We caught up with Kate Weatherly just over three months after she broke her C1 vertebrae at the 2019 World Champs in Mont Saint Anne.
After bagging her first ever World Cup podium in Lenzerheide, things took a turn for the worse in Mont Saint Anne where Kate Weatherly landed on her head and suffered a Jefferson’s Fracture of her C1 vertebrae.
Pete caught up with Kate to see how her recovery is going and her plans for 2020.
So Kate, up until World Champs, how did your 2019 season go?
Well, it was definitely a season of ups and downs… I spent all off-season training really hard and my first big race of the season. I finished second at Crankworx Rotorua behind Tracy Hannah, it was hard not to go into the World Cups without expectations. When I finished 6th and 3rd at Fort William and Leogang respectively I started to feel like I could really make something of myself.
The first two races of the season were a lot of fun and I was looking forward to Andorra (which is my favourite track on the circuit), however I trained too hard into the race and could barely finish the race weekend, then a terrible result in Les Gets (terrible based on how I had been doing).
I started to feel pretty worn out, I had been putting a lot of pressure on myself, I knew doing another season with no support would be very difficult and really needed help and for me I felt good results was the best way to achieve that.
However, after Les Gets I had a few weeks in Morzine and really just had fun on my bike and coming into Val Di Sole and Lenzerheide I felt a lot better overall. Each race came with its own challenges but with a 6th and a 4th at each I was really happy with the end of my European season.
Can you talk us through your crash at Mont Saint Anne?
Worlds was a weird race, the wild weather and really difficult track lead to a pretty stressful weekend, I was also trying to line up support for 2020 and I was definitely at the end of my rope. Along with this I’d never done a 4 day race before and trying to juggle all the practice was pretty challenging.
Coming into finals I was feeling really good, I’d successfully hit every jump/drop on course and was feeling fast, however finals morning was a mess, we had our first practice run in the morning and I felt good, but then Bailey Goldstone crashed in her finals run and caused a long course hold, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to get the second practice run I’d normally take before finals.
We were told we would and I went up the track to do my run (only a few of us girls were doing it as it was quite close to our finals time), unfortunately the course officials at the top weren’t aware of the girls only practice and held us until the start of A practice, I found riding down with the top men right behind me pretty stressful and my head wasn’t where it should have been.
I decided to pedal into the rock drop on track to make sure I could hit it at race speed and my brain blanked and I hit the corner too fast and overbraked. I tried to stop before the drop but couldn’t and went over the bars directly onto my head. At first I thought I was fine (as sore as you’d expect for a big crash like that), but when I went to sit up my neck was very sore and I knew immediately that I’d probably broken it. I was gutted that my season was over but I hoped it was a pulled muscle and I’d be back in time for Snowshoe. I guess luck wasn’t on my side.
What did you actually do to your neck?
Because of the way I crashed (falling directly on my head), I compressed my neck and split my C1 vertebra into 3 pieces, this is called a Jefferson’s Fracture and although it doesn’t usually put any pressure on the spinal cord it will often require a cervical fusion of C1-C2 to repair (where the 2 vertebrae are joined together permanently), if I had required this I wouldn’t be able to turn my head and my riding career would likely be over.
However, I got lucky, the ligament that holds the C1 to the C2 appeared damaged, but it had pulled a small piece of bone off the side of the C1, meaning the ligament was fine, although now we are waiting to see if the bone will re-attach itself to the C1, if it doesn’t I’ll need the fusion, but fingers crossed it will heal on its own. In Canada we assessed the neck and decided to fly me home for surgery.
Once I got home I had surgery to temporarily stabilise the C1 with the C2 to allow the ligament and the C1 to heal, and then in around 9 months I’ll have the metal removed and my neck should be back to normal (assuming everything heals). I’ve been in a neck brace since the crash but I should be back doing light riding in the next few weeks.
Was surgery the only option or could you have allowed it to heal on its own?
It was a difficult decision, because the ligament wasn’t damaged but the bone had been pulled from the C1 and the fracture was unstable I needed more stabilisation that a cervical collar could give. I was presented with two options, a halo for 3 months or surgery and a collar for 3 months, there was more risk with surgery, however, it had a better chance of successfully healing the bones and even outside riding I wanted the best chance of healing and that was the surgery.
How did this affect your plans going into 2020?
It’s definitely thrown a spanner in the works that’s for sure. Because I won’t be able to get the metal removed until my neck is fully healed I won’t be able to race most of next year, I could possibly have been back in time for the last few races, but I wouldn’t be fit enough to be competitive and it would be a waste of money.
As a result, I’m going to focus on getting fit and strong this year and I’m going back to university to get my masters. I’m also planning on slightly shifting my focus more towards enduro, it fits what I enjoy about the sport more and training is easier because of where I live, but at this point I’m just focusing on getting better.
What stage are you at with healing and getting back to training and on a bike?
I have my 12 week follow-up on the 9th and all things going according to plan, I should be able to start riding outdoors and going to the gym again. It’ll still be very light training as I can’t risk crashing but I’ve done a few weeks of base training and my focus right now is just getting fit and focusing on that rather than pushing myself too hard. Time will tell as I’m still sore and haven’t spent much time out of my neck brace.
Will we see Kate Weatherly racing in Lousa in March?
Unfortunately not, I would have loved to have been at the first race but it’s completely out of the question at this point. My goal is to be back for 2021 all things going according to plan, but there is still too much up the air to know if I’ll ever be able to compete again. Not knowing is hard but I’m just focusing on doing what I can.
You are sponsored by Leatt but didn’t wear a neck brace this season, will you be rocking on next time you’re racing downhill?
I’m sponsored by a family friend who imports Leatt and Devinci into New Zealand, which is why I didn’t wear a neck brace, I’d never heard of anyone breaking their neck mountain biking and felt a neck brace limited me too much and would rather have as much mobility as possible.
Unfortunately I clearly proved myself wrong and broken necks do happen, in future I will definitely always wear a neck brace and Leatt has expressed and interest in working with me closer in future, and I’ll definitely advise wearing neck braces, especially as the technology continues to get better.