Red-hot Bruntil faced and overcame the fire of injuries to find success

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Updated: February 23, 2022

Editor’s Note: Emma Bruntil, who won national championships from McKendree University in 2020 and 2021, was forced to withdraw from the Illinois university this past winter because of a serious neck injury.

Fortunately, the native of Washington, and writer for WIN Magazine, healed and recently became the seventh American woman to win a championship at the prestigious Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, on Jan. 28. She followed that with a championship at the Dan Kolov-Nikola Petrov Invitational in Bulgaria.

This is her story.

By Emma Bruntil

The nurse told me, “We’re almost done, sweetheart. I know it’s uncomfortable, but you’re doing so well.”

I sighed as I sat on the metallic, medical grade table and stared up into the bright lights above me. Minutes elapsed into what felt like hours and the only sense of the passage of time I had was the steady thrumming sound of saline dripping from my IV bag into my forearm, and the feeling of piercing needles on my skin.

I welcomed these distractions, though. The pain was minuscule compared to the pain that had enveloped my life since this past July, every hour of every day. At least with a procedure, you are given a clear timeline of when you are supposed to feel all right again. You can mark the day on your calendar with a bright red “X” and count down the days until you’re given the “all clear.” In my life at that time, I wasn’t given quite that level of luxury.

The events that lead to me landing on that hospital bed mere weeks out from the U23 World Championships last November was the result of the culmination of years of wear and tear on my body, and a very unfortunate genetic predisposition to spinal injuries. 

But the story really began the summer before my freshman year of college at McKendree, when I got a taste of what severe nerve pain was for the first time. At the time, I was just coming off having four surgeries in the span of a year. When I returned to training, I started to notice problems with my neck. I was so ecstatic to be back training and doing what I loved after a long stretch of being a mere bystander, I overlooked some signs I know now to be symptoms of serious neck problems.

This story appeared in the February issue of WIN Magazine. Click on cover or call 888-305-0606  to subscribe.

Some practices, I felt a sharp pain in my neck and then I wouldn’t be able to move my head for several days. When I turned my head to the left, I would get a shooting pain from my neck all the way down to my middle finger (which, in medical terms, is called radiculopathy), and after a while that pain began to stick around even when I wasn’t wrestling. But I ignored these red flags. 

After all, I was just coming off four surgeries and I wanted more than anything to be healthy enough to compete. Surely, I thought, it all must be in my head.

So, I competed my whole freshman season on my neck. In the beginning of the year, it was manageable and my ulnar nerve in my elbow kept sublexing, so I dismissed it, thinking I had bigger fish to fry. I won the SFU Invitational, Missouri Valley Invite, and placed fourth at the Bill Farrell, just one spot shy of qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Trials. 

In December of that year, following the U.S. Open, the pain returned and I asked my trainer for help. I was quickly waived away and told to stretch more, but nothing I did made a dent in the issue, and so it got much, much worse. The day that we left for Nationals in March, I tweaked my neck badly during practice and couldn’t move my head at all. Luckily, my dad was able to go to the national tournament that year and he spent hours working on it for me so I could move my head enough to compete.

During quarantine of my freshman year, I finally had the time to get my neck looked at (since the Olympics and all events had been pushed back), so I went to my doctor to have my neck checked out. I was told not to expect much, as the surgeon I was seeing was only meeting with patients who needed a surgery referral due to COVID. Days after my MRI, I received a call, and I was braced for the worst.

“Emma, it’s Dr. Landau, I just took a look at your MRIs and I would like to you come in for a surgery consultation.”

Less than a few days later, my neck surgery was already scheduled. As it turned out, I had a bulging disk in my neck for so long that I had a developed a lot of bone spurs, which were compressing my nerve at the C6-7 level and causing radiculopathy on my left side. 

My surgeon had never seen a case like mine before, as the average age to have a disk replacement is about 65. We weren’t even sure if any other wrestlers had ever had this type of surgery done and competed afterwards. But at that point, I was in too much debilitating pain to care. I just wanted to be able to move my neck again without pain. I wanted to be able to think clearly without the constant migraines that accompanied my pinched nerve. 

