Caryl BeckerFeedback: Physio

A day in the life of an Olympic Physiotherapist

Team GB Chief Physio Caryl Becker recalls a typical day this summer

It's 5.45 am and the alarm goes off as it has done for the past 26 days – at the same time in the same place: the London 2012 Olympic Games Athletes' Village in Stratford.

It's been another night of less than 6 hours' sleep but now there are only a few more days left. I jump up to ensure that no-one else gets into the bathroom and shower before me as today I cannot be late – it's the Women's Modern Pentathlon competition and I am one of the two physiotherapists providing our two athletes with support during their five events, starting with the fencing.

Our physio team consists of seven women (six physiotherapists and one doctor), all sharing one flat. We have four bedrooms and two bathrooms, plus a small living area with two sofas, two beanbags and a television. It is not palatial but it's comfortable and serves us well, especially considering we are only here less than 6 hours in 24.

One big team

Today is a 'white' day, so I pick through my kit looking for a clean, but definitely not ironed, white T-shirt to wear. The 'shirt of the day' is a tradition that Team GB has used at a number of previous Games, to try and create a feeling of all belonging to one big team – one TEAM GB! Due to our team's size – 541 athletes and 400-odd managers, coaches and support staff – London 2012 Olympic Games always had the potential to feel like a number of World Championships all taking place together, but where the ethos of being part of something bigger is still present. The idea that together we are stronger than the sum of our parts often helps us when we’re up against the odds...and if the team's results so far are anything to go by, this philosophy has certainly borne fruit.

Normally I would have a meeting at 7.15 with Dave, Head of Performance Services, and Ian, the Chief Medical Officer. We usually review what happened yesterday and identify what's in store for the day ahead. Not today, though – they will have to plan without me as I have important 'physioing' to do. I run to the 'grab and go' cart at the end of our accommodation block as the main dining hall is a good 10-minute walk away and there is no time. With a croissant and tub of pineapple in hand, I head to the blue bridge to meet the doctor and the other physiotherapist. We all need to be at the Copperbox Arena on the Olympic Park at 7.00 am and it is a 20-minute walk away.

The Copperbox has played host to the group matches of both the men's and women's handball and has already witnessed some fine competition. However, today it's the fencing – the first event of five for the Modern Pentathlon Olympians. The sun is not long up and it is very tempting to stroll through the Olympic Park as there is no-one around and it feels almost spiritual, especially when you think that in about an hour it will be teeming with eager, enthusiastic and noisy crowds.

It's the crowds that have surprised me the most. They have been incredible, with everyone just wanting to touch and feel a little bit of the 2012 Olympics. It has been an honour and a true privilege to share what is in essence my 'day job' with family and friends, as it's the first time any of them have been able to see what I do at such close hand. I slow down and take my last photograph of an empty park, a park that has witnessed some incredible achievements and some deep disappointments, a park that has stood up bold and proud and said to the world, 'Here we are!'

In the warm-up hall the girls are busy putting on their chest protectors and it reminds me a bit of the scene in Blackadder where Baldrick adorns himself with a pair of women's breasts! Suddenly from calmness, mayhem erupts as 32 athletes start their fencing warm-up routines. There are foils clanging everywhere and keeping track of my athlete from across the room is harder than I remember. It takes a lot more concentration than I was up for at 7.20 in the morning!

After 3½ hours, the round-robin fencing competition is over, we get loaded onto a bus and driven over to the Aquatics Centre. The doctor decides to walk but the rest of us get on the bus, as every opportunity has to be taken for treatment so no last-minute meander through the Park for me on this occasion. (I can even remember, during the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, having to treat one of the athletes in the stairwell of the bus en route to the swimming.) At the pool we have just a few moments' pause before the athletes change into their costumes to do a bit of treatment, some loosening and some soft tissue release – then it's off into the training pool before the competition.

After the swimming, in which both girls do very well, we are back on the bus and heading out to Greenwich Park for the final three events. This journey takes a bit longer and there is the chance to have a quick 20 minutes' shut-eye, an opportunity to write up some notes and quickly check emails. It looks like we might get a chance to walk in the Closing Ceremony later tonight – that would be great, having missed out on being part of the Opening Ceremony.

Once at Greenwich the girls change into their riding gear, then disappear off for the draw and to walk the jumping course. As if jumping over 12 fences isn't enough, they have to do it on a horse they have never ridden before! Rather them than me...horses scare me, if the truth be told. Give me a painful lower back to treat, any day. I sit in the stands and shift myself forward in my seat every time a horse is about to jump, as if somehow this will get them over the jump more effectively.

Having had a short time to mobilise the athletes' lumbar and thoracic spine and loosen off around the hips and pelvis before the jumping, there is again only a few minutes to massage the quads, hamstrings and calves before they all go out for the shoot and run – the last two events. Starting from a staggered start (the athlete with the highest number of points from the previous events heads off first), the girls head to the shooting range. Once all five targets have been hit, they make their way out of the arena on the first of three 1km cross-country course laps before re-entering the arena for the second of their three shooting rounds.

Having looked after Modern Pentathlons in both Athens and Beijing, and seen Bronze and Silver medals being won, it's hard not to hope to go one better and witness a Gold...but as the first GB athlete leaves the first shoot in 6th place, my hopes are somewhat dashed. This time there will be no happy ending on the last day of the Games. But wait, after the second shoot she is back up to 4th. Wow, that's great! But there's more...she leaves the third shoot in third place. It's a medal! But wait...could she, could she...she does! She overtakes and she's lying second...the finish line comes too quickly but it's still a Silver medal – what a result! Team GB's 65th medal of the Games – who would have bet on that?

Not every day at the Olympic Games is like this, of course – but every day has the potential to be. There are hard days and fun days, long days and surprising days, disappointing days and days when you feel on top of the world. But every day is special and none more so than the 29 I spent at the Olympic Games in London. I had a unique opportunity that I wish everyone could have experienced. Those of us lucky enough to work with athletes in some small way can be assured that their involvement is part of history. What was achieved in London was incredible – and whether you watched it on television, helped an athlete with their strength and conditioning sessions, trained them when they were six years old or sat in the stands in a Team GB supporter's top, we can all claim to have been part of something special and something that will live long in our memories.


Caryl Becker is a Chief Physiotherapist at the British Olympic Association and Team GB, London 2012.

Please contact Caryl with your comments and queries:

Other articles from this issue of Performance

The hard and fast rule
Muscle management
Do sleds pull their weight – or just drag you down?
Cockpit athletes
Teed off with back pain?
Research Review: Volume 4

Other articles from 'Featured interview'

Interview with Great Britain Bobsleigh Performance Director Gary Anderson
Interview with Laurence Halsted & Rhys Ingram