Athlete Profile: Issy Burke

By Ren Caldwell

Issy Burke is a pretty unforgettable human. I met her when the Eurostars first visited Seattle in 2017 and came to Strive & Uplift to participate in a recovery session before leading the first of the now-annual gender equity discussions. We were thrilled to host them in our space – it was amazing to have so many high-level athletes roaming around doing pullups and chatting about kettlebells! My first impressions of Issy were of her strength and coordination – the players ended up inventing a game where she would go up into a handstand and just…stay there while her teammate threw a disc that she tried to catch with her feet. Handstand goals, man. I learned from another player that she had blown her ACL and actually wasn’t able to play with the team that year, but had traveled to support them and be a part of the experience as much as she could. After chatting with her during the Tour, I started following her on Instagram and we loosely kept in touch. Then she popped up on my radar this past year in a huge way – she was in the trials for the GB Bobsled team!! I was awed, of course, and honestly also surprised – her Instagram for the previous couple years had documented a real struggle to recover from her ACL injury (her second on that knee) and training frustrations and setbacks. So I reached out and asked if I could talk with her about her story, thinking that it would be an inspiring one to share with the community.

Give me a quick bio…where did you grow up? Family? Where do you live? Work (past and present)? 

Ok, so, I grew up in Exeter, the city I live in now; born in Northern Ireland with an Irish Dad and Swiss mum, so a bit of a euro-mongrel. I work as an Environment officer for the Environment Agency – the best way to explain this is effectively an Environmental Police Officer, dealing with Environmental Crime and pollution incidents (also some less glamorous stuff like responding to planning applications and site regulation). Before that I worked as a researcher in primarily Evolutionary Biology, basically looking at how species adapt to climate change; I also worked as Beach lifeguard for the RNLI in Devon and Cornwall (on all of the good surf beaches); before that – well, everything from cleaning to collecting slow worms….some well paid, some not so well!

Tell me about your movement history! What sports did you play growing up? What drew you to ultimate? Was your family/larger culture supportive of your athletic efforts?

Ren’s note: During our conversation, I came to understand that movement for Issy is all about learning and understanding and exploring. She’s a problem-solver – she wants to understand the problem and then fix the problem. She’s shown an incredible aptitude for many sports since she was very young, but she doesn’t do them as an image thing – she was “pushed” into solo sports but hated it and much prefers being a part of a team. She’s missed out on many high-level sport opportunities because she hasn’t had the financial means to attend and lived in fairly isolated areas. 

So, I was (and continue to be) a pretty hyperactive kid; I played a HUGE amount of football [soccer] as a kid with the boys in school. As I had a state school education, I took part in a lot of ‘informal’ sports, school comps, etc (football, hockey, tag rugby, athletics, cross-country, and frisbee). Growing up in the rural South West, there just wasn’t really the opportunity to take things further and despite having arguably very decent athletic potential – I really struggled in the high-pressure situation of the solo-sport world. I was pretty darn good at jumping, triple and long from what I remember. But I absolutely loved team sports, I loved playing footy, I loved nothing more than teaming up with a talented mate in PE and spanking the girls who were ‘elite’ county-level players, I somehow have just always enjoyed the absolute fun of sport. I just love it, that feeling of moving, of giving something 100%, pushing yourself to make the catch, score the goal, learn the throw, catch ‘that’ wave, make that dyno – you come up with an idea/vision and then try to execute it and it’s even more satisfying when it works and you do it for your team. When I played Ultimate, a number of players over the years have laughed at me (being very British about celebrations) when I celebrated throws e.g. crazy hammers that connected; but honestly when you pull something out the bag and it comes off and your team scores as a result – it’s just the best feeling and you come back wanting more.

I just love it, that feeling of moving, of giving something 100%, pushing yourself to make the catch, score the goal, learn the throw, catch ‘that’ wave, make that dyno – you come up with an idea/vision and then try to execute it and it’s even more satisfying when it works and you do it for your team.

