Nicki Combarro: Team GB's Olympic physio from Walkern
PUBLISHED: 11:29 03 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:29 03 April 2018
While we cheered on our Olympic athletes at the winter games, Walkern’s Nicki Combarro was behind the scenes in South Korea keeping them in the best shape possible
As Lizzy Yarnold shot past on her sled with her head inches from the ice and Billy Morgan flipped through the air off a 50-metre high snowboard ramp on the Pyeongchang mountainside, Nicki Combarro watched their every move from the sidelines. As a lead physiotherapist for Team GB at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, the Walkern mum-of-two tried to stay calm.
‘Your heart is in your mouth because you know that it’s such a high risk sport,’ she said of the snowboarding competition, ‘and that reaching their potential they can also sustain a significant injury if it goes wrong. Our first thought is if they have landed and are they are safe, the second is what’s their score?’
Based at Phoenix Park, she headed up a team of eight physios to look after the Team GB skiers, snowboarders and those competing in the luge, skeleton and bobsleigh events. In total she was responsible for 40 athletes, including all Team GB medal winners – gold medalist Lizzy Yarnold and bronze medalists Laura Deas, Dominic Parsons, Izzy Atkin and Billy Morgan.
Depending on the programme, Nicki would treat athletes at the performance centre at Team GB HQ or attend events, ready to react to any injuries. Stiff joints and sore muscles were a common issue, with physios using massage to treat athletes as well as a machine that provides ice and compression to reduce swelling. Her charges spent a lot of time in the performance centre doing yoga, stretching and mobility activities needed to maintain their flexibility to allow themselves to get into the positions required for the punishing leaps, landings and turns at the limits of their physical abilities.
There were early starts, with the performance centre open from 7am with the inevitable mundane tasks – such as making sure there was coffee and water. Surprisingly, rather than injuries, a major concern for the team was catching a bug, so attention to cleanliness was paramount.
‘Making sure the equipment was clean was a priority,’ the 42-year-old explains. ‘The biggest risk was spreadable illness. You are living on top of each other so you have to be really diligent.’
Her first winter games, Nicki was able to get to know the athletes in the hothouse atmosphere of the 16 days of competition and became a platform for them to share their emotions.
‘It might just be “I was really disappointed in that landing or I know I can do that better,” she explains. We don’t necessary give them any answers, coaching tips aren’t our call, you are just an ear. Sometimes it’s sport related but sometimes it is simply “I didn’t get any sleep last night because the person in my room is snoring like a trouper”.’
With temperatures of -20 with the windchill when the team arrived, they coped with the cold by layering up and having foot warmers. By the end of the games it was a ‘more manageable’ minus five she says. As well as the added chill factor, the wind had a big impact on the ski and snowboard events, with gusts whipping across the mountain.
‘With some of the jumping sports like the snowboard slopestyle, if the boarder takes off and hasn’t worked out where the wind is, they will get blown across and will miss the landing. Or if the wind is coming towards them on take off and slows them down they can’t complete the tricks in the air to be able to land safely. It makes it dangerous.’
With time off to catch some of the other sports, Nicki was lucky enough to be a spectator at the women’s skeleton to watch Team GB Lizzy Yarnold’s attempt to retain her Olympic title.
‘We knew that she had the ability to do it, she is really strong both physically and mentally. She had a bit of a cold and felt bunged up, nothing particularly game changing. After the second race she said to one of the physios at the top “Can I do this? I don’t feel 100 per cent.” She encouraged her to crack on – it’s all about getting your mindset right.’
Nicki said it was wonderful to see Lizzy’s teammates Laura Deas – who swapped horse riding for the skeleton in 2008 – and Dom Parsons both win bronze. ‘Sometimes the medals that you don’t expect are the best ones,’ she smiles.
It was the story of major GB gold hope, speed skater Elise Christie, who suffered a string of crashes, injuries and disqualification, that Nicki admits was ‘a bit of a shocker’. ‘It’s a really tough sport because it’s all or nothing. You have to take that risk and she was just really unlucky on the day. She is world champion so she clearly knows what she is doing but there is always that edge – you have to push yourself that much harder. There were falls left right and centre. You are skating on something that is millimetres thick so you only have to be slightly off balance or get too close to someone.’
She added that Elise aims to return in four years’ time, saying ‘she’s got scores to settle’.
