Winn: It Became My Entire World
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Finding the thing you’re exceptionally good at — where you love doing it and others recognize your talent — is a pivotal moment in a young person’s life. When Winn discovered he excelled in the world of competitive rowing, it quickly consumed his life. So did the searing, chronic pain that came with it. Winn talks with Stephanie about the culture of collegiate sports that normalized injury, the close call that almost left him paralyzed, and his path to finding mental and physical healing. The latter is an ongoing journey, and Steph is along for the (boat) ride.
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Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Winn
Okay, I am an Environmental Planning and Policy scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 00:09
That’s fucking awesome. That’s the coolest title I’ve ever heard.
Thank you, thank you.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 00:15
I mean, it really does Trump podcast host when Causton teeny is a scientist with a very impressive title. And as a scientist, deep analysis and experimentation is where he thrives. And he brings a ton of logic into every situation, determining how best to approach it, how to maximize outcomes, you know, test the limits until they test you. But once upon a time, Winn was also an athlete, he was a competitive collegiate rower. And when you combine a scientist brain with an athlete’s body, you better believe this person is going to push themselves to the absolute max.
As I was practicing, for three hours a day I was prepping or recovering from practice for probably the same amount of time. There was just like big buckets of ice that people used in the training room. And it was pretty common practice to take a bag of ice, put it where it hurt, and then have your friend wrap plastic wrap around you. And so I would go into the dining hall just like covered in ice bags strapped to my body.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 01:29
It turns out, though, that this wasn’t just a test of tolerance. The pain Winn was experiencing was real, and putting him in real danger. But he did what lots of us do. He learned to live with it made adjustments and kept going with gusto. It would be years before he found out just how serious it was, and how beautiful it could feel to leave it all behind. This is LAST DAY, a show about the moments that change us. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs and today, the story of someone who pushed themselves to the extremist of extremes until everything backfired and came to a screeching halt. How that halt while unexpected, turned out to be the best possible outcome. Before Winn was an athlete, he was just a kid growing up in a sleepy New York suburb trying to find a pastime that felt like a good fit. And at first, basically none of it did.
I grew up playing rec soccer. I wasn’t you know, I was sea team. Like I participated. I like never really thought of myself as athletic as a kid. I like remember doing middle school track. And we would have to like, you know, warm up by running around the track. And I would do one lap hide in the bathroom. And then like come back out at the end. Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. And then, when I was first starting high school, like our town had just started this new rowing program. And I realized that I actually didn’t like soccer very much. And so in 10th grade is when I with a few friends just signed up for rowing. I started in the winter, so I was participating for many months before I actually ever saw a boat.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 03:52
I was gonna say, rowing in the winter in New York doesn’t sound like.
So we use ERGs or rowing machines. Funny, you know, CrossFit.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 04:04
I just used one today at the gymnasium. Not this but happened to for like, the first time? Yeah, exactly. For those of you who can’t see what I’m doing with my hands, which is 100% of you, I’m making a rowing gesture. Okay, let’s proceed.
Yeah. And so then I started doing it. And it was like, really one of the first times in my life where I was just like, really good at it. I like really quickly excelled. I was doing really well, like for a novice. I was improving really quickly. And yeah, and that’s sort of that first season is you know, was getting better. I was getting sort of like recognized by the varsity athletes as like one of the better novices. And yeah, I would say that it was like maybe my second year of rowing And where I really started to not just be on the team, but to train. And somewhere between, like 10th grade and my senior year of high school rowing just became my entire world. And yeah, so it was like a pretty quick change from let me try this thing seems interesting to like most of my identity being that I was an athlete.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 05:32
That feeling of oh my gosh, I’m good at this. And I’m being recognized for being good at this. Was that like, the first time you also felt that kind of, Wow, I’m really good at something. And people are noticing that I’m really good at something. Had you had that experience before?
Yeah, I mean, I had it with like school. Like, I had always been, like, pretty good at school. But this felt like the first time I was noticed for doing something that felt like interesting. Yeah, like, it made me feel unique. Especially because like most kids at my school didn’t really know what rowing was, like, a lot of people don’t really know what rowing is. It definitely felt like the first time where I had this, like, new adventure of like a new, just like, yeah, a new passion.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 06:32
Yeah. And sort of also like a superpower. Like to be all of a sudden, there’s a new rowing team, and you’re excelling at it as a young, you know, not even varsity. And you’re getting acknowledged, and it’s like, yeah, that must feel amazing. Really. Yeah. So it’s also funny, I know that soccer uses your legs and rowing uses your arms.
