An Olympic champion hopes runners learn from his head injuries
By Matthew Futterman
When the crashes were happening in the early 1990s, when Derrick Adkins was emerging as one of the world’s top hurdlers, he never thought that the most damaging and lasting injuries he experienced would be the ones he could not see.
Adkins focused on the cuts and bruises his body endured as it banged and skidded across the track or, in one case, a broken collarbone that had cracked all the way through. Each time, he had been dazed and jarred from banging his head, but over time, those symptoms subsided.
Or maybe they just shifted. By 1996, when Adkins was preparing for the Atlanta Olympics, where he would win the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles, he was battling depression. He stopped taking the psychiatric medication doctors had prescribed because they made him feel slower. Winning the gold medal made him feel nervous and uneasy rather than jubilant. He did not make the U.S. Olympic team in 2000.
For more than two decades after his triumph, he struggled with mental illness and alcoholism, even as he held down coaching jobs at Columbia and Nyack College and a position at New York Road Runners. He held a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech but could not put it to use.
He never understood why his life had veered so far off course. Then, in 2020, a brain scan revealed lingering damage to his frontal lobe, and the doctor asked him a question: Did you ever hit your head?
It is impossible to know if the brain injuries Adkins suffered during those hurdling crashes led to the problems he was experiencing. All he knows for certain is how different he feels since he changed his medication in order to address the damage that the scans revealed.
“I’m a lot closer to the person I was,” Adkins said recently over juice and tea in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, New York.
Adkins, who coaches at the Central Park Track Club in New York and is a roving lecturer for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said the last thing he wanted anyone to take away from his story was that hurdling was a dangerous activity that should be avoided.
Track-and-field events — even the riskier ones, such as pole vaulting and high jumping — bear little resemblance to contact sports such as football, hockey or lacrosse. Studies have shown that just 1% to 3% percent of track-and-field injuries affect the head and neck; close to 80% affect the lower limbs.
Adkins’ story is a cautionary tale, however, especially as the indoor track season starts and runners of all ages and speeds start going over hurdles again. Hurdlers run so fast these days that they can lose their coordination as they prepare to jump, leading to painful, high-speed crashes.
Jim Hurt, who recently retired after 39 years coaching track and field at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, said running coaches had started paying attention to the possibility of brain injuries only in the past decade or so, in large part because of the attention given to traumatic brain injuries in contact sports.
“Concussions became much more of an issue,” Hurt said. “The chance for a concussion is low in track, and it would be a rare occurrence, but anytime a kid would fall and hit his head, it’s something you want to be concerned about.”
Runners at St. John’s and other colleges and high schools take a cognitive test before the season so that if they experience a head injury, there is a baseline to compare their brain function with when coaches are determining if they are ready to compete again.
Some runners are being more careful about hurdling in wet or windy conditions. Grant Holloway, silver medalist in the 110-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics, was criticized for pulling out of a race in Bermuda in April because of high winds. Adkins said Holloway had made the right decision.
And yet, as Adkins has begun speaking publicly about his experiences, he still finds that plenty of runners and coaches rarely think about head injuries and the lasting damage they can cause. Track athletes, he said, will spend months nursing a muscle strain but think nothing of racing or pole vaulting with a foggy head or dizziness. Your brain is more important than your hamstring; treat it that way.
“My message is, if an athlete hits their head, even once, they should get their head checked out, preferably through a brain scan,” Adkins said. “Don’t examine and treat the bodily injuries only like my trainers did with me. Examine the head as well, and be vigilant about the fact that emotional difficulties may result, not just head pain.”