I didn’t care (and still don’t care) much for internal sport/team politics and (I think) that has quite possibly been one of the biggest stumbling blocks I have had in pursuing any professional career in sports, aside from lack of opportunity (for females in sport) and funding.

In 2009 before I tore my ACL, I had a talent ID trial for the 2012 Olympics. I made down to 4 out of 2000 applicants at subsequent testing as a sprint cyclist (and potentially bobsleigh) but to be really honest – I couldn’t fathom leaving Cornwall to cycle around and around a velodrome in Manchester at the time. I need to love what I am doing, to be part of it and as my friends will testament too, once I commit to something – that’s it, it becomes everything to me. At the time there was also a hell of a lot going on in my life and with my family. I just didn’t see myself giving up Ultimate (which I loved) and Surfing (which I also loved). I was supposed to trial for bobsleigh later that year, but a week before the trial, I tore my ACL. I had also been selected to go to the World Games in 2009, but I had to pull out, again because I was completely flat broke, doing my masters, I just literally couldn’t afford to drive upcountry to get to training sessions. My family was also going through a pretty major crisis and I just got to the point where I had to batten down the hatches and focus on completing my masters to survive. Sometimes I wonder if it was the sheer emotional stress of that period that ultimately led to the first injury.

I had also been selected to go to the World Games in 2009, but I had to pull out, again because I was completely flat broke, doing my masters, I just literally couldn’t afford to drive upcountry to get to training sessions.

I got into Ultimate in School because a few of my friends from my class were on the team. We had a ‘seasonal’ routine that involved football (soccer) in autumn/winter season and cricket in the summer (on the field near my family home). I hated cricket, it was too fiddly, slow and fussy and I was left-handed and didn’t really enjoy batting as I was constantly told I was doing it wrong, but I was pretty good at fielding. So one day, my school friends brought a frisbee to the field. I think I was just super stoked that there was an alternative to cricket for our field summer sport. We threw around and they encouraged me to come to the after school club and the rest is history… literally history.

There’s a good story behind the Air Badgers too (my junior team), the legend goes that my PE teacher Paul Ruff, applied for a job at my school and got the job because he offered to ‘bring’ Ultimate to the school. At the time, I don’t think he had never played the game before! But he pulled it off and created the most dominant junior team in the UK in recent history and I was part of ‘generation one/zero’. I should note that at the time I was the only girl on the team.

I was never one to back down – Mr. Ruff’s favourite memory of me was seeing me going up for a disc in the end zone in indoor nationals amongst a pile-up of guys and coming down with the disc in my hand. I just never felt like I was a ‘lesser’ player then the boys, I was either going to get the disc or I wasn’t – it had nothing to do with my gender.

I just never felt like I was a ‘lesser’ player then the boys, I was either going to get the disc or I wasn’t – it had nothing to do with my gender.

At University, I ended up playing in the Open Division, playing in two outdoor national finals (again as the only female); I also played mixed and women’s Ultimate and for our local club, attending my first World Clubs with Bristol Plastic Factory (now Bristol Ultimate) in Perth in 2006. After University, I initially played mixed ultimate, winning Gold at European Championships and a 5th at the World Championships in Vancouver 2008 with the GB Mixed team before being invited back to play with the open team Devon Ultimate. I was involved with the open team for 6 seasons and was the only female to compete in our A tour / National championships. At my peak (after my first knee reconstruction), we finished 4th, I was top goal scorer and we qualified for the European Championships for the first time in the club’s history, it was pretty magical.

You spend a lot of time doing very considered (and also very playful/non-traditional) training. What drives you to work as hard as you do outside of practice? Where do you get inspiration?

