Two-time Olympic Medalist Katherine Adamek shares her journey, her concussion recovery, and the power of fixing your mindset

Katherine Adamek is a two-time medalist in the Winter Olympics as a short-track speed skater and the current owner of Fix Your Mindset. She uses her decades of experience as a world-class athlete to coach and mentor athletes to improve their mindset. Katherine shared her journey with us to the pinnacle of her sport and the fear and anxiety she faced when dealing with serious injuries. Learn how it led her to focus on the mental side of sports.

What attracted her to speed skating over other sports?

I remember my first day the coaches saying, “Oh, you don’t look like you’re a speed skater, you look like a figure skater.” I remember feeling very determined!

KA: I started skating on roller skates as I was old enough or, I should say, big enough to even find skates that fit me. My mom and I went to the figure skating class at the University of Illinois Ice Arena. I liked to skate, but I didn’t like the rest of what came along with figure skating like the outfit, the makeup, and the hair. Another parent from the Speed Skating Club noticed me at my figure skating practice and reached out to my parents and said, “you know she looks like she really loves to skate. Why don’t you bring her to a skating practice?” They did, and I remember my first day the coaches saying, “Oh, you don’t look like you’re a speed skater, you look like a figure skater.” I remember feeling very determined! Even on day one, I had this “I’ll show you” mentality of ‘I’m gonna fit in here! This is what I want to do!’ From a very young age and the very first time I tried it, it was my favorite thing. I just loved it.

How does the journey to the Olympics different compare to other sports?

It’s a couple weeks of racing, several months of training, and a couple weeks of racing

At an elite level, you don’t compete very often. When you’re a kid growing up in speed skating, there’s always a little rink race, and they don’t mean much. Still, they’re just opportunities for families to come out and practice competition. When you get to a more elite level, you’re traveling internationally, and there’s six World Cups a year, and they happen in pairs of two. The first two will happen in North America, the second two in Asia, the third two in Europe and the World Championships always changes which continent it’s on. With qualifying events, you’re probably never doing more than 10 races in a year, but they’re kind of clumped together strategically, so it’s a couple weeks of racing, several months of training, and a couple weeks of racing.

How did she balance life in a sport that is so training intensive?

I would always be doing every single thing that it took to get better, and then I would rest hard and have enough fun to make all of that work worth it.

I didn’t. I was a speed skater through and through. Every bit of how I identified with life was as a speed skater. You get six weeks completely off from the end of March to the beginning of May, and I would really try to squeeze as much fun as I could into those six weeks. That’s what really got me through the ten and a half months of training, but I didn’t have balance. I tried very hard to be the first one there and the last one to leave. I would always be doing every single thing that it took to get better, and then I would rest hard and have enough fun to make all of that work worth it. But I’d condense that fun down into six weeks and then just get right back to work.

When did the injuries start?

I had a fall at the qualifying event for the 2010 Olympic team, and I honestly can’t even tell you what happened. I just know that my hips weren’t the same anymore, and also the same methods my trainers and therapists had been using before weren’t working.

I always had little aches and pains like some knee pain or some low back pain or hip pain or whatever but nothing significant until 2009. I had hip pain already, but I didn’t have so much pain that it was worth getting imaging on. But then I had a fall at the qualifying event for the 2010 Olympic team, and I honestly can’t even tell you what happened. I just know that my hips weren’t the same anymore, and also the same methods my trainers and therapists had been using before weren’t working. We were pretty close to the Olympic Games at that point, and I just kept skating and didn’t get that imaging done until after the Games were over. I got an MRI and recognized that I needed surgery.

On the one hand, that really crept up, but now that I have hindsight, I can see what was happening.  I can even understand why those aches and pains were getting worse over time even though it was the fall that kind of pushed me over the edge. I still think there’s a lot more that I could have done in terms of awareness and taking care of myself to be sure that I was avoiding the opportunity for injury.

Did her mindset towards injuries lead to early retirement?

I felt like I had to be better now. That stress and anxiety kept me from coming back as effectively as I could have, which led to more injuries, which led to early retirement.

I remember after my first surgery that I needed another surgery. I was supposed to get it done on two sides, but the first surgery was such a bad experience that I didn’t get the other side done. After a season, I recognized that I really did need the surgery on both sides, but by then, time was running out before the next games. There was a lot of pressure with that. Nobody put that pressure on me. I just so heavily identified with speed skating and that to be successful, I couldn’t waste time being injured. I felt like I had to be better now. That stress and anxiety kept me from coming back as effectively as I could have, which led to more injuries, which led to early retirement.