Yeah, that’s a common misconception. So rowing is also mostly your legs. So when you’re rowing properly. It’s like you’re on a sliding seat. So when your butt and the seat are as close as they can be to your feet, and your arms are extended all the way. That’s the catch. And from that point, you push as hard as you can with your legs. Pushing the seat backwards and like holding your core. And then your arms only come in at the very end of the stroke.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 07:38
Yes, I did the rowing machine today. This is weird. I’d maybe subconsciously I was like I’m talking to when we’re gonna talk about rowing. I need to do so I know what you’re saying. But I thought I because I’m thinking about a boat. I’m like, why would a seat move on a boat?
The seat is yeah, it’s on the seat has wheels and their shoes in the boat. So they’re attached to the boat. So when you get in the boat you like leave your sandals or whatever on the dock and that you put your feet into the shoes.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 08:10
Fabulous. I appreciate this tutorial. Yeah, I had no idea. And I’m going to assume our listeners don’t either. So yeah. So okay, great. It seems like it meant a lot to you to be an athlete. And that started to feel good. I’m wondering as you’re growing up, like during this time, is your body giving you any kind of warning signs that maybe it isn’t super as into this as you are?
Yeah, I think I remember like having back pain for the first time, probably my senior year of high school. At that point, it really was like, never anything that felt like it could be long term.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:02
Or chronic or anything like that. But you as a kid, were you injury prone, did you?
Like yeah, I’m just laughing because he really jogged a memory that I haven’t thought about in a long time. When I joined Facebook very young, because my brother is older than me. And he went to college. And so when I was in like, fifth, it was like 2005 or six. I made a Facebook when I end I learned that you could make Facebook groups and this was a time on Facebook where they were just like a lot. I don’t know what it felt like some of them are more like how Reddit is now but I made this group called like injury prone or accident prone or something like that. Must have been like 11 or 12 or something and it like got really big. Yeah, I don’t know if it still exists or anyway.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 09:56
Wait, wait like how big like 1000s?
Yeah, yeah, definitely 1000s, people just like sharing their injury stories like pretty some pretty like gross stuff. I like stopped looking at it eventually.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 10:13
That’s amazing that that tells me so much about who you were as a kid. Yeah. So I get it now I understand the picture have painted. Yeah. In just a few years when goes from clumsy kid to skilled rower full stop, it becomes his whole life his entire identity. But as high school comes to an end, it starts to look like rowing might also come to an end when isn’t earnestly considering rowing in college for several reasons. For starters, when is considered a lightweight rower, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a classification based on an athlete’s weight and size. Which means athletes have to stay a certain weight and size the whole time that they compete. And teenage Winn is not interested in tracking and maintaining his caloric intake and weight in college. I mean, honestly, who would that sounds absolutely terrible. The other reason is that there just weren’t that many spots for lightweight rowers in college, it would be pretty steep competition to even get on a team. But remember, Winn was good at the sport, great even and great athletes don’t just quit. No. Coaches and recruiters are not out here just letting great athletes fall through the cracks. Not on their watch.
Yeah, so then my senior year, we got this new coach. And he pretty early on in his coaching, he was like you’re gonna run college. And at the beginning of that year, he I guess this is kind of like a coaching method of his, but he pulled me aside with one other person and he was like, you’re going to do extra practices, and you’re going to win nationals.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 12:04
So when acquiesces, and in the fall of his senior year, he actually gets recruited to be on a collegiate rowing team. He’ll be attending a liberal arts college tucked away in the gorgeous purple mountains of New England. It will be beautiful, and thrilling, and really fucking hard. When knew that. And pretty quickly, the stakes get jacked up even higher, because as it turns out, this team he’s about to join. They’ve won the national championship for the past eight years. Okay. That is a lot of pressure. So now the idea that Winn will you know when isn’t just the vision of one high school coach, it’s the expectation. Plus, the school itself was full of jocks. Everyone cared about sports a lot.
This was the metric that was thrown about when I was there was that like, 60% of students are on a team, whether it’s like club or varsity or anything, but yeah, very sports centric.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 13:12
Talk to me about teams because I, as I said, I’ve never played a team sport, but my kid is nine and she is all about it. I mean, she’s like, every she’s like, sign me up the softball and that she went to the championship last year, I felt like I was watching a professional sports game. I was like, the pressure, the stress. I’m watching from afar with stars in my eyes, it looks. She loves being on a team, they cheer for each other. Did you love being on a team? What’s that experience? Like?