It’s one massive game of trial and error and I enjoy the game immensely. I think I have the vision to try and do something or learn something and then try to work out how to achieve it. I think I learned or accepted pretty early on that getting things involves a lot of hard work, so I am generally not put off by the process. Early on I think I didn’t have the patience but now I am much better at planning and seeing a bigger picture. I was fortunate to have grown up with a high level of physical capability from the get-go. I guess that gives you a lot of confidence and self-belief in being able to do the difficult things that you are asking your body (and mind) to do. My parents didn’t really nurture the ‘sport’ aspect, but they did nurture the creativity – my school art projects were always left-field, I helped my dad (and my neighbour) fixing things and building our extension, garage, loft-conversion, etc. Seeing my parents tackle these things themselves, gives you the – “why the hell not” approach to life.

For me, it had NOTHING to do with image. I don’t have any sponsors (sadly, not yet), I don’t wear clothes to increase my sex appeal, nothing. It’s purely about creativity and feeling engaged with my environment. Where do I get my inspiration? Hmmm…well, I try things, try new sports, meet people and try to learn from them and share learning and experience with them. Usually, everyone is looking to improve (unless it’s all about image). Going and getting a coaching qualification in a new sport is a good way to bed down the basics too. I scour the net for good training ideas, try them, incorporate them if they work, ditch them if they don’t. I think I also experiment a lot, but safely. I enjoy a high-risk sport, where the risk is calculated. I don’t like getting injured, so I rely on agility as my get-out. I feel as though my position is more of one to inspire others, then to glean inspiration – i.e. a bit of a pioneer (especially as a woman amongst my peers/communities), as opposed to a follower. I do things very much in my own way, learn, listen to people, research and constantly review what I am doing. Initially, this was quite a subjective process, nowadays it’s pretty objective – I know what I need to do. As my coaches will tell you, I always need to know the ‘why’, why are we doing it this way? Gets me into trouble sometimes….

Where do I get my inspiration? Hmmm…well, I try things, try new sports, meet people and try to learn from them and share learning and experience with them.

Have you ever gotten flak for being a physically strong and capable woman? If so, from whom, and how did it affect you?

Ren’s note: We bonded a little bit around the fact that we’ve both often been characterized as “intimidating,” and how that’s frustrating for us because what we really want is to connect with people. In terms of how she’s physically perceived by others, she basically just doesn’t care anymore: she’s always “been with the guys.”   

Ok, so not from men; never, I think they are generally pretty respectful of me. But in order to achieve this, I had to basically work 10x as hard at anything. Climbing is a good example – if you can do a move that a man can’t do, he’s got to respect you for it. I feel like I command the respect to be treated as an equal and ally, someone who is valuable and not seen as a weak or influenceable. Again, this often gets me into trouble – but usually with women and not men. This does affect me, mainly emotionally, because I just struggle to know how to negotiate in these circumstances. I can, and have been, seen as a threat on many occasions by females and I think it’s usually a control issue. Work with me, not against me and magical things can happen. 

I don’t get flak generally because I think most people can sense that I am a cooperative ally, a strong, smart and practical ally who is not worth upsetting. Being strong and capable is a huge part of my identity, but so is an unrelenting desire to fix things and help people. But yeah, I am not so good at the finer art of winning popularity contests or the small talk of large groups! I think all Ultimate players are acutely aware of how stressful large group dynamics are – the only good thing is that ‘because there are so many people, everyone can find at least one ally.’ I think that’s why I tended to back away from captaining because I just didn’t want to upset people and you really do need to be prepared to do that. In fact, one of my golden rules of leading was to focus on getting the‘ least involved’ players into the game. Challenging myself to get the disc to them as much as possible, on the belief that the more you can get out of them, the stronger the team will become, as the confident players pretty much look after themselves and get involved without being prompted. I now see that very much as the duty of an experienced player or any player who considers themselves to be ‘world-class’, you should be able to use those superpowers to empower others, not to dominate lesser players – something which I have seen so often in the darker sides of Ultimate (and other sports). An example of which would be a male player carelessly ‘running through’ and injuring a female player just to make the play; or my second GREATEST ultimate bugbear, blaming your receiver for not being fast enough to catch your poorly calibrated huck. The more experienced the thrower, the less experienced the cutter – the greater the crime. Laugh about it, admit it was a crap throw and make it your mission to get that throw to land perfectly for them to run on-to next time.