Was she afraid to take time off to heal her injuries?

I was afraid that if I took a year off, I was going to lose everything I had worked for. The reality is that from a physiological standpoint, once you spend a certain number of years getting in shape, your body knows what to do.

What I’ve learned as a coach now, that I wish someone had told me when I was an athlete, is that muscle memory never degrades. When learning a new skill, the neuromuscular system lays down what’s called a myelin sheath. That sheath never disintegrates, and that’s the reason why, when people get tired, old habits always come back. Eventually, you get so fatigued that your muscles will fire in any way available to them. And old patterns come back no matter how hard you’ve worked to create good ones.

I was afraid that if I took a year off, I was going to lose everything I had worked for. The reality is that from a physiological standpoint, once you spend a certain number of years getting in shape, your body knows what to do. Of course, it’s going to hurt, and it’s going to take time, but if you were athletic before getting injured, you’re still going to be athletic when you get back. It’s just a matter of getting back in shape and getting your feel back. I really wish I would have known that.

What type of mindset does she wish she had back then?

I wish that I could have seen that I was pushing so hard that I was about to break. I wish I had the confidence to listen to my body. Instead, I let others make decisions for me who had my best performance in mind, but not my best interests as a person.

If I had just accepted the fact that the next year was going to suck, but that, in the long run, I was going to be okay, I would have had a lot more success and less anxiety. Instead, I kept until eventually, my body broke. Then I was really in trouble and wasn’t able to come back at all.

I wish that I could have seen that I was pushing so hard that I was about to break. I wish I had the confidence to listen to my body. Instead, I let others make decisions for me who had my best performance in mind, but not my best interests as a person. Performance was their job, so I’m not really mad about it. I just wish I had done my job, which was taking care of myself.

Now that I’m a coach, I’m a lot more careful to keep an athletes’ personal best interests in mind when they need to push through something vs. when it’s time to rest.

What did she learn from the Olympic experience?

What I learned was that you have to have a holistic picture of what your life is outside of your sport. If all you have is your sport, then you’re always tuned in to what you’re going to have to do three or four days from now, not what it is that you’re doing now. That type of thinking plays into a pattern of anxiety, always worrying about the future instead of taking action for what you could be doing now.

In hindsight, I learned a lot there. I learned a lot about balance and how you can be the best athlete in the world, but can you be the best athlete at the games? I learned how to manage the stress of being in peak condition for 2-3 weeks while performing every 2-3 days during that timeframe. That was something that I was physically totally unprepared for and mentally unprepared for.

What I learned was that you have to have a holistic picture of what your life is outside of your sport. If all you have is your sport, then you’re always tuned in to what you’re going to have to do three or four days from now, not what it is that you’re doing now. That type of thinking plays into a pattern of anxiety, always worrying about the future instead of taking action for what you could be doing now.

All the mindset coaching that I’ve done has helped me look back and see how much of a fear-based thinking pattern I was in, how it was affecting my anxiety, and hurting my performance. If I’d understood how to press pause on the broken record of my negative thoughts, I could have actually relaxed and recovered.

It was a great experience. Coming out on the other side of it, I can really look back and see there’s so much from a mental standpoint that I could have done to improve my recovery and improve my performance.

How does she get through to athletes who are resistant to mindset coaching?

One of my favorite strategies to use with athletes is gratitude because it’s physiologically impossible to be both grateful and stressed at the same moment. When you’re extremely stressed, you can stop it by choosing continual thoughts of gratitude.

I see a little bit of resistance from athletes for mental coaching. One of my favorite strategies to use with athletes is gratitude because it’s physiologically impossible to be both grateful and stressed at the same moment. When you’re extremely stressed, you can stop it by choosing continual thoughts of gratitude.

However, if you wait until the moment that you’re under extreme stress to do that, I promise it won’t work because unless you’ve prepared for that moment. It would be like wanting to compete at an elite level but never practicing the skill you want to compete in.

I’m teaching these strategies because you have to start small with simply being grateful that your body can do what you ask it to do. It can run a mile, it can digest your food, it can recover from the work you put it through. These things seem silly to be grateful for. Yet, the reality is that, especially if you’re living in North America, you have so much to be grateful for that the majority of humans in the world don’t have.

You can choose to feel gratitude for being in a sport that you love, even if it’s not going well today. Most people don’t get the chance to do what they love.