Yeah, I mean, in high school and college, like all my friends were on my team. It was like, very much just the people that I wanted to be around all the time. It’s also intense. And you learn this language to talk about this thing you’re so passionate about. And a lot of people just aren’t going to understand what you’re saying. Yeah, sometimes I try to think about like, I must have had one friend in college who wasn’t a rower. But I just didn’t. You can’t think of one. It’s not a single one.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 14:24
That makes a lot of sense. It’s not it’s not just I’m an athlete. It’s like this is my family. This is my language. This is my culture. This culture. And what is crew practice like paint the picture of what you’re actually doing and how many times a week and what that whole thing is like?
It’s year round. So whenever we can be on the water we’re on the water and I say our as though I’m still doing it. I haven’t read in a long time.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 14:56
It’s in your blood. It’s in your..
And then the winter, you’re just trying to get as fit as you possibly can. I think it’s, you know, similar to any other endurance sport. So like I imagine, running or a swim practice would go, where you’re like, going as hard as you can for different amounts of time or distance. We would go to the gym and lift weights, yeah, like three mornings a week. And then the other mornings, you would be expected to like do some other workout and then we would have practice on the water six days a week.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 15:39
When you’re telling me about this, it does not sound fun. It sounds like absolutely grueling. Like, I am like, you voluntarily did this what is the, for us non-athletes? Yeah. What is the draw? Explain to me, like, what is the feeling of it that you keep coming back to?
It’s so interesting, because when I was thinking, like leading up to this, like what I miss most about rowing, and it really is the feeling like most people hate or gain, like, if someone tells me that they like enjoy using a rowing machine, I just like I’m not really interested in talking to them. It’s like, it’s a means to an end. It’s like you need it to get strong, but like, it’s kind of torturous. But actually being in a boat, and working really hard, like the feeling of like putting your oar in the water at like the right moment. And then like using your force to push it through the water and feeling the boat move, especially if you’re in a boat with multiple people. And then like the whole thing is doing it exactly in time where everyone’s oars are going into the water, the same millisecond. And like you’re all just, yeah, just perfectly synced up. And the boat can like literally sing. Like when you’re when everyone is imperfect time. And like the water is still enough, it like actually makes this like light ringing sound.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 17:13
That was a beautiful description of why you did that to yourself. There’s consequences for that great feeling, though, which for you, was that you started to really kind of break down physically I understand. Can you talk about the first time that your body kind of broke down, didn’t do what you needed it to do when you needed to do it.
It was after an erg practice. So like a winter in indoor practice. And it didn’t actually happen while I was practicing. But it was in the locker room after and I like reach for something and my back spasms. And that was the first time I had that feeling where basically it felt like there is this muscle in on one side of my lower back and like kind of my hip that just tightened and was just stuck that way. And that’s the first time I was introduced to the 10s machine. They use them for people in physical therapy a lot, you have these four sticky pads that you put on your body around the part that hurts. And they basically send a little electrical signal between each other that goes under your skin. Yeah, and from that time for the 10s machine, I had like a portable one that I could like clip to my pants. And from that time on whenever my back was bad, which was you know, became more often as time went on. I just wore it all day to be able to like do school
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 19:03
Something you might not know about me, because why would you is that I too have had back pain. I’ve had spasms even. And let me tell you it affects everything in your body. Even though from the outside it might look like nothing’s wrong. And I know how isolating and frustrating and confusing that can be. I don’t think people who have who have not experienced back pain understand how painful it is sitting is painful walking is excruciating. […] going from sitting to standing that moment in the morning where you’re like laying down and you have to get up but what it Yeah, what is that kind of constant back pain feel like paint the picture of that?
