Exclusive: Perri Shakes-Drayton on her comeback from injury and the road to Tokyo

To call Perri Shakes-Drayton anything short of a comeback queen would frankly be an insult.

One of the most recognisable figures in British athletics, the 30-year-old has spent the majority of her career battling sport’s immovable spectre – injuries. It’s been over half a decade since Shakes-Drayton suffered the knee strain that would slam the brakes on her medal hopes, arriving just as a place on the World Championship podium looked inevitable.

Yet, sitting down exclusively with GiveMeSport, she reflected on those tough moments with the same defiance that has made her a world-class competitor all her life. Whether it’s staring into the eyes of doctor bearing bad news or shear-wielding South Africans trying to mug her, Shakes-Drayton has taken everything in her stride, whether her body lets her or not.

Speaking as honestly as ever, the Olympian recalled: “We were going for the gold in Russia and it didn’t go that way. I felt ready, I did feel ready but my body really wasn’t. Whether it was too many races or what, I don’t know but I went over the first hurdle and then something didn’t feel right.

“I always describe my knee as going wobbly and I ended up finishing seventh in that race, when I clearly should have come home with a medal. I had no idea what I had done to myself but I had a lot of the medical team saying: ‘Oh Perri I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’

Recovering from injuries

“I was like: ‘What are you apologising for? I’ll be back in a few weeks’ and that clearly wasn’t the case. I was flown home in the early hours of the morning straight to see a surgeon, I had a scan and it showed that I had damaged my cartilage and PCL.”

Such an uncommon injury would go on to plague Shakes-Drayton for the next four years, the very timespan of an Olympic cycle, and would ensure regular visits to the operating theatre. However, it’s perhaps the timing of these injury issues that would deliver the deepest blows and no less than on a fateful trip to South Africa on the brink of recovery.

“I went to South Africa, it was my first time running, you’re feeling good and full of life, my coach let me go off,” the 400-metre hurdler described. “I was at training camp and I walked back by myself because he had to see to other athletes. 

Narrow escape in South Africa

“What happened to me was: I was bubbling along to my music, headphones in and forgetting I was in South Africa, where not everybody is as fortunate as me and they wanted to rob me for my headphones.

“Being me, I was like: ‘nah’ and ran from them, but I had just learnt to run again. They had shears held up in front of me, which was frightening, so my reaction was just to run. After that, I had to have surgery to my knee because I don’t know what I had done. Obviously, I was running at a speed I shouldn’t have been running at because I’d just recovered.”

If there are such things as sporting gods, they were certainly playing a cruel game of fate on that very day. Injuries can be isolated to the minutest of ligaments and fibres, but their impact can pervade months, seasons and years – as Shakes-Drayton knows too well.

The mental side to recovery

However, in those moments of rehabilitation away from the track, it’s the mental permutations that are the acknowledged as the most challenging. The World medalist reflected: “It’s hard. You just feel like: ‘what did I do to deserve this?’

“I didn’t want to watch any athletics and when athletics was on the television, I was not interested because I knew I was better than the athletes that everybody was singing and praising about. It was hard for me to watch and be like: ‘I’m just here nursing this knee wound and I’ve been forgotten’ because that’s what happens, the next person is going to come along. 

“I had to stay in my own lane, concentrate on my own things, expect my own little goals and be happy with progress.” It’s that focus in adversity that has made Shakes-Drayton one of the strongest athletes on the circuit and her triumphant return to world-class competition owed so much to her own mental fortitude.

Returning to the track

Six years after bagging a medal in the 2011 World Championships, collecting a bronze in the 4x400m relay, Shakes-Drayton was back in the British vest that was formerly a second skin. It was her second opportunity to perform in front of a home crowd and unlike London 2012 – a mixed competition on her own admission – there was to be medal success once again.

“Being the determined person that I am, I’d done my rehab and I kept saying to myself: ‘I’ll be back, I’ll back’ and I did come back in 2017. I managed to make the team, not in the individual – I would make the individual like it was nothing, but things had changed – it was the relay and I was grateful for that. 

“When you’re told you might need a Plan B and that you might not come back, I was grateful and happy to have that British vest on. It was nice to come back but for me, it was building. That’s what you begin to realise, it wasn’t overnight that I became this magnificent athlete, it took many years of grinding to get to where I was. 

Doha 2019 and Tokyo 2020

“So, 2018 came along and I got injured again – I went from this athlete that never got injured to there always being something wrong with me. Obviously I’m getting older as well, this is not 16-year-old Perri, this is a women and I have to be smart with my training now.”

It’s easy to get into a spiral of negativity when injuries are – or at least seem – to be emerging cyclically. However, Shakes-Drayton has grabbed the situation by the horns and took the decision to switch coaches and change environments. That way, the Londoner could ensure she wouldn’t be leaving the sport with any regrets; trying everything in her power to succeed.

The next opportunity for Shakes-Drayton to impress will be the 2019 World Championships and the prospect of a third global medal is one that motivates the hurdler. “I would love to be a part of that team,” she replied with a smile. “I’ve managed to recover from the injury I had in 2018 and I’m with a new coach, it’s very different and I can’t put too much pressure on myself.

“I’m going through the motions, but I know the bigger picture and where I want to be is in Tokyo.”

An inspiring athlete

Any and every athlete that represents their country at the Olympics has a special type of mentality that raises them above the rest, Shakes-Drayton included. However, to see the 30-year-old at the Tokyo Games would represent something more than that and bring a journey – which would defeat many athletes, never mind mere mortals – full circle.

Climbing the podium? Now, that would be sporting poetry and, from the lows that injuries brought, a truly Everestian ascent. The talent is there, it always has been, but Shakes-Drayton will have to hope that her new training regime will bring the fortune and results that her hard work deserves. 

It’s unfortunate that a career born in brilliance has been punctuated by so many injuries, but if it means Shakes-Drayton is remembered for her power in adversity then surely it was all worth it, in the end.

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