So, I had surgery on June 15th of 2020, and I was back drilling within a few weeks. After your nerve has been compressed for so long, though, it can still send pain signals to your brain long after the surgery is completed. So, pain became my burden to bear. I had gotten so used to its constant presence and the unshakable grip it had on my life, that when my condition finally started to improve in January of 2021, I felt like a stranger. I had forgotten how to be myself without it.

So, all was pretty much well with my neck until July of last year. During a practice at Olympic team camp, we were warming up, and while doing a head spring I heard a loud pop in my neck. Within minutes, I couldn’t move my neck at all and I knew something was seriously wrong. 

At first, I thought I had messed up my artificial disk, as I couldn’t wrestle for the rest of camp, and my neck pained me pretty much the rest of the summer. However, I was able to get an MRI in the fall, and I found out three days before Senior World Team Trials last September that I had herniated a disk at the C5-C6 level, and yet again had bone spurs pressing on my nerve. Still, I was going to compete at the Trials regardless, and just viewed my neck as a minor setback.

Following my semifinals match at World Team Trials was the first time my hands and arms started to go numb. After I had earned a spot in the finals, I only had about a pound or so to lose before the next day, so I was sitting in a hot bath replying to text messages from my family and friends. It started with just a tingling sensation down my arms, and it began to radiate into my hands. But it wasn’t that tingling feeling you get after hitting your funny bone, it felt like my body wasn’t completely in control of my arms. Within a half hour, I couldn’t feel my arms or my face and I was terrified.

Little did I know that what happened at World Team Trials wasn’t an isolated incident, but more of a preview for how my life would look for the next two months. There were days I couldn’t move my head at all to the point where I couldn’t drive my car. There were times where I would be wrestling at practice, and my arms would go so numb, it felt like they weren’t connected to my body anymore. I couldn’t even pick up objects in my hands because I didn’t have the grip strength. And, to top it off, I would get ear-splitting migraines that felt like my head was getting cleaved into two.

There were many, many sleepless nights I’d spend keeled over my bed, too uncomfortable to sleep, leaving me very much alone with my thoughts.

“How the (heck) am I going to do this?”

I would ask myself this question over and over and there were many times I couldn’t provide a good answer. At the time, I was still trying to prepare for the U23 World Championships and juggle a challenging course load in school. I have always been a very good student, but even doing my homework became a much more difficult task. With the constant migraines from my pinched nerve, it was extremely hard to focus. And some nights after training, I would be in so much pain that I would get to try (often unsuccessfully) to go to bed around 6 p.m., simply because sleep was the only break I would get from being in excruciating pain. 

But despite it all, I still couldn’t keep the thoughts out of my head. Forget wrestling, was I even going to be able to use my arms when I got older? Was I setting myself up for a lifetime of pain just so I could compete? I asked myself these questions over and over, and still came up empty handed.

For a while, I was so bitter.

Why did other people get to just train and be healthy and I didn’t?

Most of my friends my age had never even had surgery.

And I had already had seven of them. More than anything, I wished I could have anyone’s body but my own, since it so clearly did not want to operate on my agenda.

Why couldn’t I be someone, anyone else?

I would walk across campus every day on my way to class and see people my age, happy and seemingly without a care in the world. And to be completely honest it made me angry. They got to be young, whole, and free to do what they pleased. And there I was, at the ripe old age of 20, struggling to do basic tasks like hold my head up during class lectures, or look both ways before crossing the street. Before I could legally even touch a sip of alcohol, I was having to make choices that wouldn’t just affect my wrestling career, but my entire life as I knew it.

I can’t begin to explain how isolating that experience can be. At the time, I felt like nobody understood the severity of the situation. Nobody understood the pain I lived in all the time just so I could compete. And for the most part, I kept things quiet on purpose. Besides myself, my parents, and a handful of other people, I tried not to let people know more than was needed to know. I was scared: scared my competitors would find out and use the information to their advantage, and above all, I feared how uncertain my health was.