Being strong and capable is a huge part of my identity, but so is an unrelenting desire to fix things and help people.

When we met, you had torn your ACL and were traveling with the Eurostars but not able to play. How did this injury affect you, physically and emotionally? Can you tell me about your recovery?

Ren’s note: This was the longest portion of our discussion, and the most heart-wrenching. She is such a strong person in all aspects and has had the absolute worst luck and complications around these injuries that I’ve ever heard of. I want to share sections of her thoughts that will give you a sense of what she’s overcome, but she’s always willing to talk to anyone who needs support and maybe a little guidance from someone who’s been through it all. Here are a few sound bytes that stood out to me: 

”Ultimate is intense, being on teams is intense, it’s financially intense.” 

On the topic of the special challenges around injury and ultimate, “We’re outside of systems, we’re self-funded” and “The game is so much fun that people are far too willing to put their bodies on the line.”

On recovery: “When you have a complex idea to solve, you need a lot of ideas.” Keep looking for the people that can help you! 

This injury has been absolutely devastating. It’s hard to really give perspective to people who have never suffered with something like this. I think it’s actually most akin to people who have chronic pain issues; MS, Arthritis, Lupus, etc. It’s not like a broken bone or even a non-complex reconstruction. Unfortunately, my knee is unlikely to ever be fully pain-free but I am doing everything that I possibly can to get it as good as possible.

Unfortunately, my knee is unlikely to ever be fully pain-free but I am doing everything that I possibly can to get it as good as possible.

I re-tore my ACL at the end of 2015. As I was on ‘year-out’ from Ultimate and not officially on a National Team at that time, I had no support at all. It took 18 months to get surgery through the NHS. In early 2016, I knew I was facing a very long recovery. I needed two operations and I knew from the last time, that it was going to take 2 years before I was comfortable with it; possibly longer because of the damage that was already there. We were talking 10 months of appointments, 5 months on a waiting list, an op, 6 months recovery, 2nd op, two years recovery from there. 4 years from injury day zero to get to now.

ACL recovery is really complicated; basically, because your muscles (predominantly quad/hamstrings) stop firing as they should and you are faced with this nerve-firing battle between your body trying to protect a damaged joint and you trying to correct the movement pattern by getting the muscles to work together as they should. Add in damaged cartilage and multiple graft sites (for me, the hamstring, ITB, patella tendon, and ACL) and you have a whole world of scar tissue, restriction and pain to deal with. Every time the surgeons go in, they damage the fascias, the linings of pockets that help the fluid to move around the knee where it should be – you get more scar tissue and you lose range of motion.

I spent most of the last 3 years with serious clinical depression.

I could go into great detail here, but it’s probably easier to keep it simple. I spent most of the last 3 years with serious clinical depression. I don’t think it takes an expert to work out why; endless pain, not being able to do any of the things I used to be able to do, being removed from my friends, my team and also probably blaming myself for the injury and for not ‘fixing’ it; being angry at the medical services for not providing any solutions and leaving me unable to walk pain-free, angry at being unsupported and also angry about inequality. I knew that if I had been in a professional team, or even in a different country the outcome could have been different. I replay that day I first tore it, over and over again and those days since time I really struggled with it. It was such a ‘nothing’ injury at the time. It would literally be easier to tell people that I got hit by a car and wrecked my knee, because if you tell people you’ve torn your ACL, the first response is ‘ah yeah, my mate did that playing football, he’s ok now’ or ‘yeah, I know what that’s like, I tore my meniscus’, or ‘yeah, my knees hurt too’ or even ‘yeah I know, i’ve had a knee replacement’, erhem… you’re 60! Whereas if you have been involved in something serious with potentially catastrophic outcomes, like a car accident, or an injury from serving with the military – people just accept that it’s a shit situation, you’re probably lucky to be alive and leave the topic well alone. I have literally faced criticism from people, who look at how I train and believe that this is all self-inflicted. It’s hilarious to listen to. If you haven’t been through it, you don’t know what it’s like. I get incredibly defensive these days and have less time for people who approach me with a ‘know it all attitude’. Basically if you want to help, be a friend – let’s go do activities that are knee-friendly or talk about other things. Don’t give me advice unless it’s a damn good idea or I have asked you for advice. That goes for medical professionals too, no one knows more about my knee than I do. I mentioned this in the interview, but my one word of advice to anyone going through this is – just take it all with a pinch of salt – nobody really knows what the outcome will be, no one has the right to tell you never to run again, but if it hurts, you need to listen to your body. 