When I’m teaching athletes these baby steps, it’s hard to incorporate them because they feel too simple or abstract. Still, it’s the same process of learning any new skill… you have to learn the basics first. If you skip through the foundational work, when push comes to shove, and you have to perform, your foundation isn’t there.

However, if you can respect the subtlety behind managing your mental skills, then you’ll be ready to perform at the moment when you need to the most. Learning this skill is a long-term process.

Why are her favorite races ones she lost rather than won?

All my favorite races are ones that I have failed and had an incredible opportunity to learn through that failure.

All my favorite races are ones that I have failed and had an incredible opportunity to learn through that failure. There’s one that sticks out where we were in Germany, which was my favorite place to race. It was a nine-lap race, and it was 8.7 laps of perfection. The other girl and I were fighting back and forth between first and second place for literally the entire race, and coming out of the last turn, we both fell down. We were at the point of complete exhaustion.

Coming out of the last corner she veered left, I veered right, we bumped into each other and fell down. It was a shame to lose that way, but the amount of pride in knowing we fought hard and pushed ourselves to that level of exhaustion was so fulfilling. It was an absurd amount of effort! To be in such a state of flow where you don’t even know that it hurts is the ideal state of mind for any athlete.

How did she sustain her concussion leading up to the 2018 Olympic Trials?

I was just skating… just following. We weren’t even going fast. I stepped on a block, hit the pads, and bounced off at a weird angle. I couldn’t replicate it even if I tried.

It was a team practice, and I wasn’t doing anything crazy. It happened on the second lap of the day. I was just skating… just following. We weren’t even going fast. I stepped on a block, hit the pads, and bounced off at a weird angle. I couldn’t replicate it even if I tried.

I’d had two concussions before that I had recovered from within 24 hours. I expected this one to be the same. After 24 hours, my symptoms were gone, but the next time I trained (72 hours later), I was exhausted, confused, and headachey with blurry vision. It was amazing how late the symptoms hit.

What is concussion awareness like in speed skating?

They’re always at varying levels of severity, and I wouldn’t say that they’re something that the speedskating community fully understands how to deal with.

When I was growing up, concussions really didn’t happen very often. Partly because we learn so much every year about concussions that we never knew before. Maybe concussions happened all the time, and we just didn’t know? What’s nice about our sport is that we don’t have a lot of small impacts, we have no impact at all unless you fall. Then you’re going to hit the boards pretty hard. The only concussions that I know of happened after a hard fall. They’re always at varying levels of severity, and I wouldn’t say that they’re something that the speedskating community fully understands how to deal with.

When did she get the concussion care did she needed?

Three months later that the USOC stepped in and said, I was at a point where I was considered to have post-concussion syndrome. They flew me to the University of Utah to see an expert.

Initially, I was under the impression that if you’re symptomatic, you should take a couple of days off, don’t exercise, and try to relax. Be nice to your body, let it recover. I did this for two weeks before I got frustrated to the point of going to see someone.

I started working with my chiropractor, who did the SCAT exam, and managed my case file. I worked with several physical therapists, I did acupuncture, I tried CBD oil, I floated, I did all kinds of things. Three months later that the USOC stepped in and said, I was at a point where I was considered to have post-concussion syndrome. They flew me to the University of Utah to see an expert.

My test results came back great. We couldn’t figure out why I was still having such intense headaches. Eventually, we figured out that it had to do with the way my eyes were tracking.

To this day, I don’t understand how or my eyes had lost their ability to stay focused, but that’s what I ended up going through.

What was the process of getting back on the ice?

I didn’t get back up to a full return to play for four or five months.

I got my concussion in January, and I started skating again somewhat consistently in June. I started with some bike rides and built up my tolerance painfully slow. Once I was able to bike without pain, I started cross training. After a couple weeks of cross-training, I started skating consistently. I didn’t get back up to a full return to play for four or five months.

How did she deal with recovering a concussion while facing a finite window as an Olympic athlete?

I remember being afraid that I wouldn’t be able to be me anymore. What made the anxiety unbearable was that it didn’t feel like a temporary injury. I had a fear that this is my new normal, and that was terrible.

That was the worst part for sure. With my first injuries back in 2010, the Olympics were over, and I could have taken two years off and still had two years to come back. In 2018, to be in for a year, then get hurt, be out for six months, and then only have been six months to prepare for Olympic trials was some of the worst anxiety that I’ve ever dealt with.