Yeah, so when I first started having back pain, it was really good. I’m, like, pretty localized, like, actually in my back. And, like, I mean, I’ll talk about this more later. But because back pain can also actually be like in your leg. But yeah, and I think what was so powerful about it is just how much of my brain the pain took up. Even if the pain was only, like a two or three out of 10 that day, it was still like, the first thing I did every morning was like body scan, how much pain Am I in? Where’s the pain? Like, let me touch where the pain is, like, am I gonna be able to practice today? You know, sitting in class, like trying to listen to the lecture while also wanting to like dig my thumb into my back or something, or just like constantly scooting around in my chair, to try to be comfortable. A lot of times, like rowing every single stroke, I’d be like, did that one hurt? Did that one hurt? Did that one hurt? Did that one hurt? And then I’d have one where it didn’t hurt. And I’d be like, okay, great, we’re fine, we’re fine. Like this is we can keep going because that one stroke, even though it was like one out of 10, didn’t hurt but like that sort of didn’t hurt. So like I’m okay. It’s just so incredibly present.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 21:37
We are back and Winn’s back is busted. Rowing is leaving him in so much pain that for basically every minute he’s practicing or competing, he’s spending just as much time recovering. His pain is the first thing he thinks about in the morning when he opens his eyes and does a quick scan of his body to assess where things are at. And his pain is the last thing he thinks about at night. Unfortunately, for when he’s mostly managing this on his own, the adults in his life aren’t really providing a ton of hands on support, even though they are incredibly supportive.
My parents are scientists in in New York City. And because they’re affiliated with universities, they have a lot of Doctor connections. And so their way of supporting me through this was generally like, if I wanted to see a doctor, they would get me the best doctor. Yeah, you know, I was seeing like the head of orthopedic, whatever, at Columbia, are things like that. But like the other part of it is that like, they knew how much it mattered to me, they knew that there was really nothing they could say, that would affect how much I cared about this sport. They were like so supportive of this passion that I had that I think that they, at the end of the day wouldn’t tell me to not grow.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 23:10
I know I’m sitting here trying to think about how I would as a parent, I’m like, what would I do or think? Or because it’s true, your kids being happy? And fulfilled is like […] we did it.
Yeah. And like my parents aren’t athletes. So like when I was like, Well, this is normal, right? Like everyone’s back hurts. Like I’m not the only one in physical therapy.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 23:35
We’re all broken. Okay, here’s the thing about this. When tells them, everyone’s back hurts, and I’m not the only one in physical therapy. It’s kind of true. The strain that rowing and other sports put on young people’s bodies is real. There were always lots of other students managing injuries alongside when pain was socially normalized. So if there wasn’t anything visibly, glaringly wrong with your body, you’re gonna be sent back out to play. And the doctors these top notch amazing doctors are they also like, Yeah, this is part of the deal. And you know, tough it out, champ. What are they? What are they saying or doing?
Yeah, I mean, before I herniated any discs, you know, I’d have back pain I get an MRI they’d be like, it looks generally fine in there. So you’re good to go. And I had one doctor this is like actually, I mean, there’s so many. Can I curse? There’s so many fucked up doctors but like, this was the most fucked up doctor that I saw where you know this. There’s some truth to this where that like back pain is related to like your wrist, the stability of your core and hip muscles. Yep. But so I went to this doctor, and he looked at me, poked me in the stomach, and then turned to my dad and was like, they’re weak. And then he sold me his book, which is basically like, full of these, like stability focused workouts. And like, even though I was like, so offended, very upset, I read the book, I did the workouts from the book. And what I learned is there’s like, if you don’t need surgery, they give you physical therapy. If the physical therapy isn’t working, then like, I may get a cortisone injection. Yeah, like other than that, then then they start to be like, Well, are you in therapy, just telling me that I was like, focusing on it too much. Or worrying about it too much. Or that like, you know, this was like, there was definitely a psychological aspect to this, that I wasn’t addressing. And like, should I have been in therapy like, yeah.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 26:06
but couldn’t be true. Like both can be. You can be an actual pain and not imagining it. And therapy probably would have been helpful.
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And that made me like, really not want to go to therapy. Yeah, I mean, yeah. Also, like, along all of this, like, my back pain was so tied to my mental health. Like, when my injury was bad, I was so depressed, because it was just like, took away my whole sense of self, like, my self-worth was tied to this sport. And so when I couldn’t do it, it was bad. And so you know, then I would go to the doctor’s office and be crying. And they would be like, well, this seems psychological.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 26:52
Especially because they’re the best doctors, you know, it’s like this is the best. So college is just a constant battle against pain, when is being told left and right that his pain is normal. And when he’s not being told his pain is normal. He’s actually being told that his pain isn’t real, but it is all in his head. And in the meantime, he’s still competing and this grueling, literally backbreaking sport, a sport that he loves. And no one is trying to slow him down.