I knew that if I had been in a professional team, or even in a different country the outcome could have been different.

In 2017 when you met me, I had been injured for over a year. I had started training in the gym a lot; doing what I could basically to distract myself and at least in part fulfill that need to move, learn and challenge myself. Supporting the GB Women’s team in France and supporting the Eurostars was part of that, a feeling to give back, be a part of it. At the time, I had only had the first surgery and I wouldn’t have known what the outcome would have been or whether I could return to Ultimate or not. I owe a huge amount of credit and thanks to Bex Forth who basically kept me playing after the first time I had surgery and thought I couldn’t return – so I truly believed and wanted the Eurostars team to be successful. 

My one word of advice to anyone going through this is – just take it all with a pinch of salt – nobody really knows what the outcome will be, no one has the right to tell you never to run again, but if it hurts, you need to listen to your body. 

Just after returning to the UK, in September 2017 In between operations I completed one of my goals, a 3x bodyweight deadlift. This gave me some serious gym respect. A week later I had my second reconstruction. Fast forward to October 2018, I was given the opportunity to trial for the bobsleigh team. A GB Bobsledder who trains at my gym had seen me train and suggested I trial. The conversation went something like ‘Really? I am 33 and can barely walk’; ‘yes but can you still sprint for 30m in a straight line?’; ‘Maybe?’

‘Really? I am 33 and can barely walk’; ‘yes but can you still sprint for 30m in a straight line?’; ‘Maybe?’

I had 3 weeks to prepare, baring in mind I still couldn’t walk pain-free at this point I did pretty well and just missed out on making the team by a few hundredths. To be honest, I was a long way from being physically ready to race for an entire season. I went hiking in Scotland a week after the trial. My knee hurt so badly when I came home, I couldn’t walk for a week. I was completely mentally shell-shocked; on the one hand, I had the ability to make a GB team, on the other I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do normal things anymore. I almost had a panic attack on a hike around Cheddar Gorge because I was so anxious about stepping down steep steps on a field. I had to say no to beach trips with cobbled stones. I was a beach lifeguard for about 7 years and used to running on the sand/boulders and now I couldn’t even fathom walking on a cobbled beach for fear of pain. I ended up taking time off work. I was absolutely desperate to find help, despite 18 months in NHS rehab classes. I had to seek independent professional help in the form of a sports physiotherapist. I was about to go to Ireland to see a specialist when I came across a physio, a chap called Dave Mclellan at Ocean Physio in Exeter who had worked with our professional rugby team. I remember seeing him for the first time and saying something like ‘I don’t expect that you can fix me, but I need a mentor to help me find solutions’ and Dave did exactly that, seeing consultants, getting an MRI, speaking to a sports psychologist. I finally made significant progress in July this year having hooked up with a strength and conditioning coach called Sam Portland who had the experience and knowledge to help me. Sadly, all of this might have been available to me from the get-go if I had private healthcare. It’s a very sad reality. I was lucky that at this point I had enough savings to spend money on trying to find suitable help, but for many people in my situation – this just wouldn’t be possible and it makes me incredibly sad to think about the impact these injuries have on people’s lives – especially if you’re young and when there is plenty of help out there – IF you can access it.

I was completely mentally shell-shocked; on the one hand I had the ability to make a GB team, on the other I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do normal things anymore.

