George Brannigan spent half of the 2017 and most of the 2018 season either with a broken collarbone or recovering from a broken collarbone. We caught up with the Kiwi rider after an injury-free 2019 season to see what toll the recurring breaks have taken on his body, how mentally taxing it was to have to start from scratch time and time again, and what his goals are for next year.
You had some bad luck last year with injuries. Take me through those.
Yeah, so basically I broke my collarbone 4 times in 1 year, the first time in July 2017 and then the fourth time in July 2018. The first time I broke it with a clean and stable break and also separated my AC joint quite bad. I gave it time to heal, then 4 1/2 months later, I hit a fallen tree going around a fast corner and broke it again. The next two times were just tiny mistakes that resulted in a big crash. Every time it had healed well and I was just getting back on the bike and then it would just be like bam straight on the shoulder again and broken, it was crazy!
Would have you done anything differently in hindsight?
It's like they say, hindsight is a b***h. So yeah I might have done some things a little different, like giving it a lot of time, even though I already gave it months each time but you don't expect at the time when just getting back riding and taking it easy that a big slam would always happen seemingly out of nowhere.
What was the worst part of breaking your collarbone four times?
There was a lot of bad things about it (also a lot of good lessons to take from it though) but mentally dealing with the whole situation after the fourth break was horrible, I then questioned if it was all worth it. The first three were not so bad but the fourth was real tough. I had surgery after the 3rd break and it was all feeling really good and things were really looking up, then same thing - small error and a huge slam. I was basically at rock bottom after that.
I had a radiologist telling me it might never heal again, and another doctor say the same then one say I would need more invasive surgery, etc. That stuff fully took its toll and I was basically thinking I'm screwed. I had quite a bit of anxiety with sleepless nights and stressed about it all for months which I never dealt with before, it sucked! Luckily, I had a good surgeon and physio to re-assure me it should heal though.
What is your process like for coming back from injury?
Basically, just rest for a few weeks and let the break settle and start knitting, then start rehab but it's a long and extensive process followed closely by my physio Pete from Remarkable Physios in Queenstown. There are way too many details to fit in the answer, we did a lot!
Pete saved my arse basically, he really knows his stuff and went above and beyond to help me especially after the fourth break. He saw me pretty much every second day back home and was so keen to make sure everything we could do was done. Then every time I was also taking everything possible like bone broth, collagen, common comfrey as healing supplements and using a bone growth stimulator etc, then check up X-rays along the way. I took half a year off mountain biking after the fourth break to make sure I gave things enough time. By the end of all the breaks it felt like I had just been rehabbing for 18 months.
How does fear play a part when you've been off the bike so many times?
Fear was a big part of why the mental side of this was so hard after the fourth break. Normally I don't really get scared when I ride or race, but I was dealing with a bit of fear in the back of my mind for at least the first half of this season. Even though I did some races in New Zealand I still knew after that many injuries how easily things can go wrong. So it took a long time to start shaking that fear barrier. I normally keep that stuff to myself and don't talk in much detail to people about it, but yeah it definitely affected me.
Before these collarbones, what other injuries had you had?
I have had a few but the biggest two would be two broken ribs with a collapsed lung. Then two torn ligaments in my knee and a torn meniscus. I had knee reconstruction surgery after that which was major but because it was a one of injury I would say it was a breeze coming back from compared to 4 collar bone breaks.
Did you feel pressure to come back too quickly from injury?
It's hard to really say looking back, maybe I did from myself, to be honest, but then again I listened to all medical advice and I have a really good physio and surgeon so I had the best guidance. I have to say GT were really good in being supportive through everything, after that much time away from racing they could have even cut the contract actually but they let me come back and race the second year of the contract. I wanted to return the favour as much as I could this year.
People for sure will have their opinion and think I should have done this or that, but reality is I just had 4 big slams which also injured my AC joint, my SC joint pretty badly and affected my neck, most likely a healthy collarbone would break in most of those case. I think it was just a string of real bad luck.
All-in-all, how would you sum up your 2019 season?
I would say it was pretty good actually all considered, to come back from all that was not easy. I know a lot of people would have doubted I would ever come back from it. At the first World Cup of 2019 I think it had been almost 2 years since I last raced a World Cup, and I qualified 10th and almost finished top 20 in the race.
In some ways, I'm not stoked though because I'm a really competitive racer at heart and knowing where I've been in the past and not quite getting those results is frustrating. But I think I got a little burnt out during the year because I started full-on with rehab and then training loads actually months before I normally would and racing starting in January. So by the time I got to the World Cup season, I had been going for quite a while. Then maintaining the progression for that long was difficult, especially with all I dealt with mentally then pressure to perform but stay healthy.
How are you working towards staying injury-free?
Having a healthy and full 2019 season to now build on is already a huge help. I worked a lot on my focus and mental approach to improve my riding and in doing so help avoid crashing. So I want to do more of that. I'm just stoked to have a short but healthy break for once then soon I'll get stuck into training for 2020.
What are your goals for the coming year?
I just want to get back to the level of riding I was at before all this. I'm pretty fired up now for a good of season and to bring that through into 2020!
Will we see some more videos from you this winter?
That's the plan, I have missed filming a lot since I didn't get much chance to do it. I only like filming when I'm able to actually ride fast because otherwise it looks lame!
Any interest in racing EWS?
I actually really want to give a few a go this year, I've never done an EWS before.
If you weren’t a professional mountain biker, what would you be doing?
Maybe a doctor after all this!