Yeah, so people generally knew about it, my coaches knew about it. And they always generally erred on the side of pushing through it to an extent, like I learned eventually that I, I had to decide for myself whether or not I could practice that day. And that whatever decision I made, they would go with, which like, could be good if I had made smarter decisions. But because I cared so much about it, because it was my whole world. And I, you know, all my friends were rowers, everything. Like it was just it was absolute most important thing all the time. And so the idea of making a decision to skip even one practice was just terrifying. But I think another part of it is that like, I mean, it was like kind of a bit, but it there was a lot of truth to it, where people would say, like, well, like, I don’t need my back after college, like, I don’t need my knees after college. Like, I just gotta get my body through my last NCAA, and then I’ll deal with it. And so even though it was like, chronic, intense, present pain, there still felt like this endpoint with graduation.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 28:45
So it seems like you are so determined during college to just get through it, right? You’re like, I am an athlete. This is my life. This is what I have committed to doing. This is what I love. And that horrible joke you told me about, you know, we don’t need our backs after college. So fuck it. And then, did you know that after college, like rowing was done like that, was it what do you do after college to row?
Essentially, it’s like, there’s a small world of competitive club. There’s masters, which can be as intense as you want it to be. And then there’s national teams. And before my senior year, I spent a couple of weeks up at this rowing camp in Vermont as an intern. And like, I got to, you know, practice there and stuff. And that’s when someone floated the idea to me of like, you’re really fast like, you could probably be on the lightweight national team. Like, I think if I hadn’t had back pain, it is very likely that I would have decided to go on that path. But ya know what I graduated college it was mostly like, I just knew my body couldn’t take it anymore.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 30:06
Yeah. And so you graduate, and now you’re post college. And did you assume that the pain would be done now that you were done rowing
part of me assumed that it would be done. I wasn’t that surprised when it didn’t go away. But that’s when I really was faced with the fact that I was still in pain. And there was no longer an end date. And I there was no longer this thing that really justified it. It was just that I was in pain and trying to live with it.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 30:49
In this post-graduation life, when has moved out of his college town, and in doing so has tried to minnow move on with his life. He gets a job working for a clean energy nonprofit, and he gets a change of scenery, but the pain sticks around. And he wasn’t exactly helping the situation. Sports were a part of who he was. Rowing was his whole world. So even though women’s rowing career had reached a natural end, he tried to find ways to scratch this athletic itch. Even though the pain continued to follow him.
I was still like trying to be an athlete. I like, tried rock climbing. That didn’t go so well back wise. And then I started swimming, which most of the time would be okay. Not always. But at the same time I was in this job. And like I was working on the floor. I couldn’t sit at my desk. I couldn’t stand at my desk. And so I asked my supervisor was like, hey, how would you feel about like, what if I like, can I lie on my stomach and work on my laptop? Is that cool? And they were like, yeah, I guess so. Man. Yeah. And so I started spending a lot of time like going into, like hanging from bathroom stalls. Because that really like elongates your spine releases some pressure. So I would need to make sure there were two stalls that were empty, because I didn’t want to like creep someone out by like having my fingers over the top. And yeah, so I would hang out in the bathroom. I would like go into the bathroom at whatever job I was at and like wipe down the floor and then like lie on the floor. Yeah, just to like get through the day. And then I was sleeping with one pillow that was like a long to kind of shape and that wrapped around my waist. And then I had another pillow that I strapped to one of my legs. And then I had like a special neck pillow so that I could sleep in like perfect alignment, to try to not be in pain.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 32:53
And when were you diagnosed with a herniated disc? Because I know you said in college you didn’t have that So when did that appear?
Must have been I start graduate college in 2016. So I think it was it was in 2018. Yeah, that I had that first MRI that showed that it was actually a herniated disc, which is basically where you have your vertebrae, and then you have discs between them that are like jelly doughnuts where like you have cartilage basically around the outside. And then there’s this like jelly inside. And when you have a herniated disc, the cartilage tears and the jelly goes into your spinal cord. And then the jelly has proteins in it that cause inflammation. And that inflames your nerves. And then your nerves send pain signals to various places, which is why like, the worse my back pain got, the less it was in my back. And the more it was just severe pain in my hip and down my leg.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 33:54
I know what you’re thinking because I was thinking too, now that this disc is busting out of its little bag. Is it finally time for surgery? Can we fix this issue? No. Even then doctors were not suggesting surgery. Because at least for when he had to meet certain criteria before doctors would let him go under the knife. Yes, even with the stabbing pain in his muscles and the debilitating spasms and the time consuming pain management regimen hanging from bathroom stalls etc. He didn’t have any of the conditions that would make surgery necessary. One of those conditions was something called cauda equina. It is a freaky, rare and very dangerous condition. And it’s one you can’t really prevent. But then if it happens you have to act immediately. Since when is the scientist I will let him explain.
