Pearson closer to fulfilling Olympic dream

  • Chasing her dream: Pearson has secured the backing necessary to allow her to push for a spot at the Rio Olympics next year (Photograph by Naomi Baker Sport Photography)

    Chasing her dream: Pearson has secured the backing necessary to allow her to push for a spot at the Rio Olympics next year (Photograph by Naomi Baker Sport Photography)


What is an aneurysmal cyst?

An aneurysmal bone cyst is a blood-filled, fibrous tumor-like lesion. Although benign, they can be fairly destructive because they deform the bone and cause fractures

It has been more than 40 years since Bermuda was represented in rowing at the Olympics, Shelley Pearson wants to change all that.

The Oxford University student has dreamed of competing on the world stage ever since she took up the sport at school, and has been working towards her goal ever since.

However, for a time it seemed as if the 24-year-old’s dream might remain just that.

A fractured pelvis, torn tendon and nine surgeries over the course of just two years to combat an aneurysmal bone cyst, meant she had to temper her expectations. Not an easy task for someone for whom life without the sport is almost unimaginable.

“I can remember the moment I fell in love with the sport,” Pearson said. “I felt all the athletes in the boat rowing in perfect harmony. It was as if we were gliding weightlessly on top of the water. The moment you’ve experienced that feeling, it’s what you constantly strive toward.”

Pearson’s injury first surfaced during her junior year at Harvard College. Plagued by sore hips and legs, which she initially attributed to normal wear and tear, an MRI revealed a cyst on her pelvis. Still in the throes of competition, Pearson had an anti-inflammatory injection that allowed her to continue to train and compete.

Then, one day, she got up from the couch and fractured her pelvic bone. The fracture healed, but the cysts returned, leading to the nine surgeries which she had while continuing to train.

Her surgeon, Dr Raja Shaikh at Boston Children’s Hospital, was less than impressed with her determination to carry on regardless.

“Dr Shaikh wasn’t super thrilled, but he knew what I wanted to do, and he helped me do it,” Pearson said. “He was incredible.”

The intensity of Pearson’s training only increased as she pushed towards the final trials for the UK National Championships in April last year. It was during that time that she tore a tendon attached to the previously troublesome pelvic bone.

That injury finally forced Pearson to step away from rowing and take a summer off, not that it changed her goals. She arrived at Oxford University last autumn on crutches still determined to make the university team.

“It wasn’t until an MRI in January showing sustained improvement when I began to seriously consider the Olympics,” she said. “It enabled me to begin training at the level necessary for aspiring to compete in the Olympics, and it was at this point that I knew they might be a reality.”

No stranger to overcoming obstacles, if she succeeds Pearson will become the first woman to row for Bermuda at the Olympics, and the Island’s first athlete to do so since Jim Butterfield in Munich in 1972.

There is every reason to believe that she is capable of achieving her goal.

A junior world champion with the United States in 2009, she was part of Oxford’s victorious crew at this year’s Boat Race. That though was a team effort, and this time Pearson will be on her own.

“You have to have the ability to motivate yourself when you are by yourself, there is only you to blame, or you to take the glory,” Pearson said.

Still, getting to the Olympics will take a team effort of sorts, it is just that when it comes to the Latin American Qualifiers in Chile in March, Pearson will be the only one on the water.

For the past ten years Pearson’s parents have supported her financially, emotionally, completely. She could not, as she put it, “have accomplished everything without them”.

Rowing though is an expensive sport, and even a conservative estimate left the Bermuda athlete needing anything from $36,000 to $54,000 to help pay for training time, equipment, travel and even basics such as food.

Fortunately for Pearson, Horseshoe Group, a Bermuda insurance company, have stepped in to help, a move the rower called “a complete game-changer”.

“Every rower is familiar with figuring out how to eat the healthiest food on the smallest budget, and prioritising needs in order to attend training camps, or buy a set of oars,” Pearson said. “Horseshoe Group has taken this stress off of me, enabling me to ensure I have the equipment and facilities necessary for me to be the fastest I can be.

“For that I am so grateful and honoured that Horseshoe Group would put their confidence in me.”

There is always the danger that the cysts could return, and if they do Pearson will meet the challenge head on, as she always does. Until then, there are training camps to attend, travel plans to make, and a single Olympic qualifier to train for, when only the top six will advance to the Rio Games in August.

“I am not afraid,” she said. “I do love life with rowing, but my experience has helped me realise how much more the world has to offer, and what I have to offer the world.”

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Published Nov 25, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 24, 2015 at 11:23 pm)

Pearson closer to fulfilling Olympic dream

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