The accident that nearly ended Sarah Carli’s Olympic dream

Sarah’s love for athletics, resilience and commitment got her to Tokyo 2021

During a routine training session at the gym, Sarah Carli faced a life-threatening injury. After emergency surgery, she was told she couldn’t exercise for five months. Competing in the Tokyo Olympics five months later seemed impossible.

“I still remember the day that I found out I qualified for the Olympics,” Sarah explains.

“I got a phone call and the immediate feeling I had was relief. You spend years training and there are so many variables and things out of your control. It was just a massive weight off my shoulders to know that I was finally going, and it was going to happen for me.”

But the relief Sarah felt after qualifying for the Olympic 400-metre hurdles didn’t last long.

“I had an accident at the gym. I was stepping up onto a box with a bar on my back, slipped and fell, and the bar came down onto my neck,” Sarah explains.

“I ended up in emergency and after having a seizure, I found out that I had dissected my carotid artery, which was an internal tear in the wall of the main artery in my neck that supplies blood to my brain.”

Sarah went into emergency surgery at Wollongong Hospital on the day of her accident. She says she considers herself lucky that there was a doctor on call who had seen the kind of injury she had once before when he was a trainee.

“That was the first time that the doctor was performing that type of surgery,” she says. “They took a vein out of my thigh and put it into my neck to repair the artery.”

When Sarah woke up from the surgery, she was told that she shouldn’t exercise for five months. But the 2021 Tokyo Olympics – her first Olympic Games – was only five months away.

“At that point, the reality of competing at the Olympics was unachievable for me. But after a very long and slow recovery, I was able to compete at Tokyo and I was given the all-clear just six weeks out from the day I toed the line.

“It was a very hard process and felt like an absolute whirlwind.”

Sarah says the experience of competing at the Olympics was incredible.

“There’s no other way to put it,” she says. “You train your whole life to become an Olympian. It’s the pinnacle of sport.”

Becoming an Olympian

Sarah is a Wollongong local. When she was eight years old, she saw an advertisement in her school newsletter for Little Athletics Club. She asked her mum if she could join and fell in love with athletics. She continued to compete with the Club up until the age cut-off of 17.

When Sarah finished school, she wasn’t sure what her next step would be. She applied for university to keep her options open and was accepted into a Bachelor of Business at the University of Wollongong (UOW).

“I did quite well my first year, so I transferred to a Bachelor of Commerce, and I decided to do a major in Management and Finance. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after university, so I picked two majors that were broad, giving me more options.

Sarah admits to finding her studies at university challenging but rewarding.

“The Bachelor of Commerce was very challenging for me, but after four years of study, I still remember standing at my graduation in my gown and cap and feeling proud. It was a very rewarding experience for all my hard work.”

As well as being an elite athlete, Sarah works full-time as a financial adviser.

“In athletics, you have these massive highs and then these massive lows. Having something that's consistent and gives me stability like my job does is super important.

“I could be away competing over the weekend out of state, gunning for a world championship qualifying standard and whatever happens, when I walk through that office door on Monday morning, it's just like any other day. It's very grounding and that's important for me.”

Sarah says that when she crossed the finish line at the Tokyo Olympics, the enormity of everything she had been through to recover from her injury hit her all at once.

“I didn’t realise that I had been holding my breath for five months and I finally let it out.”

Waiting for her when she finished was her coach, also a Wollongong local, who has trained with Sarah for 12 years.

“I saw my coach and we just started to cry together. It was this awesome experience to have her there and know that we did it – we pulled it off.

“It was this big thing, these two girls from the Illawarra who started training together at 15 and 18 and managed to end up at the Olympics.”

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