You have your spine and then your spine you have your spinal cord which is like a whole bunch of nerves and then the very end of your spinal cord which is where it all like brand She’s off to go down your legs and stuff looks like a horse’s tail, which is where the Aquinas comes in. And so caught up Aquinas basically means that you have a herniated disc, that is so protruded into your spinal cord, that it completely cuts it off. And then you need surgery within 24 hours, otherwise you can be paralyzed.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 35:22
Yes, paralyzed. So when has a herniated disc, which intensely sucks, but it doesn’t suck enough yet for surgery. And some doctors have even suggested that his pain is psychological. So he’s living in this limbo, where knowledgeable medical people aren’t really taking his pain seriously. And let’s be real at times, he wasn’t even taking it seriously. But he’s also at risk of something really dangerous coming any day.
Dr. Elson was really the first doctor to say like, this is not in your head, like I believe that you are in so much pain. And she was like, and I’m sure you’ve had many people tell you you’re young and healthy. And she’s like, and you are young and healthy. And so like, I’m telling you that I believe you that you’re in a lot of pain now. And I also feel so sure that you’re not going to be in pain forever. When she was like, I think there are tools that you haven’t been using. And like I think the type of physical therapy you’ve been doing isn’t maybe what makes the most sense. And like, this isn’t going to be forever and I obviously like broke down crying.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 36:37
Working with Dr. Elson is a game changer for when and his care team only gets stronger, he gets set up with a physical therapist named ally. And by working with her and Dr. Elson, he goes months at a time with no pain. And with none of those awful spasms. Part of the reason this works is that Ali and Dr. Elson set hard rules for when they know his athletic tendencies. So they do their best to rein him in even after he’s left the office. No rowing machines, no more rock climbing. But even when he follows all the rules and thinks he’s taking it easy, things get worse.
In January of 2019, I went snowshoeing and fell a lot of snow was very deep. And I felt fine mostly but then woke up the next morning and could not move I was just in so much pain, like couldn’t really get out of bed. And so they sent me for an MRI. And before I actually got any results from MRI, Ali called me while I was at work, and she was like, I noticed is going to be alarming. But I need you to just try not to move too much. I need you to just like be really gentle. If you can go home, go home. And just like be so like, don’t let anything bump you. Just be careful, because basically what had happened was my herniated disc had gotten a lot larger. And it was so big that people were by people. I mean the multiple doctors who were looking at this result, were worried that I was gonna get caught a recliner. And Katakana is incredibly rare. Like I had doctors telling me, you know, that they like had, you know, never actually seen it before. But my disc was very basically like very close to cutting off my spinal cord.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 38:39
And if it did cut off his spinal cord, he’d need immediate emergency surgery, or else he’d lose the use of his legs, he’d be paralyzed. This is most definitely not in his head. So when finally gets on the schedule for surgery, specifically a procedure called a micro diskectomy.
So basically it means that there it’s laparoscopic, for the most part, there’s like a tiny incision. And they basically go through a hole that’s like already there anatomically in your vertebrae, so they don’t have to, like drill any holes in your bones or anything. And they go in there and they just sort of suck out the disk that is in your spinal cord. And yeah, so I scheduled it basically as soon as I could. And I was at a point where like, during the day, I was mostly okay, but wasn’t really sleeping because the pain was the worst at night. And that was also around the time that I started dating my current partner and when the pain is really bad, like mattresses don’t really work like you need to be on hard surfaces. So like he woke up in the middle of the night and like couldn’t find me it’s because I was like on the floor. Like I And, yeah, also I remember like on our first date telling him like, yeah, I have spine surgery scheduled in two weeks. And he didn’t really know what that meant. And so he kind of assumed that there was like, No way this could be a serious new relationship, because he assumed I would be like recovering for months and be going through this sort of like serious recovery process.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 40:21
Spoiler alert, they’re still together. So, as you’re approaching surgery, I mean, you’re a realist. You’re a scientist. Yeah. What are you thinking? Leading up to it? Are you like, Yes, this is gonna work. Are you like, no, no, no,
I was really excited. Because it felt like I had been thinking about surgery for years at this point, as this potential solute, like the one thing I hadn’t tried yet. And so on the one hand, I had this hope, because I was going to do something new. And I also just, like, needed to have hope, because like, it was so terrifying to think about the surgery not working, that I just like, couldn’t really dwell on that too much. Because, like, at this point, you know, I had gone from having my whole identity be rowing, to having more and more years of separation from the sport, but still having intense chronic pain that was still affecting my life and decisions I made every day. And I was just so terrified of that. Of how like, what it would be like, for that to be the rest of my life. And just because I know that like that was so possible for that to be the case. And that like is the case for so many people with back pain.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 41:53
On the morning of the surgery, though, when is feeling optimistic?
