Photo courtesy of Naomi Baker Sport Photography
They travel through the water, propelled by lean oars that slice with barely a trace—a continuous, synchronistic cycle. Breathing in. Breathing out. Gathering force. Breathing in again.
For 24-year-old Bermudian Shelley Pearson, rowing is like breathing. Living without it is simply unimaginable.
“I can remember the moment I fell in love with the sport,” says Shelley. “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.”
With multiple U.S. National Championships, a World Rowing Junior Championships gold medal and numerous honors in national collegiate and international competitions, some might say it’s in her genes. Her father competed for Bermuda in running, her brother in basketball. But beyond family tradition is a relentless determination in spite of a fractured pelvic bone, torn tendon and nine hospital procedures in three years.
“It has made me realize I am resilient and also how much of it is mental rather than physical.”
Shelly was a junior at Harvard College when she began experiencing discomfort in her legs and hips. At first, she thought it was rowing-related, just normal wear and tear.
She pushed through the pain.
After her squad won the title at the 2012 Ivy League Women’s Rowing Championship, earning them a spot at the Henley Royal Regatta, she continued to train. The pain persisted.
“The trainer had me get an MRI. We thought it was a labral tear, but I found out I had an aneurysmal bone cyst on my pelvis.”
Photo courtesy of Naomi Baker Sport Photography
What is an aneurysmal bone cyst?
An aneurysmal bone cyst is a blood-filled, fibrous tumor-like lesion. Although benign, aneurysmal bone cysts can be fairly destructive because they deform the bone and cause fractures.
At a local Boston hospital, Shelley was injected with an anti-inflammatory, enabling her to compete in the Head of the Charles that fall. But a month later, while simply getting up from a couch, she fractured her pelvic bone.
“One of the coxswains on my team worked in the Department of Radiology at Boston Children’s Hospital. She told me Boston Children’s treats this disorder and explained that because it is a pediatric disorder — not an adult disorder — I wasn’t too old to be a patient.”
A few weeks later, Shelley met with interventional radiologist Dr. Horacio Padua at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“He sat with me for an hour to discuss what I had and what had happened, and I felt better. I felt like there was hope for me.”
Shelley learned the anti-inflammatory — which seemed to remove her pain — actually had masked her pain, preventing the inflammation process from initiating the healing process.
She also learned she would need a sclerotherapy procedure, a minimally invasive procedure involving needles placed under sophisticated image guidance. In fact, she would require a total of nine sclerotherapy procedures over the next three years, all performed by Boston Children’s interventional radiologist Dr. Raja Shaikh.
“Shelley’s disease was very aggressive and kept recurring quickly after treatments, each treatment being long and challenging,” says Shaikh.
Shelley would take a week off for a procedure, train for a week and then have another procedure.
“Dr. Shaikh wasn’t super thrilled, but he knew what I wanted to do, and he helped me do it. He was incredible.”
The intense training began to take its toll in February of 2014. An MRI revealed the aneurysmal bone cysts had resurfaced. Shelley had been invited to the final trial for the 2014 UK Nationals.
“Right before the trials in April, I knew something wasn’t right. I ended up tearing a tendon attached to pelvic bone. I was in a lot of pain. We ended up getting seventh, but there was no way for me to make the team.”
Crestfallen, Shelley flew back to Boston. It was time to take a couple of months off from rowing to allow her body to heal. “It wasn’t what I wanted to believe, but Dr. Shaikh reminded me I have more to offer the world than rowing.”
“I felt very responsible, not just for her recovery, but to make sure that she was able to live her life to the fullest,” says Shaikh.
She changed her plans, took the summer off and got a job in Philadelphia working with an education start up, creating a curriculum for an intercity after-school program. It was challenging but also, she says, “a blessing.”
In the autumn of 2014, Shelley arrived at Oxford University — on crutches. She had been accepted into the Master in Education program. She also was determined to row for Oxford’s team.
“I didn’t stop to think about it. These are the things I want to do, and I am going to figure out a way to do them.”
Getting back into shape wasn’t easy, but by springtime she was ready to compete in the historic Oxford versus Cambridge Boat Races along the River Thames with thousands of spectators, including one cheering her on another continent.
“I was so excited when I found out that Dr. Shaikh even watched me on TV. And we won. It was my way of saying ‘thank you.’”
Rowing for Rio
Shelley is back at Oxford this fall to earn her MBA — and back in the boat. Now in her 10th year of competitive rowing, she’s set her sights on competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. If she qualifies, it would make her the first woman to represent Bermuda in rowing at the Olympics.
She takes each day as it comes, acknowledging the cysts could recur at any time, and if they do, she is willing to accept whatever comes her way, even if that means coaching rather than competing.
“I am not afraid. I do love life with rowing, but my experience has helped me realize how much more the world has to offer, and what I have to offer the world.”