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Sanctuary in the hills

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September 2019 Issue

Wanaka’s stand up paddleboard champion Annabel Anderson shares her journey of recovery after a horrific skiing accident.

Everything happened within a blink – a surprise bluff, launch, impact, and then darkness.

The next thing Annabel Anderson remembers is the voice of a ski patroller, asking her name and prompting her to add numbers. She recalls nothing of the 400m tumble which could have cost her life.

“I’m very grateful I don’t remember anything – I think it would be a whole lot worse to deal with afterwards had I been conscious throughout,” Anderson says.

Until that point, it had been a good day of skiing on Treble Cone.

Attempting a sweeping turn to pop over a ridge, Anderson didn’t see the bluff until it was too late.

“I don’t know how you survive a fall like that, and obviously I didn’t walk away from it, but I’m still mind-blown as to how I got away with what I got away with,” she says.

“It was pretty rough on the [friend] that saw it – he saw the whole yard sale.”

The damage Anderson “got away with” included a broken pelvis, dislocated hip, ruptured knee ligament, severe bruising and a head injury. Recovery has been a difficult journey.

“I’ve been served up the biggest lesson in the power of now – to live in the present, to remove labels and expectations, and take one day at a time,” she says.

“What I do today will affect tomorrow, which in turn affects next week and next month.”

For six years, the 38-year-old Wanaka stand up paddleboard racer with a marketing degree from Otago University was untouchable in her sport, earning six back-to-back world titles.

Her forced hiatus has kept her from defending the title a seventh time, but Anderson admits she has “secretly enjoyed” the opportunity to have a break from competitive sport.

“In 2017, I knew I was trying to step away. I never said anything publicly, but in my heart, I knew I had pushed the boat out really far and flown by the seat of my pants as a one girl band for a really long time, and you can only get so much blood out of a stone,” she says.

“I felt like I was scraping the bottom of the barrel mentally and emotionally. I can always turn it on and flip a switch, but I was running on the auxiliary motors in doing that, and that probably scared me the most.

“At some point, I needed to take a deep breath and re-calibrate, and it got forced. So it’s funny how life sometimes gives you what you really need. I almost see what happened as a gift to slow everything down, to be able to walk not run and take the pressure of putting myself in a hugely competitive environment away.”

But rehabilitation has been far from easy.

Anderson’s brain injury has proven particularly difficult to navigate. Invisible to others, the damage has been a private battle, manifesting itself often in intense emotions.

“I’d just burst into tears, and I knew that was my brain being totally overwhelmed. My measure of getting better was when I hadn’t cried for a week,” she says.

Physical therapy too has been a slow, steady reclamation of her body.

Anderson has sought healing in yoga and commits herself to daily practise, sometimes twice a day.

The studio has become a sanctuary, void of external judgement or measure, and Anderson has rediscovered her fire in the thrill of self-improvement.

“When you are broken, there are no days off, and there is no reward or gratification from others, no trophy or finish line, but the most immense sense of satisfaction because you did it for you,” she says.

The ability to knuckle down and improve inch by inch has been the secret to both Anderson’s rehabilitation and domination of the paddleboarding game.

“I was a girl from the mountains, I didn’t grow up surfing – and this is fundamentally a surf sport. I was literally a fish out of the water,” she says.
“I got my ass handed to me 1000 times, but you can guarantee that it’s the 1001st time you show up, you make it.”

Honing her skills at the notorious break of west Auckland’s Piha, Anderson dedicated herself to a trial by fire.

“When you keep showing up and you’re prepared to do work, you typically see a progression,” she says.

Despite her world-beating success, Anderson says she doesn’t love paddleboarding any more than her other pursuits; skiing, running, mountain biking, surfing, whatever gets her outdoors.

Her success in the sport – which she attributes to timing and an “immense love for the doing” – became a ticket to further adventures.

“No matter where I’ve found myself in the world – including concrete jungles – I have always found ways to play with what’s on my doorstep,” she says.

“The best thing I’ve ever taken travelling has been a pair of running shoes. It’s been my way of escaping the craziness, to find a moment of solitude, to regather myself.”

And at the end of every season, Anderson would count down the days until she could return to the playgrounds of home.

“I always gravitate back to here. I just need to get high up a hill, thousands of feet above the bull****,” she says.

Just a few miles remain on Anderson’s road to recovery, and she’s keeping her future close to her chest.

Regardless of her next move, it’s clear the path will be entirely her own.
“Whilst sports and competition have been what I’ve done for a really long time, I’m not solely defined by that. I’m a person first – I’ve just done a bunch of stuff which lead to some external recognition and identification by others, but competition isn’t my wife,” she says.

“All I care about is being able to live the game of life to my ultimate potential, and go back to the true reasons of doing.”