Janay Deloach, an occupational therapist at Northern Colorado Rehabilitation Hospital, visits with patient Todd Bergthold. DeLoach, a 2012 Olympic medalist, draws on her own difficult recovery from an injury in her work with her patients. (Jeannie Lancaster / For the Reporter-Herald)
Olympic medalist Janay DeLoach of Fort Collins is looking forward to competing in the long jump and 60-meter hurdles during the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. in July. She hopes to qualify for the USA team that will participate in the Summer Olympics to be held in Brazil in August.
DeLoach, 30, received a bronze medal in long jump at the 2012 Summer Olympics, held in London. But her journey since that time has not always been an easy one.
In 2013, DeLoach suffered an injury at the USA championships held in Des Moines, Iowa. Originally thought to be a serious sprain, several months later, it was determined to be a break in her left ankle.
“It had been almost a year that I had been trying to come back,” shared DeLoach. “I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t even jump on it anymore. It was probably one of the toughest battles I’ve had to take on and try to overcome.”
She began an arduous path to recovery including two surgeries, extensive rehabilitation and three months during which she could not bear weight on her ankle. Through it all, DeLoach gained a keener awareness of the process that the patients she works with go through, many of whom are recovering from a serious injury or a stroke.
DeLoach, an occupational therapist with Northern Colorado Rehabilitation Hospital, shared, “It gave me a new perspective on the patients that I was working with. I was having to do things that I was completely able to do before and then losing all of that. I couldn’t walk.”
Her break was on the side of her “plant” foot. The plant foot is the one that a long jumper leaves the ground with, pushes off with, during jumps.
“At this point, I felt like track and field had been taken away from me,” said DeLoach.
She reflected back to the time, when as a high-school student in Alaska, she really wasn’t interested in track and field, but loved basketball. She competed in both and received scholarships for both, but more in track and field.
Eventually, she chose track and field. “I wanted to help my family out financially. I was going to be able to get an education at a discounted price. That’s why I originally went. I didn’t love track and field. Who wants to hurt? But the competition was fun.”
It wasn’t until she was at a meet at Cal-Berkley, during her sophomore year at Colorado State University, that things changed. She saw Grace Upshaw, who represented the United States at the Summer Olympics in both 2004 and 2008.
“When I saw her, I saw the potential in myself and how much fun it could be if I really gave it the effort. That was the moment that I said, ‘I think I can do this,’ and my whole attitude toward track and field changed. It’s still hard. It doesn’t get any easier and if it does get easier, you’re not working hard enough.”
Hard work is something DeLoach knows well. To get back to her sport, she had to retrain her brain and her body to use a new leg to both start her run and take off. The left leg was so weakened from the surgeries that it had to happen if she was going to be successful. She found her body did adjust.
“Doing everything with my opposite hand or foot is currently part of my training, and it’s not easy. I feel like now I can relate not only professionally, but personally to my patients as well,” she said.
“I went into the USA championships in 2015 thinking — whatever,” she said. “I went in last, not even qualifying and came in third. It was a miracle. I couldn’t even tell you how I did it to this day. Definitely adrenaline. I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose.’ Everything was riding on it. Why not.”
Both in her own recovery and that of the patients she works with, DeLoach understands how important attitude is. “I cannot stress how much attitude matters,” she said. “And how even as a therapist to work with someone whose life is altered and to come in and know that and be aware of that and work with them to motivate them and assure them that it’s going to be OK. Positive attitude is essential.”
Just as she has cheered on many patients in their recovery, many of DeLoach’s current and former patients will be cheering her on as she goes to the trials and hopefully on to the Olympics.
“Encouragement helps,” she shared, “because there are moments where being a track and field athlete and not performing like you used to or not having a perfect meet like you want every time can be so discouraging. When people send me messages like ‘I wish you the best,’ ‘Good luck out there,’ it means a lot to me.”