Wrestling has always been my escape from reality. The intensity wrestling demands acts as an eraser, taking a jumbled mind and wiping it into a blank, clean slate. This attribute of the sport is what drew me to wrestling in the first place and has helped me through countless dark and difficult times in my life ever since.

Those two months, wrestling wasn’t an escape from reality as much as it had been a competition to see how much pain I could bear. Practices that normally would have flown by in minutes suddenly felt like a never-ending marathon. 

And in the meantime, I was struggling. I had three spinal injections just to be able to function, and even those were only a temporary solution to a very permanent problem.

There were many factors in my decision to leave school, but my health was certainly one of them. I couldn’t go on living that way, I just couldn’t. And I didn’t want to get a second neck surgery when mine had been unsuccessful with keeping me healthy the first time around.

Feeling more broken and discouraged than ever, I decided to leave everything I had known for the last 2.5 years, along with all the friends I loved so much. Making that decision ripped my heart out, but I knew it was the only decision to make if I wanted to be able to keep wrestling without doing permanent and irreversible nerve damage to myself. So, I made it, and I didn’t look back.

It doesn’t mean leaving was the “easy” solution. For over six weeks, I had nowhere to train and yet I still had a while until I could move back to the Olympic Training Center. But I was fortunate I had started training Jiu jitsu at Pedigo Submission Fighting in September and had made many close friends down in Mt. Vernon.

They welcomed me with open arms and so I stayed about an hour away from my house at McKendree in my friend’s trailer and trained. 

Some of the guys on the team have some college wrestling experience, and were great drill partners for me, and I would also go with some of the kids at the local high school. But predominantly, I trained Jiu jitsu. 

It was easier on my neck and body, and I was surprised to find that my neck was steadily improving. But most of all, what PSF helped me find again was happiness. I had been in so much pain and was so miserable for so long, I had forgotten how much being around uplifting, positive people can change your spirit. They loved me, they believed in me, and so slowly I started to believe in myself again. I believed I could overcome my injury without surgery, and I put all my time and energy into that goal.

Going into this tournament, I’d felt the best I had in a very long time. Now that I had a little more control over my training, my neck hardly pained me at all, and I was able to enjoy training again. There also was no longer the looming threat of my uncertain future hanging over my head like a dark cloud all the time. With the right knowledge and resources, I had learned I could manage my condition quite well, something I never believed would be possible for me.

On the way to the Yarygin my travel was insanely hectic. My COVID test got denied and I had to stay in Chicago an extra day. My reservation got lost in Moscow. My plane was stuck on the runway for three hours. And, to top it off, both my bags had been lost. But I didn’t care, it didn’t shake me. 

After all, I was on my way to a tournament. I could move my head and even be put in a front headlock now. I was so grateful just to be able to compete after several months of uncertainty. 

It didn’t matter I had barely been able to train wrestling since mid-November, I knew the challenges I had endured would carry me through all the other challenges I had yet to face.

A lot of people asked me how I felt after this tournament and more than anything I felt grateful. Grateful I got to do what I loved again with people that believe in me so much. Grateful to be healthier than I have in a long time and confident in my future in this sport. 

But most of all, I was grateful for all the people that stuck by me during one of the hardest times in my life.

Now, I want to set something straight: I’m not saying any of this to complain or incite pity because of my injuries. Rather, I want to bring to light some of the darker aspects of what it can be like to be injured in this sport. 

Athletes deal with more than the typical person can even imagine, and serious injuries are often a part of that. And while the physical aspect of an injury is the most apparent from the outside, it is only a fraction of the hurt and pain that resides on the inside.

Especially in wrestling, it can be easy to say that circumstances don’t matter, until you’re in some of the most difficult circumstances of your life. It’s easy to say you should be able to push through anything and everything, until it is taking everything you have just to hold yourself together.

I’m more than grateful for all the lessons I learned in 2021, no matter how hard they were to endure at the time. I’m excited and hopeful about my future in this sport, something that seemed so precarious and in the balance a couple of months ago. 

In 2021, I truly felt what it was like to walk through the fire of trial and tribulation. And I was surprised to find that I found a better, stronger version of myself among the flames.

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