I would define “normal” anxiety as a fear of the future or like a really out of control habit of worrying. This felt like, “What if I’m never the same again?” I remember telling stories and losing my place. Not being able to remember what I had just said or not knowing if I had said something out loud or only thought it to myself. I could picture the places and things I was thinking of, but I couldn’t remember the words.

I remember being afraid that I wouldn’t be able to be me anymore. What made the anxiety unbearable was that it didn’t feel like a temporary injury. I had a fear that this is my new normal, and that was terrible.

What were the differences between recovering from the concussion and her other injuries?

You have to continue and fully embrace your body until it’s back to normal, and that’s a long process.

Even now, it’s been almost two and a half years since I had my concussion and we’re still doing tests to see if my blood-brain barrier has completely recovered and it hasn’t. We figured out that one reason for the severe relapses was damage to my blood-brain barrier. I don’t know all the science behind that, but the way I understand it is that cells from the immune system were crossing the blood-brain barrier and attacking nervous tissue as if it were a foreign invader in my body.

I don’t have any symptoms anymore. However, to still do our tests and to see that there’s something there that we need to keep working on – you can’t just stop recovery just because your symptoms are gone. You have to continue and fully embrace your body until it’s back to normal, and that’s a long process.

Was she hesitant to push herself when returning to racing?

I was afraid of how bad it would hurt, but I didn’t stop trying. It was something else that needed to be prepared for and deal with.

Consistently throughout my recovery, every time I pushed my heart rate to a new high, I would get dizzy, headachey, and my eyes would hurt. This made me hesitant to go all out during training, but during races, I wouldn’t have any choice. I would go into races, knowing that I would be required to go so hard that my eyes would spin around in my head. That’s what it felt like… like I had googly eyes. I was afraid of how bad it would hurt, but I didn’t stop trying. It was something else that needed to be prepared for and deal with.

How did it feel to come so close at the 2018 Olympic Trials?

Coming as close as I did, failing, and sharing that moment with the people in my corner was a humbling and powerful opportunity for growth. For so long, I had struggled with the fear of being innately not good enough. When you go through that level of failure, you realize that your family still loves you, your friends still want to talk, and your competitors still show you respect.

I was skating just as good as I ever had before, and then I got a concussion. It affected my ability to prepare, so I knew that making the team was going to be hard. I knew that it was going to be mind over matter and that physically, I just wasn’t ready.

Coming as close as I did, failing, and sharing that moment with the people in my corner was a humbling and powerful opportunity for growth. For so long, I had struggled with the fear of being innately not good enough. When you go through that level of failure, you realize that your family still loves you, your friends still want to talk, and your competitors still show you respect. In fact, people still go out of their way to encourage me and tell me how much it meant to them I even tried.

You get to see the goodness in yourself when people share what your journey meant to them. My greatest moments as an athlete were not moments of success, but of failure.

What message does she have for athletes dealing with a concussion?

What I would say to an athlete going through a concussion is, “no one is trying to take away from you how bad this sucks. This is really hard, and you probably don’t deserve to be going through it, but the fact is that this is how it is right now. The only way to be better is to embrace that. Accept where you’re at and learn the tools that you need to move forward.”

There’s a concept that I teach a lot called Embrace the Suck. What I would say to an athlete going through a concussion is, “no one is trying to take away from you how bad this sucks. This is really hard, and you probably don’t deserve to be going through it, but the fact is that this is how it is right now. The only way to be better is to embrace that. Accept where you’re at and learn the tools that you need to move forward.”

The tools that have helped me the most are meditation, mindfulness, and CBD oil. I got a lot of relief from floating in a sensory deprivation pod and embracing a slower lifestyle.

It’s hard to embrace a long-term process when you don’t know where the finish line is. That sucks, but you have to embrace where you’re at if you want to move forward. Resisting will only make it last longer.

How has she taken what she’s learned into coaching and precisely mindset coaching?

So many people have what it takes physically to perform but get in their own way mentally. I’d like to help people recognize that the way you think can deeply impact the way you perform.

As a coach, I help athletes develop their mental toughness in the weight room and on the field of play. I do a lot of small group workshops for teams, corporate speaking events, and one on one coaching.

So many people have what it takes physically to perform but get in their own way mentally. I’d like to help people recognize that the way you think can deeply impact the way you perform.

Want to learn more about Katherine and mindset coaching? Visit FixYourMindset.com