Knowing what I know now about ACL rehab, I know that my rehab was ineffective and most likely significantly contributed to the extensive damage that I am left with now. Would I have had access to private healthcare the first time around, the sad reality is that I am pretty sure that I would probably still be playing now.

Holy s***, the British bobsled team?! I wanna know everything!! How did you get interested in bobsled? How does the training differ from ultimate (I’m imagining much more sprint training and accelerative power…) What’s your potential path forward…are we talking Olympics? 

Ren’s note: I can’t describe how incredible I find it that Issy has created this opportunity for herself. Like she mentioned above, she still can’t do many daily things without pain and has managed to find an avenue to compete at the highest level and have an outlet for her boundless energy all the same. Amazing.

…it seemed to me that the linear strength and power development aspect was THE perfect knee rehabilitation pathway for me.

Photo credit: Camerafirm

So this felt like something I just HAD to pursue, a chapter I had to write. This was effectively the third (and final) opportunity I have had to trial for the sport. Previously, Ultimate and injury had stopped me from trialing before. I could still sprint in a straight-line, my limitations with range-of-motion in the knee were unlikely to be an issue in the demands of the sport (or something that could be worked around). So I decided to go for it. In addition to this, it seemed to me that the linear strength and power development aspect was THE perfect knee rehabilitation pathway for me. In addition to that, I saw many other exciting aspects to the sport which appealed to me: it’s a team sport, it involves absolutely going hell for leather, it’s fast, a bit crazy and potentially dangerous. I saw some similarities to surfing. And although it required a transition from a field sport with a much higher aerobic demand to a power sport, i.e. a completely different style of training – I seemed to think the trade-off was worth it for me. As I mentioned before, I love the training process, working towards goals – so it seemed to be a good fit! But I do miss the dynamic action of field sports. I just want anyone out there in the community who knows me and reads this that I never intended to give up playing Ultimate. I had a heart VO2 max test as part of obtaining my racing license for bobsleigh. The cardiology team at St Georges literally fell off their seats when my test came back as 52L/min, which apparently is 195% of what they expected it to be and they told me I should be doing triathlon and not bobsleigh! No doubt an adaptation to playing Ultimate and surfing for most of my life. The irony is that I hate running! And now I can’t run anyway.

I just want anyone out there in the community who knows me and reads this that I never intended to give up playing Ultimate.

What’s the potential pathway? Well, the Olympics of course! But we all have to keep it real. It’s incredibly hard to get there in any sport. In the sport of Bobsleigh, the financial aspect is absolutely HUGE and at the moment it is not supported by UK sport funding. So realistically, whilst the opportunity is definitely there, it’s a pretty steep mountain to climb. However, within the limited resources that are available to me, things have been heading in the right direction and that’s really all I can hope for at this moment in time! So if anyone knows anyone who might be interested in sponsoring me or the GB bobsleigh team, send them my way 🙂

What’s the potential pathway? Well, the Olympics of course!

Except perhaps a bit better training weather would be nice? – as I look out the window preparing to go to do a sprint session in the howling wind and sideways rain in January…..maybe I will go sprint in the garage!

Europa Cup race debut with Pilot Sarah Smith in Igls, photo credit Russell Viers

So before I go off this topic, I just wanted to give a solid mention to all the friends and family and sometimes strangers who have helped me over the last few years. Something as simple as a book recommendation, or a little check-in from a distant friend from the worldwide wide frisbee community was enough to just give me a little hope on a bad day and you probably didn’t even realise how much impact that conversation had at the time. To all the friends that have taken time to talk to me, who kept pulling me back up again, shared experiences and ideas, even treated me, you probably will never quite know how much of a positive impact so many of these experiences have had on me, but what I can promise, is to try and do my best to help other people and pass on your knowledge wherever I can.

Issy wants everyone to know that she’s incredibly open and willing to have conversations with others going through difficult rehab processes – please contact her through Instagram, she’s a blast to talk to! 😀

{"cart_token":"","hash":"","cart_data":""}