Nicki, who practices at ASK Physio in Stevenage, enjoyed playing sport herself and got into the treatment side of sport after realising ‘I was never going to be good enough to compete at anything more than a recreational level.’ She has experienced many high-level competitions – her first, The World University Games in 2003, was also in South Korea. ‘My most memorable moment was walking out into the stadium at the opening ceremony with the athletes,’ she remembers. ‘The roar of the crowd was amazing and makes my spine chill even now thinking about it.’ Since then, she has been a physio at the Commonwealth Games, and at the London and Rio Olympics.
So how did the Winter Olympics compare?
‘London was good. You speak the language, everyone wants to bend over backwards to help the home nation and if you suddenly get out there and forget something or it’s broken you just over pop over to Westfield. At away games you tend to take more than you need. There are medical centres but it is easier to take supplies. Within an athletes’ village they will only provide medicines on the list but athletes want to know it came from the UK.’
A delegation of around 350 people went to Rio but the winter team was significantly smaller with 59 athletes and a total of around 135 delegates.
‘Team GB go to the games with a one team ethos. By the time we left home I could name everybody on that plane and what sport they were involved in whereas in Rio there were people I hadn’t even met and could only guess their sport if they were six-foot rowers.’
She says she saw the true Olympic spirit shine at the winter games, with nations supporting each other, especially in the skiing and snowboarding events.
‘Our athletes would cheer on the New Zealanders, Canadians and other countries. They were genuinely cheering on the other nations’ performances. I have never seen that before. You could see that across all the events, there was no “Oh, it’s that country again”. It was “Oh, that’s such and such, he’s a good friend.” It was a very friendly environment.’ This spilled over to the volunteers too. ‘In London we had ‘games makers’ and in Pyeongchang there were ‘passion people’. They were as enthusiastic on the last day as they were on day one. The games do not work without those types of volunteers, whether it be driving or just getting some washing powder.’
Of all the competitions, she found the bobsleigh the most thrilling explaining that the television footage doesn’t do it justice. ‘There were a couple of the corners where the sled is right at the top and as a spectator you can almost touch it. I tried to take a selfie with the luge in the background, you think you have got it and then find you have a white background! It was ridiculously fast.’
And after being given the opportunity to try curling at a team-building event, she says it is ‘incredibly hard’.
‘Just the position you have to hold – you are supposed to be balanced on your leg but end up with the weight on your hand which then makes it difficult to release the stone because you would fall over. It is very technical, even the brushing.
‘Although in curling there is no element of risk, injuries can come from being in a sustained position for a long time. The games can take two to three hours so they have a very different profile to the “I’m going to throw myself off a 50-metre high ramp into the air and going to land” ones.’
It was the Big Air freestyle snowboard contest, where athletes shoot down a ski-jump style ramp before attempting awe-inspiring flips and spins in the air, that was the most memorable.
‘I think it was because it was our last event and Billy Morgan is from Southampton near to where I grew up. There were lots of us watching, it was phenomenal. When he got bronze position we were all relying on the rest of the competitors to make mistakes. Because it was the last run, all of the snowboarders were putting in the best tricks they possibly could. They say “go big or go home” and Billy went big.’
The games were the most successful in terms of medals for Great Britain, but Nicki feels some winter sports are underfunded and the games as a whole deserve as much attention as the summer Olympics. ‘We had some fourths and personal bests and the media don’t pick up on this. It is recognising how far some athletes have got – Dave Ryding’s ninth place in the Men’s Slalom is the best GB alpine skiing performance since Martin Bell.’
So would she do it all again in four years’ time? ‘Yes!’ she replies in a heartbeat.
Story of GB’s medals
- Lizzy Yarnold is the first GB athlete to retain a Winter Olympic title, winning the women’s skeleton.
- For the first time at a Winter Games, GB athletes took two medals in the same event with Laura Deas joining Lizzy on the podium with her bronze.
- Dom Parsons won GB’s first men’s skeleton medal since 1948. He was the oldest medalist in Pyeongchang at 30.
- Snowboarder Billy Morgan was the first British man to win a medal on snow with bronze in the inaugural snowboard Big Air event. He carried the GB flag at the closing ceremony.
- Izzy Atkin won GB’s first medal on skis and second medal on snow for Slopestyle. She was the youngest Team GB member at 19.