20 Jan, 2017

No Holding Back


In spite of severe back problems, 31-year-old triathlete Claudia Hazelwood continues taking part in long distance multisport and cycling events, and her love for sport is what drives her to overcome the pain barrier. – BY RACHEL PIENAAR

Back pain and complications run in the Hazelwood family. Tragically, when Claudia was just 10 years old, her mother passed away whilst undergoing a back operation, and when Claudia participated in rowing while at varsity, she also began suffering from back problems, which continued after varsity when she turned her focus to triathlons. “In the beginning, the doctors couldn’t really figure out what was wrong with my back. It was only much later that they discovered that the cartilage in my spine between the bones had been wearing off. In fact, in some places it was already completely worn out.”

To ease the pain and discomfort, the doctors advised Claudia to undergo surgery, but she didn’t want to put her dad through the trauma of having her also go in for a back operation. Instead, she turned to Pilates and other pain-relief treatments to alleviate the pain, increase the longevity of her spine, and allow her to continue pursuing her passion for triathlon.

At school Claudia was an avid sportswoman, but when she began her first year at Wits University, studying to become a chartered accountant, she decided to leave sport behind and focus on her studies, a decision she soon regretted. “I started experiencing withdrawal symptoms, because I missed being active, and being part of a team. I really missed the atmosphere,” says Claudia. So, in her second year, she signed up for the university’s rowing team. “I felt like it would be an amazing challenge, because it was something I had never done before.”

Being naturally competitive, Claudia went all out, putting in extra hours of training for her new sport, and all that hard work eventually earned her a spot on the women’s team to represent South Africa at the 2013 Student World Games in Kazan, Russia. (By that stage she was a lecturer as well as part-time student at Wits.) However, with success came suffering, as the strain on her back really began to take its toll, with the cartilage between Claudia’s spine discs beginning to disintegrate from the combination of standing on her feet all day as a lecturer coupled with vigorous training. “When I didn’t have problems, I would just carry on rowing, but when you are desperate to do well and make the SA team, you have to push through the pain,” says Claudia.

Having decided to switch focus to triathlon after the Student World Games, partly to allow her back a respite from rowing, Claudia continued to have back problems, in spite of regularly visiting the physiotherapist and chiropractor. “I was mainly competing in the Ironman distances, so there was a lot of training involved, which put a lot of pressure on my spine.” That didn’t stop her from completing her first 70.3 Half Ironman in 2014, where she not only won her age category, but also qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Hawaii, where she placed 38th in her age category.

Then in July 2015 her back took a turn for the worse. “I took part in the Challenge Roth in Germany and I had a really good swim, managing a PB time, but the moment I came out of the water it felt like my back had locked. It was almost impossible for me to stand up straight,” says Claudia. Although she went on to finish the race, Claudia had a very slow and painful run, and she says she realised after struggling through two painful transition that she needed more time in each transition to recover and re-adjust, but that is just not possible during a race.

Then the doctors discovered that the discs in her spine had completely narrowed and flattened, and therefore no longer provided any shock absorption for the spine – but Claudia was adamant that surgery was simply not an option. The doctors therefore suggested she take a complete break from all sport, but she was back on her bike after just a month. “I’ve been trying Chiro and Pilates, and my best option now is to go for cortisone injections into the joints in my spine, but all that does is take away the pain temporarily,” says Claudia.

Looking ahead, Claudia says she plans to once again complete the Ironman 70.3 and Full Ironman events in 2017, and says the bottom line is that she’s not going to let her back problems hold her back from doing what she loves. “My love for life comes through training and sports, so that’s why, as silly as it sounds, it would be more painful lying around at home, which is what I did when I took that month off. I didn’t exercise at all, and it was like taking away my passion for life.”