Nike Coach – who bounced into my life, and pumped me so full of courage on the first day we met that I went right out and took a six-kilometer walk. My phone took one look at all of the calculated steps and said, “Wow! This is the most activity you’ve gotten in 2020!” Coach Jade has this infectious energy that makes you smile even when you’re sweating so hard it looks like you ran through the Rain Room in Sharjah. We met two times a week, where we conducted 45 minutes of (mostly) modified floor exercises that compensated for my back injury while still challenging all of my muscle groups. I would lie on the floor after a session with Coach Jade, panting, wobbly, and grinning.
When I wasn’t working out with Coach Jade, I used the Nike Fitness Club app‘s huge bank of recovery-oriented workouts to stretch my body and my limits. I woke up early in the morning to walk around the lakes of JLT, I danced, I did yoga, I did Pilates. I found ways to move that invigorated me and surprised me — from feeling like my body had betrayed me to feeling I was incredibly capable was a sensation I had every time I finished a session.
For those overcoming injury, there is a constant low-level fear that you’ll reinjure yourself by pushing too hard, or tweaking your injury. It’s happened to me several times in my recovery journey, and each time, the setback was as mentally hard as it was physically. Yet, Coach Jade, in listening to my fears, assuaged them by compiling workouts that left me sore, but never hurting.
When I first broadcast my participation in the Nike challenge via my personal Instagram, I was shocked by how many friends – and even complete strangers – contacted me to tell me about the injuries they were overcoming. I instantly related. For three years, I had been so filled with shame about my injury that I barely told anyone. This shame led me to hide myself, to disguise a struggle that was very real and very difficult to overcome. I was embarrassed at my limitations, so I pretended like they weren’t there.
Yet, with the Nike challenge, I found myself waking up and looking forward to the day’s workout. I found myself taking an actual lunch break at work, and using it to go for a solo swim – something I never thought I would do. I’d wake up at the crack of dawn to hit the pavement and catch up on podcasts. I had two rest days a week, but a strange thing happened. On my rest days, I would be filled with this… craving to work out, a deep hunger to move. I gave into it. The first time the feeling struck me, I did a 30-minute yoga workout, but it wasn’t enough so I did an extra 30-minute Pilates workout. What was happening to me? Was I becoming one of those people?
I realized that the engine driving my newfound passion for movement was the support I got. My community of friends was always checking in, Nike was checking in, my Coach was checking in. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, but that I had a cushion of encouragement surrounding me at all times.
The lessons I learned along the way were so valuable that I have to share them. The first is, the days you want to work out the least are the days you need it the most. Next, fitness is a form of body health, but it has tremendous benefits for your mental health. If you’re having an unbelievably stressful day, nothing rinses you of all of that stress quite like a full-body workout. Last, as Coach Jade taught me, movement means different things to different people. You have to listen to your body. Moving of any kind, even if it’s small and careful, is beneficial. It can mean doing a gentle stretch routine for 10 minutes, dancing by yourself to Dua Lipa for 15, playing hide-and-go-seek with your cat, or spending an hour of true physical exertion on the treadmill. Whatever form it takes, you have to move everyday.
Nike’s mission wasn’t just fitness, it was holistic, aiming to take care of the mind, body, and soul. The brand set me up with an incredible mental health coach, Dalia Halabi, and I got more out of a one-hour mindfulness session with her than I did four years of therapy. Dalia taught me that thoughts become emotions, and emotions find their root in the body. They’re called feelings because we feel them. All of my self-doubt, self-pity, and fear was manifesting in my body in different ways. It was an unexpected discovery that had me on the verge of tears during our session. My “stiff upper lip” mentality was holding me back even more than my injuries.
Not everyone gets that luxury. I’d be remiss not to mention the entire point of the Nike collaboration. The new Nike campaign is called “You Can’t Stop Us,” and the message is effective, but simple. No matter what, when we set our minds to certain goals and intentions, nothing can stand in our way. I am a part of that because I too feel unstoppable.