After breaking her back during training eight years ago, former winter Olympian Stephanie Prem faced a gruelling recovery.
But the 32-year-old has gone from strength to strength in her post-comp career, starting her own pilates studio and recently launching her new Energy & Performance Program powered by Voome. She speaks to Women's Health about overcoming injury, her continued love of snowboarding and the power of pilates.
When and why did your passion for snowboarding begin?
My parents have always been avid skiers and shared their love of the slopes from an early age. We spent most of my childhood at Mount Buller, where I actually started skiing. It wasn’t until I was 11 years old that my dad introduced me to snowboarding for the first time and it was an instant love affair. I remember this one-day on the slopes that I was racing dad and he reached the bottom feeling pretty happy with his effort but much to his surprise I was already at the bottom tapping my watch as if to say, what took you so long. There was no turning back for me after that.
How much training did you need to do in the lead up to a competition?
A lot of people misunderstand the level of fitness and strength it requires to be successful at snowboarding. Snowboarding works your body to a whole new level, anyone who tries it for the first time will understand the next day just how hard your body worked. I trained all year round for competitions, during the off-season I would train in the gym and in-season I would train all day on the snow. As a professional athlete, snowboarding was my full time job so 30 hours of intensive training per week was normal in the lead up to a big competition season.
What was your biggest sporting achievement, and what did it feel like to achieve this?
Competing at the Olympics was a career highlight. There aren’t many other achievements for an athlete that can compare to the incredible and overwhelming experience of an Olympic games. However, before the Olympics, I was the Australian, French, German and Canadian national champion, which was incredibly rewarding to me as well and gave me the drive to push through to the Olympics.
Tell us a bit about your injury. How did it leave you feeling?
In 2010, on my last run of the snowboarding season, I lost that little part of my soul at the World Cup finals in Italy. I’d just recovered from a heavy fall at the Vancouver Winter Olympics a couple of months earlier, where I’d suffered some rib damage, but I was determined to finish the season on a high.
After training all morning and running the course several times, I decided to attempt the final 60ft jump. I’d hit many jumps similar to that size before, but many girls had hurt themselves that morning. When I came around the last corner, I hesitated slightly. I knew the minute my board left the jump that something was wrong. It was a frightening feeling. I was already in the air, and I had enough time to think to myself, “Sh*t. I’m in trouble.”
And I was. I didn’t make the landing. Instead, I came straight down and hit the flat, missing the landing and the transition. My physiotherapist described it as the equivalent of falling off the first floor of a building onto concrete and similar to the impact of a car accident. The left side of my body took the impact. I fractured and compressed the L4 and L5 vertebrae in my spine [the two lowest in the lumbar], and had nerve damage, broke five ribs, subluxed my hip, did damage to my pelvis, tore my hamstring and had haematoma and severe spinal whiplash damage. It was horrific to say the least. It left me bedridden and the pain was excruciating. I knew it was the beginning of the end of my professional sporting career.
What did your recovery involve and how long did it take?
During the first six weeks after my accident, I was heavily sedated with serious hematomas and I wasn’t able to do anything, not even fly back home to Australia. Mentally, that was harder for me than the physical pain. The first year of rehab involved low-intensity corrective exercise rehabilitation sessions and alignment work every day, twice a day if I could. It was really about piecing my body and mind back together. It took four more years of intense clinical Pilates, corrective exercise, physiotherapy, chiropractic treatments, sport phycology and myotherapy to get my body back into working order.
What motivated you during your recovery?
I held on to the idea of being able to snowboard again. I was determined to compete again and hoped I would bounce back - but unfortunately it was not the case. When I realised I would never compete again, I hit rock bottom and took all of my strength to shift my focus to just being able to get back to feeling myself again and being able to surf, do pilates and walk without pain. I was constantly faced with set backs during my recovery and it became essential to stay positive and continue to reassess my recovery goals and be the healthiest and happiest version of myself.
What is your life like now, post competition?
My life is very rich! Rich with health, experiences, friendships and happiness! It took many challenging years of recovery and growth to move past professional sports and find a new path in my life. I honestly believe that things happen for a reason and without my accident I wouldn’t have the health I have today, which I openly say is better than it was than when I was an athlete. At my business, Studio PP, I get to coach some very inspirational people as well as work alongside some amazing women. I absolutely love being able to help people achieve their health and fitness goals.
Have you been back on a snowboard since your accident?
Yes - I took two years off following my accident but have been back on my board as often as I can ever since. Even though I’m not competing, I’m very grateful I am still able to board because it brings me so much joy. My husband is Austrian and shares my love of the mountains. We hope to continue snowboarding well into our 90s.
What skills have you taken from Olympic competition that you now use in your day to day life?
I think there are lots of transferable skills from competing in the Olympics that can be applied to day-to-day life. As an athlete you are obsessed with achieving peak performance in your sport – during my recovery, I realised that I can apply this mindset to every aspect of my life. I have built my business, Studio PP, around this mindset and I love challenging my clients to achieve optimal performance in both their health and wellbeing.