Lying on the ground in a parking lot Marloes Oldenburg felt stiff. Her eyebrows, her neck, her body. Everything was muscle hard.
A week prior to this, Oldenburg had been racing in, not one, but two finals at the 2022 World Rowing Championships. She had collected two silver medals for the Netherlands in the four and the eight. Now, just a week later, her body was screaming out “don’t move”!
Oldenburg had been finishing a mountain bike ride in Austria and was riding back to the car when her rear wheel got stuck. She went over the front of the bike, landed on her head, her first vertebrae broke into multiple pieces.
Luckily the first person on the scene was a nurse who did everything right in preparation for the arrival of the ambulance. After and assessment and x-ray Oldenburg was helicoptered to Salsburg hospital for an operation. She was told of the brake in her neck and that there’d be a chance she would not wake up from the operation. What was worse, and as Oldenburg describes, the toughest part of the whole journey, she tested positive for Covid-19. No one was allowed to visit her.
“I was in so much pain after surgery,” says Oldenburg who had multiple pins inserted into her vertebra during the operation. “I had to stay in hospital 2 ½ weeks because I couldn’t move.”
Then the rehabilitation began. Both of Oldenburg’s parents are nurses and rather than go to a rehabilitation centre, Oldenburg was able to do it at home under the guidance of her parents.
“I had to learn all of the daily things. How to brush my hair, my teeth, how to walk. I had no strength in my neck.”
The hope was that Oldenburg would be able to learn to walk again.
Each day Oldenburg was set small goals. It began with sleep, wake up, try to walk five steps, sleep again.
“My teammates sent me voice messages every day with positive messages. They were really helpful and cheered me on.”
After four weeks the Dutch rowing team scientist set out a plan for Oldenburg. “We made a programme every week with the end of the week setting a goal.” For example 1 minute biking, then 1 ½ minutes biking – tiny goals week by week.
“Tiny goals made it feel possible and it made it fun. I could see the improvements. Sometimes there were mistakes and I would take a step back. Every time something didn’t work we’d change it and make it work.”
Oldenburg says the steps were painful and it was difficult not to think about the future and stay positive. She tried to just focus on each week and cherish any small improvements.
“I had a lot of pain at the beginning. For me it really helped to keep talking as when I talked I didn’t thing about the pain. I got really social!”
Four months after the accident Oldenburg did an erg test. It was faster than some of her teammates. Oldenburg was on the way back to rowing and able to take part in the Dutch national team trials.
“I had fun(at trials) because I hadn’t rowed for six months and I was so happy I could row again. Every stroke for me was a win. This feeling made it easy to make huge progress.”
And the progress continued. Back on the Dutch national team and back in the boat Oldenburg raced in bow seat of the four at the 2023 European Rowing Championships. It was just seven months since her accident. The crew finished third. Season success continued and at the 2023 World Rowing Championships Oldenburg and the team became World Champions, winning the women’s four and qualifying in the top spot for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
The reminder of her accident, however, remains with Oldenburg. Just under the skin on her neck she can feel four big screws and she is unable to turn her head. But that is nothing compared to the incredible recovery and the World Championship gold medal that can hang around her neck.