Kelsey-Lee Roberts, javelin thrower.

Photos: Melissa Adams
Words: David Polkinghorne

Stress fractures threatened to tear down Kelsey-Lee Roberts' Olympic dream, but the Canberra javelin thrower harnessed the power of her mind to ensure she would be ready for Rio de Janeiro.

She started by laying the foundations and gradually worked her way up until she was like a brand new house, complete with a picket fence and a garden.

On top of rest and the usual forms of treatment for stress fractures in her back, Roberts also used her grey matter to get herself back to full health.

Having used visualisation to help her prepare for competitions, it didn't take AIS senior sports psychologist Renee Appaneal any convincing to get Roberts to embrace "healing imagery" – which uses visualisation to help the body with the healing process.

The 24-year-old had already qualified for the Olympic Games when lower back pain started to get so bad she was struggling to throw.

While the subsequent diagnosis was a "little bit of a shock", she knew she had time to recover given it was March.

Roberts embarked on an extensive rehabilitation that also included Pilates, strength work and playing catch with a baseball glove to keep her shoulder "rolling over".

"It came to a point when everything around the stress fracture ... became quite painful and very restrictive," she said.

"It meant that I couldn't get myself into the positions that I needed to to actually throw the javelin. That's what became really difficult.

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"It was about being able to clear all of that to be able to throw. If it was a quick turnaround I could probably push through.

"But I knew I had time and it was about making the most of that time so I could be on the start line at Rio healthy and confident that my body was going to hold up."

Appaneal suggested using healing imagery as part of the recovery process, having specialised in the psychology of injury before she joined the AIS.

Whenever Roberts was getting treatment on her back she would visualise what was happening "on a cellular level" – the tiny crack in her back slowly closing up.

It was like "building a house", which she constructed herself from scratch until she had a "single-storey" house of her own.

Once it was done, she moved on to imagining herself competing again – building confidence her back could stand up to the load of hurling her javelin.

"There were two parts to my visualisation. Right at the beginning it was more about focusing on the injured site on a cellular level, where I saw the cells kind of working together to mend it," Roberts said.

"Then on another page it was like building a house. So I've started from the foundations, and as my body healed itself I've built the house.

"It went from a slab of concrete, to a structure, to having a roof, to putting [everything] in it.

"I wasn't given any instructions on how I should visualise it or how it should work, and that was the way that I created and re-created what to do and how to heal myself.

"When I was confident that it was healing it was about testing that healed site – visualising myself running and jumping and throwing the javelin, all pain-free.

"It's a polished house now. It's got a front fence and a garden, carpeted floors, you name it, it's in there."

Roberts first used visualisation to help prepare for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where she won a bronze medal, imagining herself competing in front of a big crowd in a foreign country.

Appaneal said medical evidence suggested healing imagery works, with athletes that used it recovering faster than those that don't.

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She said it also led to increased confidence for the athletes that their body could "hold up to what was required".

"I didn't just draw it out of a hat. There's a fair bit of medical evidence that supports healing imagery, and some of the most well-known literature is in cancer research," Appaneal said.

"The basic explanation is that healing imagery and using the mind can help stimulate the immune system and ... it enhances the immune system's response and can help promote healing as a result.

"She really took it and ran with it ... she just really dived in and started creating a mental image of what it looked like internally, of what her fracture looked like and what was happening.

"She spent a lot of time when she was in treatment, when you're kind of sitting there she would envision what it was doing to help stimulate."

Roberts is back competing, having completed her final preparations for Rio in Europe before she joins the Athletics Australia camp on July 30.

Qualifying for the women's javelin is on August 16, from which Roberts hopes she'll earn a spot in the final two days later.

While it will be her first Olympics, Roberts will have a wealth of experience to call on when she arrives in Brazil.

She met four-time gold medallist Serena Williams at a photo shoot for Berlei bras in Melbourne earlier this year, along with fellow Canberra athlete Lauren Wells and Aussie rugby sevens player Tiana Penitani.

She says her chat with Williams that day was "one of the best conversations" she'd ever had.

One of the things that impressed Roberts the most about Williams was that despite having won millions of dollars in prizemoney and 22 major tennis titles, she also valued her Olympic titles.

"That was amazing. I had the best time with her, she's such a gentle soul and she just talks so highly of the Olympics," Roberts said.

"It was nice to see her in action in the Berlei photo shoot, and generally chatting about her tennis and her career and what she's done and what she's achieved.

"It was definitely one of the highest-profile people I've had the chance to meet and definitely one of the best conversations I've ever had.

"The thing for me that stood out was, she said that being a tennis player she didn't grow up and train thinking of winning medals, but when she won her Olympic medals it was something she holds so dearly to her.

"She said that the experience and the environment is so energetic, and just to make the most of that."

Williams had another piece of valuable advice for Roberts so the javelin thrower could make the most of her Olympics experience.

" 'The one thing I'm going to suggest you have to do is collect the pins from the different countries'; that was her one tip to everyone," Roberts said.

"So Lauren and I both said that we were going to come looking for her in the village to switch pins."

And you can bet she will because once she sets her mind to something, there's no telling what she can do.

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