#NotLyingDown is the ubiquitous slogan on triple-Olympic Champion Pete Reed’s Instagram account. It aptly describes Reed’s relentless perseverance through all his setbacks, including his most recent, a spinal stroke.
In September 2019, Reed had just retired from full-time rowing. One of Great Britain’s most decorated Olympians, he won gold in three consecutive Olympics and was famous in testing for having the world’s largest recorded lung capacity.
After rowing, Reed returned to the Royal Navy, which he’d joined at the age of 18. It was there that he’d first discovered rowing. At the age of 19, he posted the fastest time in the Royal Navy Rowing Championship; it was his first time on the RowErg.
During naval training, Reed started to feel ill and went to the hospital where he suffered a stroke in the middle of his spine. The condition is extremely rare and doctors are unsure what caused it. It left Reed paralyzed from the chest down. The Olympian was determined to make the best possible recovery.
The first step was to enter rehab, where Reed started to gain back his strength. One of the tools in his pocket?: the SkiErg. “Getting settled into rehab, I knew that I wanted to try the SkiErg,” Reed says. “There were a few reasons. I knew the movement pattern, I knew that I could do it. It's important to me that it's very accessible, so it's easy to just roll up to it, in my wheelchair and then just grab the handles and off I go.” It is hard to take the athlete out of someone like Reed, and accordingly, he made himself a plan. He started in small increments.
“When I first came to rehab, I did 20 minutes and it was hard. I sat on a bench, not in a wheelchair. Periodically I'd topple backwards to lay flat on the bench because at that time in my rehab I didn't have enough core muscles to even sit upright,” he says. Slowly he increased to 30 minutes, then to 45.
Reed is careful to point out that progress is a matter of where you measure yourself. “It's really important that you don't compare yourself to where you used to be. It's really important that you just compare yourself to yesterday. And work hard to be slightly better tomorrow,” Reed says. He then goes on with an example, “I used to sit comfortably on the rowing machine at 1:45 split. If I was comparing my 2:30 splits now to 1:45, I'd never get on the machine in the first place. I'd be sad and depressed that I can't do that anymore and am not good enough and all those thoughts. But actually, if you’re grateful for what you did and realistic about it, move the goal posts. Suddenly you're comparing yourself to yesterday and to 2:30 and then 2:29 looks great.”
As Reed describes his training and the splits he has accomplished, he also reminisces about the familiarity of the PM5 monitor. “The PM5, I've grown up looking at that screen and I'm very familiar with the numbers, with the splits and all of the settings, so it's sort of a comfort, in a strange way. It's a real comfort to get back onto that machine and to be able to exercise. I am really, really grateful for it,” he says. And the machine has plenty of other advantages. Particularly its level of accessibility and ease of use. For someone like Reed, with a high level of injury, it removes another barrier to sport. “That's really important, in all sports, to remove the barrier between you on the sofa, working up the courage to go do your exercise and actually doing it. If there aren't any barriers, you tend to go and do it quite easily and that's what I like about the SkiErg, there are zero barriers, you just roll up, grab the handles and off you go.”
Reed was already familiar with the SkiErg pre-injury. He and teammates on the British Rowing team used the machine for training if they suffered injuries, especially in the lower limbs. “There were wonderful examples from my teammates throughout that time of doing half a season on the SkiErg rather than the rowing machine, and then finishing the season off with some of the best scores they have on the rowing machine,” Reed says. “So it was a really good tool at keeping your heart and lungs going.”
“I knew it was good from then. And now I've had my big injury and am working back through that process,” Reed continues. He says through luck he still has arm, shoulder and lat strength. “Because I've got my lats and obviously I'm sitting down, that's still quite a big muscle group to work. So it means that I can really work up a proper sweat and lung exercise, while all of the other muscle groups I've got left are much smaller, so the muscles tend to die out before my lungs get out of breath. So that' s why the SkiErg has been so important to me. And emotionally as well,” he says.
While Reed says rowing isn’t off the table for him yet, he prefers to look forward, not back. Every step of the way, trying to progress, to be slightly better than yesterday. The former Olympian will not go lying down.