Exercise and Grief - A new chapter in my life after a devastating loss


My former coach and I knew each other for the better part of my life. I first met him when I was 12, just entering adolescence, awkward and lanky, not quite sure of who I was or wanted to be. He was decisive, driven, and decided on the spot that I was going to be a pentathlete - on the German National Team. He had coached others to the international level and with me he said we could reach for the Olympics, the only obstacle was likely to be the national coaches who might try to interfere with the timeline he had in mind. Looking back, the following years were a blur of incredibly intense training, setbacks through injury, celebratory post-victory fast food, Rage against the Machine as motivation for me to run faster and a bond with an individual who came to know me inside out.  He was able to push me through seemingly insurmountable blocks, both mental and physical.

Fast forward ten years, I hadn't qualified for the Sydney Olympics but I had given my all. I made a decision to focus on my academic career rather than wait 4 years for the next chance. I bid the team farewell and went to finish my Masters in Sports Science and Communications. My work eventually brought me to New York and a life far away from athletics. However, after several years of working in an office job, I couldn't ignore the yearning to be fit again. I ran a half marathon and proved to myself that I could still run, I worked out and coached friends, took up martial arts and eventually started doing yoga, which reminded me a lot of the gymnastics my coach had encouraged to improve my swimming. And I discussed everything I did with him via email and phone.

And then he had a skiing accident. He wrote me an email the day after my birthday, saying that he was going in for knee surgery and would call me after he recovered. But he never did. He died of a complication post-surgery.

It has only been 16 months and the void he left is still palpable for me. We were on different continents and leading busy lives but our past always connected us. And just as I had made a conscious decision to break free from my office job and pursue my passion again, I couldn't tap into his well of knowledge any longer. Grieving was a necessary and painful process and a learning opportunity. I turned to what I knew best: exercise. Every run and every yoga class relieved a bit of the heaviness I was feeling. Meditation helped to analyze the feeling and clear the mind.

It's been proven that exercise offers many benefits for coping with grief, just as it does with anxiety and depression; two other common ailments in today's society. Exercise forces us to be out in public again or to connect deep within. It releases endorphins that bring about a sense of well-being and deep breathing releases tension. Grief can strike the body and seriously impact its immune system which can also be prevented by exercising regularly. And ultimately one of the most beautiful ways to honour the loss of a loved one is to race in their name to help others. Because volunteering for a good cause heals, too.

It's long been an aspiration of mine to create a practice based on everything I have learned and to share it with others. This first post feels like an appropriate way to honour the memory of someone who was a great teacher of mine and continues to inspire me. I only wish he was here to witness it.