Out There: Internet Fame and a Ruptured Achilles

Depending on who you ask, Shelby Erdahl is either a badass or an idiot.

You may not know her name, but you probably saw her viral video recently: a college hurdler persevering through the agony of a ruptured Achilles tendon to finish the race of her life. At various times, she screamed in pain. Other times, she gritted her teeth as she gingerly stepped over hurdles. Mostly, she cried.

We played the video it over and over (and over again), cringing with every step she took on her way to the finish line.

“She’s so tough,” some viewers said. “What an inspiration!” These people held her video high as a prime example of grit.

“She’s so stupid,” others retorted. “Doesn’t she know she risked permanent damage?” These people chastised media outlets for showing the video and glamorizing dumb decisions.

So which is she—a badass or an idiot? I decided to ask Erdahl for the answer. I wanted to know all about the race, the pain, and her decision to keep going. Does she think it was it worth it? Read on to find out:

Interview With Shelby Erdahl

How long have you been a track and field athlete? Is the 400 hurdle event your specialty, or do you have other events?

I have been running track since middle school. The 400-meter hurdles is my favorite event, however, I also run the 100-meter hurdles, the 200-meter dash, and both the 4×100 and 4×400 meter relays. At the Big Sky Conference Meet I ran the lead-off leg on the 4×1 relay and was supposed to run in the 4×4 as well until I got injured.

Was anything off for you before that race, or did you go in feeling strong and ready?

I felt completely normal and ready. I was completely warmed up and felt as good as or better than I did running the 400-meter hurdle preliminaries the day before.

What is your recollection of the moment your tendon ruptured?

I didn’t actually feel anything until I tried to run again. I didn’t hear a pop or feel it tear as I took off over the hurdle. However, once my foot felt numb and didn’t work right I knew that my Achilles tendon was gone.

Did you know right away something was wrong, or did it take you a second to realize it?

I didn’t know anything was wrong until I stood up and started trying to sprint again. At first it felt like I may have broken my shoe, so I looked down at my foot. Seeing it not responding to my efforts to run again was when I realized that something was seriously wrong. That’s when I knew that I had ruptured my Achilles tendon.

Why keep running?

Making it to the finals in the 400 hurdles at a Division I Championship meet (Big Sky Track & Field Championships) was a goal I had my entire career. I was sidelined by an injury my junior year, so this was my last chance as I had just graduated the previous weekend. I had worked so hard for that moment that it never really occurred to me to stop running. After four years of hard work and endless support from my teammates and coaches, I wasn’t going to let just 300 meters and some pain stop me. Finishing the race was something I wanted to do for myself and for my teammates, and I knew that they would be around the track and at the finish line cheering me on.

Was there a point where you thought to yourself, “Screw it, I’m done?”

No. There was a moment with 100 meters to go where it really started to hurt but I could see the finish line and just kept going.

How did it feel to finish?

I was completely in shock and I just remember falling into my trainer’s arms and hoping against hope that he would tell me it was not my Achilles’ that was hurt.  I knew that I had finished, but that sense of accomplishment did not really sink in until some of the shock had worn off later at the meet.

When did you learn your race video went viral? How did that feel?

It was crazy! I never expected that! It felt nice to know that so many people thought that highly of me. I received so many positive messages from complete strangers. I was and am very grateful.

Some people called you a hero, while others criticized you for—well, making a dumb choice. How have you handled such strong reactions from others?

For those that said I made a dumb decision, I just ignore them because nobody knows what happened there except for me, and the people who were actually in attendance. For those that said I just made the injury worse, I knew from the start that my tendon had completely ruptured, so it’s not like you can really make a complete rupture worse. And it was the last competition of my career, so even if I had made the injury a little worse, it would have been worth it. And for everyone else who was super-supportive—that’s the majority of people—thank you!!!

What’s the coolest thing that’s happened as a result of this video?

I have had people reach out to me from all around the world, which is super cool. I feel so blessed from such an outpouring of love.

A ruptured tendon is pretty severe—some people never really recover. What has your doctor said about your prognosis?

I am young and athletic, so the prognosis is good. With physical therapy and some effort I should make a full recovery. My goal is to just get back to doing the things I love, like fishing and hiking.

How is your recovery going today? What’s next for you?

I had a slight mishap when I slipped in the shower and re-tore my tendon two weeks after surgery. So I had to get surgery again, but I am doing good and still on the same recovery plan.

My next step will be attending graduate school in a doctoral program for physical therapy. I will learn all about rehabbing myself!

In hindsight, was it worth it?

Well I would prefer to have remained an anonymous hurdler with a fully intact Achilles’ tendon… but finishing the race and proving to myself that I can overcome the obstacles of life? Absolutely.

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About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke

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