Riding her bike on the Ojai trail, doing sprints on Solimar Beach, or lifting weights at the Ventura YMCA. These are the places you're most likely to find Carolyn Dolen. And if you catch her in the midst of one of these athletic pursuits, what you will see is a feisty woman whose strength and determination are palpable. People are drawn to her. You might wonder if she's a former athletic coach or assume she is a serious athlete. But you would probably never guess she is a brain injury survivor.
It was a snowy morning in 1976 and Dolen, then a 29-year-old Minnesota schoolteacher, was returning home from skiing, driving her little red MG Midget in near zero visibility. There was a serious accident, in which, Carolyn says, her head “bounced around inside the car like a ping pong ball." After losing consciousness for six to nine hours, her prognosis was grim; as she lay in the hospital bed, she overheard doctors predicting time in the psychiatric ward and even attempts at suicide, which are common among brain injury survivors. "I don't think so!" she recalls thinking.
Though she knew something was wrong with her brain, doctors couldn't pinpoint the real problem and therapy options were meager. So this spitfire of a woman, who was born with an intense athletic drive, took her recovery into her own hands, using her innate determination every step of the way. There were no specific rehab programs for brain injury survivors, so she enrolled in reading comprehension and study skills classes at a local community college. To her shock, she was told that since she was able to walk, she wasn't in bad enough shape for a physical therapy program, so she started strength training on her own. And thus began the long process of re-learning.
Fast forward 34 years and you'll find that Dolen never stopped training. Having moved to California for a clean start and sunny weather, she now has two master’s degrees and is a dedicated triathlete, a runner, a swimmer, a cyclist, a kayak-surfer, a weightlifter, and a yoga devotee. She trains for around two hours a day, six days a week. She is always training for her next race, but also as a way of managing the lingering effects of her injury, including difficulties with balance, coordination, and weakness on the right side of her body.
There are social effects as well. "I used to be very quick, and I miss that," says Dolen, a former social committee chair. Conversational nuances and facial expressions are often lost on her; loud places and group conversations also prove challenging. But she is a woman who knows her needs and her limits. Because traffic noise is too chaotic, she only runs on the beach, enjoying the ocean’s calming effect. She knows that in order to be her best, she must eat a healthy diet and get at least nine hours of sleep each night.
Her life is structured and orderly, and most of what she does is aimed at the end goal of being her best. She doesn't race to win; instead she asks herself, "How fast can I be today?" Though she started racing in her forties, it wasn't until she was 60 that she started winning. She still struggles with feelings of inadequacy, but athletics give her an opportunity to shine. "I feel most powerful when I'm exercising,” she says, “and I feel most alive when I'm racing."
When asked what gets her out of bed in the morning, Dolen explains that over the past 20 years it has been writing her two books for brain injury survivors and their families. Published early this year, the books are her way of trying to improve the lives of others. "I should have been dead,” she says. “I'm convinced God saved me so I could help others."
Those closest to Dolen attribute her success to hard work and determination. Terri Holden, a friend and fellow triathlete, says, "Carolyn has a strong will to keep on going. If she didn't, she would have given up long ago." She sees this determination in the intense look on Dolen's face during races, and as she encounters injuries and illnesses that occasionally derail her training. "She's like the Energizer bunny," Holden says, "she just keeps on ticking."
Kay Armstrong, another of Dolen's dear friends, says, "Carolyn has a true joy for life." She has a zeal and passion for each day, and an appreciation for the things that many of us take for granted. This is what drives her to keep working hard, every single day, on being stronger and better than the day before.