aging · fitness · Guest Post

Aging is a Pain: Or is it? (Guest Post)

As I was preparing for the Senior Canadian Curling Championships my recurring knee and shoulder injuries were making it hard for me to curl my best. On the ice, I was in constant pain. I needed to get help and to get help fast. A local physiotherapist was recommended to me, but I was skeptical. I’ve been to a dozen physiotherapists, without much luck. Many have made assumptions about my physical ability and age, which ticked me off. At the same time, I was desperate to relieve the pain. Why? It wasn’t so I could get a better sleep or take less Ibuprofen, it was so that I could curl better — full stop.  That’s what a lifetime of competing, pushing, and playing does. The academic in me is critical of this. The curler in me is not. The aging woman in me … well the jury is still out because, I can’t lie, it’s getting harder.

When you identify as a curler you tend to get curling related presents that I love, like this beautiful, handcrafted ornament from my daughter for Christmas.

I reluctantly made an appointment with my physiotherapist, Nelson, who turned out to be very young and very fit. This could go badly, I thought. As he was collecting information about me, he learned that I was a curler. He very quickly informed me that he is often mistaken for one of Canada’s most famous curlers, Brad Gushue (2022 Canadian Men’s Olympic Skip).

Connection made … check. Rapport built … check.

As Nelson was assessing my injuries, he told me that “the best thing for you to do right now is rest, but I know you are not going to do that so let’s see what we can do”.  I liked this for a couple of reasons. First, there was nothing said about being a woman of a certain age and the importance of scaling back at that age; things that I have heard way too often. Second, he respected that I am an athlete who needs to curl, and to curl well.

Five weeks later and we were off to our competition. I felt a lot better. Not perfect, merely better. But then, what is feeling perfect? For me, there is not a day that goes by where I don’t feel physical pain. As I’m writing this post, my hamstrings are sore, different bits in my back are stiff, and my shoulders ache. As a society, our tendency is to attribute the pain I feel to the fact that I am a 56-year-old woman. But this kind of attribution is simplistic, essentialist, and quite frankly, ageist.

Ageist assumptions about pain permeate other domains of life too. Several years ago, my colleague, Kim Shuey, and I wrote a  paper on aging and the perception of disability in the workplace. We found that workers who attribute their disability to aging are less likely to ask for workplace accommodations and are less likely to receive them even if they do ask.

Feeling “perfect” for me is living with some degree of pain, regardless of my age. It is difficult for me to know how much of my pain I should blame on aging or the spinal fusion surgery I had when I was 11 years old to improve a major case of scoliosis. My back is fused from top to bottom, and as a result, other body parts get stretched to their limits. I don’t think that I have lived a day since my surgery where I haven’t experienced pain. I’m used to it and I’m telling you this because it shows that we need to interrogate our assumptions about the relationship between aging and pain.

Interrogating, however, does not mean ignoring. Competing, pushing, and playing is getting harder. Particularly over the last 5 years, recovery time is longer, more body parts hurt at once, and injury is more prevalent. All of this makes the motivation to train more challenging; especially with a pandemic making it unclear whether my team will have an opportunity to play. Why continue? Because I love curling, the curling community, the exercise, and competing.

So, what says the aging woman jury? — Rest!

But I think not. I guess my identity as a curler is stronger than my identity as an older woman, at least for today.

Or my favourite toque hand knit by the fabulous Dr. Lauren Briens.
competition · fitness · Guest Post

I am a curler: ‘A What?’, you ask?

I am a curler, and I’ve been curling since I was 12 years old. Some of you may know my sport. Others may be wondering about what it is or have a vague idea that it is an Olympic sport played on ice. In our household, when we ask Alexa what its favourite sport is, the reply is this; “Curling is my kind of game, it’s like chess on ice, if chess was played with tiny brooms”. As scary as it is that Alexa responds to us this way, we have often referred to the strategy involved in curling as, ‘chess on ice’. Good curlers think three to four moves in advance as they plan their play. Curling brooms aren’t that tiny though. They are about four feet-long, they are made of a light durable material with a fabric bottom that is used to brush the ice surface. Curling is a difficult game to explain, and I can’t do it justice here. If you want to learn more, check out the World Curling Federation’s 2-minute guide to curling.

            One member of the team directs the play, a second throws the curling stone, and the remaining two members of the team sweep. Photo credit: Robert Davies

Since 1988, when curling was a demonstration sport at the Calgary Olympics, it has been the brunt of jokes. Late-night television hosts and comedians seem to get a big kick out of it (see Ellen Degeneres, James Corden, Stephen Colbert, and Rick Mercer to name a few). It has made appearances on The Simpsons, The Little Mosque on the Prairie, and in several movies (e.g., Help) and songs (e.g., The Weakerthans’ Tournament of Hearts). In the best-case scenario, my sport is depicted as a novelty, but in most cases, it’s seen as a bit of a joke. Just last week, Saturday Night Live made fun of curling after NBC pulled their broadcasting of the International Olympic Qualifying tournament because it had a sex toy company as one of its leading sponsors. This is a story so interesting that it deserves its own post!

Am I offended by these jokes? Not really. Whenever curling gets mentioned or when I see images related to curling, I get excited because it means that my sport is no longer ignored. But it is odd to be an athlete who plays a sport that most folks either don’t know about or don’t take very seriously. Yet, the fitness, agility, strength, precision, and mental resilience required to curl should not be discounted. My family and I have taught a lot of athletes from other sports how to curl, and without exception they say “this is harder than it looks”. A few former NFL players decided to get a team together so that they could represent the United States at the Olympics in curling. That didn’t go so well.

Images of curling rocks used to identify physical distancing in Vancouver.

My Nova Scotian curling team recently competed at the Canadian Senior (aged 50 and over) Women’s Curling Championships. As an aside, the title sponsor for this event is a funeral concierge service, which makes most of us laugh. We played 12 games (each game lasts about 2 hours) over 6 days and finished with a bronze medal. Bronze medal games are tough but I’m proud that my team hung in there. On our way home, we arrived at the Toronto Airport and of all days, the escalator to get to our gate was broken. Ouch!, is all I have to say about that.

Team Nova Scotia after winning bronze at the Canadian Senior Women’s curling championship. Four very happy women! Photo Credit: Curling Canada

I am an old (er), competitive curler, and I love my sport. My relationship with curling has changed over the years but my identity as a curler has not. I’m becoming very interested in how athletes age within a sport and how this relates to their identity. But more on that another time.