“If we don’t operate, you will likely have a stroke in the next few hours that’s going to be fatal.”

While the gravity of that sentence would cause most people to fear for their lives, 400m hurdler Sarah Carli’s biggest concern was whether the surgery would prevent her from competing at the Tokyo Olympics.

Carli, a New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) scholarship athlete based in Wollongong, detailed in this week’s NSWIS Lights Up documentary the against the odds battle she fought to make it to Tokyo after she slipped during a training session and fell with a bar laden with weights balanced across her shoulders.  

“The bar came down onto my neck and I ended up in emergency,” recalled the 29 year old, who is striving to book her lane at the Paris Olympic Games.

“And what we originally thought was a split open chin and some cracked teeth, I ended up having a seizure in emergency. It was a CT scan that diagnosed me with what’s called a carotid artery dissection, which is an internal tear in the wall of the main artery here [tracing the artery along her neck] that supplies blood to your brain.

“I had to have emergency surgery that day and they were able to take a vein out of my thigh to patch the artery in my neck.”

There were many reasons for Carli to be consumed by dread as she heard further details of the operation, including:

  • The doctor having no practical experience in performing the delicate operation
  • There was a 10 percent chance of Carli emerging from surgery with brain damage
  • There was the threat of her suffering a fatal stroke.

“The doctor that was on call that day, he had only seen this kind of injury once before when he was a trainee quite a few years ago,” she said. “So, when he performed the surgery on me it was the first time that he’d ever performed it.

“So being in there and having the seriousness of what was about to happen put on me was pretty enormous. And we only had 20 minutes notice before they put me into surgery.”

Despite the setback Carli wasn’t prepared to give up on her dream of becoming an Olympian.

“I was sitting in the ICU at Wollongong Hospital, and I was telling my parents: ‘I’m still going to be running in Tokyo . . .  I’m going to be there,’” she said.

When Carli, a semi finalist at the 2019 Doha World Championships, spoke to the doctor about her aspirations, he was encouraging but – understandably – cautious about how much she could push herself.  

“In my first week scan with my surgeon, I said to him my heart was still set on competing at Tokyo. He said he was happy to let me try, as long as I was going to stick within the very strict medical constraints he was going to set me.

“I got the all-clear just six weeks before I toed the line in Tokyo, and I had to what’s called ‘prove fitness for team selection’. So even though I’d qualified for the Olympics, I had to still compete before the end of the qualifying period. So, I actually had seven days of training, full training, before I had to run a 400m hurdles at the last race in Townsville for the qualifying period in Australia.

“So that race was probably one of the most painful experiences of my life, but I was able to get around the track in the time that the selectors deemed was fast enough.”

While Carli did not perform as well as she had hoped in Tokyo – she finished fifth in her heat in a time that was well off her PB – she had little trouble celebrating her performance.

“I do think that winning is just turning up to the start line, and, for me, I wasn’t going to be [at Tokyo] in career best shape and we knew that. So, I guess, I really had to change my goals . . . but sometimes . . . a time on the board doesn’t reflect everything that you’ve been through to get to the start line.

“And for me, the time when the board did not reflect what the last five months had look like and we knew that. And I think being kind to myself and knowing that just being there and having gone through what I did was probably I guess I was it was a gold medal for me.”

Daniel Lane, NSWIS

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