Yeah, I remember waking up and just feeling so energized. And I remember I like took some like, pre-surgery selfies. And I like had the line from Finding Nemo running through my head, like today’s the day the tank is clean. And like I just like I was so psyched. And I think like the other like before I had talked about, you know, like the relief positions of like, hanging on something like none of that was working anymore. And I had really learned to just like, exist with this sort of electric pain in my leg. I described the pain as like, feedback from microphone, like when that there’s like that loud, high pitch like that’s what it felt like, all the time in my leg. And then I woke up from surgery, and it was just gone
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 43:06
So Winn wakes up from surgery, and his pain has completely vanished. The surgery that he wasn’t sure would work. It worked. Well. At least that seemed to be the case those first few minutes in the recovery room.
My body was just so quiet. Like I did a body scan and I like just couldn’t like nothing was standing out. Like I just didn’t have pain anywhere. And yeah, it was wild.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 43:40
Oh my gosh. Did you cry? Are you just overjoyed? Are you just overwhelmed?
I was worried that it was like just the drugs.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 43:50
I would have had the same thought I would have had the same.
Yeah. So part of me was like okay, let’s enjoy this while we can. I like really wanted to like jump up and down and like bend over and stuff but because I like in like obviously it was not supposed to do that.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 44:06
Hooked up to a bunch of shit.
I like remember being like very euphoric. And I like remember I also like decided to like take a little walk around the hospital because I was supposed to move around and I ended up like getting lost. And I had to like find a nurse’s station and show them my bracelet and be like, I can’t find my bed. Please look me up in your system.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 44:33
And I mean, how soon after the surgery are they like get up move around?
Pretty much as soon as you can. So yeah, I got out of surgery is probably like noon. I was up and walking like three maybe? Just a little at a time. But yeah, then I stayed the night and went home the next morning and yeah, and then was like pretty much like trying not to bend too much, but like walking around going to school going to the aquarium. A couple days later, I just like couldn’t carry more than five pounds for a bit. But yeah, the recovery was very, very fast.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 45:21
That is wild, after years and years of caring and managing and body scanning and focusing on pain. What do you suddenly do with all this new brain space?
Yeah, I mean, I was in grad school and a new relationship. So pretty much those two things where I was like, wow, I can like, bike to my boyfriend’s house. Now. I can like ride the tee and not worry about like, if I’m going to be able to stander, or sit and I can like sit in class without getting up every 10 minutes. And like, I can drive to go visit my family. And I already had all the things that I wanted to spend my time doing, but I just didn’t have to plan as much. I didn’t have to think about exactly the positions my body would be in while I was doing the things. I mean, there was also a part of me that like, immediately was like, Man, I should have had this done a long time ago, I would have been able to like, be a better rower and like to stay rowing for longer. Yeah. And then of course, like, as soon as I said that out loud. My friends were like, shot. Fuck up. Yeah, I’m no longer friends with any rowers, except a couple, a couple of people, but who have gone on similar journeys to have a lot of distance from the sport.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 46:56
Why do you feel like you have to do that?
I think like, at first, it was really weird to me to be friends with people who didn’t know me as an athlete, and I still felt the need to be like, okay, but we all should just also acknowledge that I’m, like, pretty strong. I have great endurance. And like, let me know if you want to, like feel my bicep. But yeah, so there was that part of it, where I was like, don’t you know, I’m, like, really good at this sport. And yeah, but then the other part of it was that I was just forced to figure out who I was. And just like, the world got so much bigger, because all of a sudden, this sport was so unimportant to me. And there were so many things to do all the time, like having those practice hours be available to like, do whatever was so exciting. And I think then it was like, I now have this chosen family of people who know me, so well and never knew me as an athlete. And having that just feels so special. Because it feels like I’m finally like, connected. Like to a sense of myself that is not connected to my performance in anything.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 48:28
Yeah. That makes a ton of sense.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 48:37
What is your relationship though, with sports and exercise today? Do you still partake?
