A string of injuries has meant Laura Waitman has had to watch from the sidelines as her team-mates excel at major championships, but the European and Commonwealth medalist is confident she is still making a mark
Laura Weightman is smiling, but it’s been a rough morning. First she endured a swim in a cold pool and then – just when she needed it the least – she had the added challenge of having to endure a cold shower. Relatively speaking, the broken heating of the entertainment center was only a minor problem. A series of related injuries that led to knee surgery last September put her resolve to the test.
The two-time European 1500m medallist, who had only just begun to reveal her full potential over 5000m with a seventh-placed finish at the 2019 World Championships final, was in fantastic form when a seemingly harmless knee tweak briefly interrupted her rhythm She didn’t stop there. Indeed, in 2020 – a lockout year forgotten for many athletes – she recorded personal best times in the 1500m (4:00.09), 5000m (14:35.44) and 5km (15:10). “I thought about it [the niggle] it was a bit weird but it was good so we carried on,” says the 31-year-old from Morpeth.
However, things soon went wrong. Weightman ruptured her central plantar (calf) tendon in November 2020 and did not run again until early January 2021. She worked her way back into fitness with a period of base training in the UK, followed by an altitude camp in Boulder. Colorado, where, according to her coach Steve Crum, she did workouts she’d never done before. “I was just flying,” she reflects. “There have been some really positive signs.”
Then, in May, leading up to the 2021 British Championships, which doubled as the Olympic trials, the grumbling knee returned. “We just couldn’t pin it down,” she says, her frustration still evident. “Then I tore my left hamstring during the week of trials.”
Although this problem was an unwelcome interruption that thwarted any Olympic ambitions, it was relatively minor. A ‘tender’ lateral Achilles followed in August and in September Weightman contracted Covid. She took the opportunity to pause and readjust.
Like the incredible training in Boulder, returning to racing after six weeks of training and clocking 31:44 in the Ribble Valley 10km – her second fastest time at the distance – gave her hope and motivation to keep going.
A great training camp in Potchefstroom, South Africa, in January 2022 provided another highlight, but soon after returning to the UK, Weightman’s knee again required attention. This time, the scan revealed a tear, but two days later, that recurring concern became minor as she tore her calf. Such a serious injury forced three months without running, leading to another missed summer. At that point, Weightman and her team decided to fix it as a priority before future knee surgery.
Ann Instagram post in June 2022 reads like deja vu. “Unfortunately, I will not be competing at the British Champs this weekend,” she wrote. “I’ve had a challenging few months dealing with a soleus injury and I’m just not ready to race…”
As he had done 12 months earlier, Weightman regained fitness relatively quickly, thanks in part to an effective cross-training program. By July she was putting together some great track training and was confident that by the end of August she might have the chance to try out a few road races, not least to give her confidence in her abilities.
“And then my knee started bothering me again,” she says, resigned to the inevitable diagnosis. “We scanned it and it was significantly worse than February. The only option at that point was surgery.
Weightman has experienced an unfortunate and frustrating series of events, but her optimism and ability to make the best of each moment is admirable.
She had knee surgery in September and is now fully immersed in a rehabilitation program that began with two and a half weeks completely unloaded back at her parents’ house before returning (home) to Leeds.
“I took a very cautious approach,” she explains. “I’ve been slow on purpose because I want to do it right. I don’t want to rush it and be in a position where I need additional surgery.
“The first five to six weeks was a very light rehab in terms of letting the wounds heal, activating my quads, building my range of motion and slowly getting into toe tapping and weight bearing. At this point we were happy that my wounds had healed enough for me to start swimming, so I increased that from twice a week to four to five days a week. I’m also back in the gym.
“When I saw the surgeon at my eight-week scan, he said my knee was more stable than it was in August, but it wasn’t strong. The second phase of rehabilitation is now about starting the knee in a weight-bearing range of motion to build strength back into the meniscus. Basically now I start bending my knee and doing little mini squats, mini step ups, mini lunges, all in a controlled range. It’s a very painstaking process, but I’m already seeing progress every week.”
Although Weightman’s focus recently has been off the track, her British teammates have been able to make it. Dealing with an injury is difficult, but watching others perform on television and social media adds another, complicated dimension.
“It’s been incredibly challenging to be on the sidelines and watch championships that I want to be in because I just love to compete,” she says; “but I was also inspired by watching people’s performances and thinking, ‘I can do that or I want to go back there.’ That’s extra motivation to keep going.
“I had to draw a line under what I did before. With a healthy body, a healthy knee… I know I can run again, so it’s almost like switching off, relaxing and focusing on the here and now. I can’t sit on the sidelines, jealous or worried about what other people are doing because that will only slow down the recovery.
“It didn’t change my levels of motivation, determination and belief in myself to come back, it just made me stop and think and think, ‘You know what, how lucky I was to be doing this for so long?’ I’m not giving up or stopping, I still want this, but I’ve realized that I’ve been lucky to have this career so far. I just have to go slow at this point, take my time and give myself a chance.”
Weightman has been inspired by glimmers of hope over the past two years, little reminders during sessions or in rare races that point to future potential waiting to be realized. She has also seen friends successfully undergo major surgery and cites European triathlon champion Non Stanford as a huge inspiration.
She can’t put a time frame on her return to running. Importantly, she now knows that the damage — resulting from running with some level of knee tear for two to three years — is the likely cause of her recurring injuries.
“Going through it, I’d be lying if I said it was easy because physically and mentally it was really hard,” she says. “There have been days where I have literally wanted to run away and forget about it, but seeing Non come back has made me believe that I can do the same and have a few more years in the sport on my terms.
“Recently someone asked me to share my journey and I said I can’t because it’s not finished. There’s still that underlying motivation of ‘what can I do with a healthy body?’ It’s not the end.”
» This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue of AW magazine. Subscribe to AW Magazine here