Yes, I do. Not as much, definitely nowhere near as much. I think like another part of it was that like, in this same period of time, when I was like, learning about myself, not as an athlete was also when I like went on, started my gender journey, realized I was trans. And part of me realize like, oh, like, this desire, I have to like, be really athletic is like probably also at least partially tied up. And like how I want to present my gender. So like, part of it was like, okay, like, I can actually, like, feel good in my body, and find ways to do that, that aren’t physical, which like, was especially something I was doing when I was still in pain, and realized that I could like buy different clothes and cut my hair and change my name. And that would actually bring me a lot of joy in my body that didn’t come from giving myself back pain. But since then, especially since I haven’t been in back pain anymore. I just like try so hard to only work out when I want to, and to only choose activities that bring me joy, like if I am like, oh, I want to work out and then I like investigate it and it’s like something to do with it. performance are there reason I feel like or that I like should work out for some reason. I don’t. Don’t let myself workout. Unless I like, feel like I’m able to reframe it as like, well, I’m really stressed right now and this is gonna make me feel better. And we’re like, I actually really love rock climbing because it feels like I’m in a playground. Or like, I want to go and around because it’s really beautiful out and I haven’t been to this park in a while. Yeah, so I would say I have a much healthier relationship with exercise.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 50:32
Yeah, that sounds very dreamy and fascinating, too, that you went on your gender journey.
Yeah, it was really at like the dawn of these new posts, rowing friendships, when I was starting to make the same friends that I still have now, who never knew me as a rower. I mean, like, really, I like met a bunch of trans people. And it was like we can do that. That was also definitely something that like, helped me get through my back pain was this like, it was something that I was able to, like, find joy in and focus on. And just like was a way of thinking about my body in a way that wasn’t connected to pain.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 51:15
In this new phase of one’s life, surgery makes yet another appearance, it delivers something different, but also life changing as he learns more about who he is beyond being an athlete.
I have top surgery in the summer of 2020. That line was way more intense in terms of recovery, but similar in the very like immediate results. Yeah, I feel like both. Both of those surgeries I’ve had were very like joyous experiences.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 51:56
On top of being joyous experiences, there’s also something about the process of surgery that speaks to when, because as a recipient of surgery, you’re suddenly not responsible for the change coming about. And when you’re working so hard in every other regard. It’s kind of a relief for something to be taken out of your hands.
The part I love about surgery is that you just show up, and then you get knocked out. Like you don’t have to do anything like this big thing is happening. People are working really hard, but like not you just like get to be you just like yeah, you just get to hang out and fall asleep. And then like have people like bring you popsicles. And yeah, so I love that.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 52:52
Yeah, so you really don’t have to do a goddamn thing.
Yeah, like from my perspective, it’s very simple. Very easy. I’m getting a hysterectomy in a couple of weeks also. So really excited to just show up.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 53:07
Congrats. That’s amazing. Wow. So you’re, you’re now pain free. You’re in your body. You feel like who you are. It’s I mean, what an incredible journey.
Yeah, it is. Like thinking back to the pain I felt. It’s like, I can’t think about it for too long.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 53:35
Yeah, I have to tell you, like, I was like, should I say this or not? The story could have ended really differently. So like, my, my brother started taking opioids because of back pain. And he’s no longer with us. And that’s why we have the show. Like, that’s literally why I’m talking to you right now. So many people have back pain and are prescribed narcotics and then cannot live without them. I mean, I I’m kind of stunned in your story. That that’s not even a part of it. But man, I am glad that you are here and you didn’t have a stupid fucking doctor prescribe you some shit that you did not need.
Yeah, I am also very grateful for that.
Stephanie Wittels Wachs 54:26
It’s so lovely to just have happy story here. As the first one I think I haven’t cried in
There’s even more LAST DAY with Lemonada Premium. Subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content like an AMA with yours truly AMA stands for Ask Me Anything in case you didn’t know. So just FYI and FYI means for your information. So subscribe now in Apple podcasts. LAST DAY is a production of Lemonada Media. The show is produced by Kegan Zema, Aria Bracci, and Tiffany Bui. Our engineer is Brian Castillo. Music is by Hannis Brown. Steve Nelson is our Vice President of weekly content and production and Jackie Danziger is our Vice President of narrative content and production. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and me Stephanie Wittels Wachs. If you’d like what you heard today, we have three other seasons that you can check out. Have a story you’d like to share, head to bit.ly/lastdaystories, or click the link in the show notes to fill out our confidential Google Form. follow and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.