BURNABY, CANADA – Jane Johnston, of Blood and Iron Martial Arts, is notorious in the West Coast Regional HEMA scene. She is often regarded as a top contender in the tournaments she fights in, having won multiple medals in recent years. After a serious car accident had taken her out of training and competition in Summer 2017, Jane came back determined to remind everyone she wasn’t down for the count. She returned to competition and won two silver medals at the Victoria Highland Games in May 2018. On top of winning double medals there, Jane had an integral role in planning the Victoria Highland Games. Jane agreed to talk to us about her recovery, her incredible comeback success, and some of the details that went into planning the Victoria Highland Games.
Women of HEMA: Thanks for doing this, Jane. You had sustained some serious injuries last year that took you out of competition for several months. Can you talk about what happened?
Jane Johnston: After Combat Con last year, I was on the way to the airport to fly home from Vegas with one of my training partners, Kevin. We were in a shuttle van, and the driver made a very unsafe left turn directly into oncoming traffic. We think he must have been going around 50km/h at the time, and he collided head on with another car going at least that speed, if not more. It was a very serious accident, made worse by the fact that the passengers in our van weren’t wearing seatbelts. Luckily Kevin and I were both wearing ours, which saved us from being much worse off. Actually, the woman sitting behind me in the van flew forward out of her seat and slammed into the back of mine – so I received two impacts, one from the cars colliding and one from her hitting the back of my seat. My doctors and therapists agree that this caused my injuries to be worse than they would have been otherwise. The moral of the story here is to always wear your seatbelt! Most of the people in the accident were taken to the hospital on stretchers with major injuries.
Fortunately, Kevin and I were able to walk out of the vehicle ourselves. We decided that we weren’t so injured that we needed to go to the hospital, so after talking with the police and paramedics we went straight from the scene of the accident to the airport. We had left ourselves enough time that we were able to have a car accident, deal with the immediate aftermath and still make it to the airport to catch our flight home, which was quite honestly the worst flight ever because we were in so much pain. I ended up with a severe concussion, whiplash, damage to the tendons and ligaments attached to my tailbone, cuts and bruises from the seatbelt, and other tissue damage.
After the accident, how long did it take for you to return to training?
It took a really long time, I’d say about 8 months before I was back to a normal level of training. Because of the concussion and my other injuries I had to take a lot of time off of work and everything else in my life, and with the extreme amount of pain I was in on a day to day basis, training really wasn’t possible.
After the accident, I had immediately booked appointments with my doctor and a whole team of therapists, but it took about a month of recovery and treatment before I was able to do anything more than light walks. I remember starting active rehab as soon as I could manage, and the day I was able to lift a lacrosse ball instead of just my arm was a huge win. It sounds really lame and it even felt that way at the time, but I was so injured that just being able to lift something above my head other than my arm was a big step forward. My physical recovery was hard and slow – I found that I lost a lot of my sense of proprioception, so I didn’t know where my body was relative to itself, I couldn’t figure out how to do movements that I’d been doing since I was a little kid, and obviously the pain and physical trauma were limiting factors, as well as the concussion and post-concussion syndrome. It was a pretty frustrating time of relearning how to do basic movements, and baby steps of progress paired with frequent setbacks as we kept discovering new and exciting ways that the accident had damaged me. There were so many setbacks, and it was so hard.
I prioritized my active rehab and getting back into the gym over sword training so I could rebuild a solid base, but also because my concussion symptoms made it a lot harder for me to be at the salle than anywhere else. I was back to a relatively regular (albeit light) workout program after about 4 months, but I wasn’t able to get back into the salle regularly until 7 months after the accident.
All that being said, it’s been 10.5 months since the accident and there are still some things I’m limited in. I will make a full recovery, but the lingering effects are quite stubborn.
When you returned to the salle, how did your training regiment change to accommodate your recovery?
My therapists and I came up with a very comprehensive ‘Return to Play’ plan, since we wanted to be very careful and make sure the concussion was taken care of properly, but we also wanted to make sure I could hit the ground running when I was able to do things again. By the time I was able to go back to the salle, most of my physical injuries were healed. I still had fairly intense pain in my tailbone, but I was able to work through that safely and the concussion was the real limiting factor at that point. Initially I could only do a little bit of solo work – things like flow drills, footwork, or pell drills. Then I started working towards participating in very low intensity paired drills with lots of breaks. I had to stay at that level until I was able to participate for the full length of a class with no concussion symptoms or extra breaks. Once I could do that, we started bringing the intensity back up slowly, until I was able to participate in a full class with no symptoms. Then I was allowed to start playing with contact, so I did classes in light and then full gear, using training partners with very good control to try carefully increasing levels of impact to my head. From there it was light singlestick sparring until we were able to up the intensity enough to go heavy and eventually back to longsword.
That whole process actually went fairly quickly, mainly because I had spent so much time on active rehab and getting back into the gym beforehand. I started light training in March and was able to spar longsword and get back to training at full intensity by the end of April.
What do you think helped your recovery the most?
That’s a big question. From a purely physical standpoint, I think that my kinesiologist (active rehab) and physiotherapist (concussion therapy) were able to do the most for me directly, but my doctor, chiropractor, and osteopath were also immensely helpful and I couldn’t have done it without them.
In general though, I don’t know that I could say that any one thing helped my recovery the most. My fiancé and friends were so helpful, patient, and kind, especially Kevin – we were close friends before the accident, and of course I would never wish something like what I went through on anybody, but having him understand exactly what I was going through because he was going through the same thing made it a little easier – we could relate to each other and support each other from a place of much deeper understanding.
I’ve also never been one to do well with not being able to do anything. So when things were really hard or painful or overwhelming (or all three, usually) I actually fell back on doing things out of spite for the accident and my situation itself – I couldn’t let the accident or my injuries win. Sometimes anger and vengeance about my situation were all I had, and I used them to force myself to do everything I needed to do to get better. It’s actually kind of ridiculous how many things you have to do when you’re recovering from that kind of trauma. As if it’s not hard enough, you have to do exercises and go to so many appointments and force yourself to do things that hurt, all while trying to get back to your normal life, just so you can get better.
How did your teammates and instructors help to support your healing?
Well my main training partner was in the accident with me, so we had each other’s support, which was nice. But everybody at Blood and Iron was so understanding and supportive. I have a lot of responsibilities around the club, and I was so grateful to them for stepping up and making sure I didn’t have to worry about any of it. That all by itself made it easier for me to focus on my recovery, but they were also always there for me. They made sure to check in on a regular basis and keep me posted about things that were going on, and it was nice to feel like I was still part of things.
I can’t give Sean Franklin enough credit though – he’s been my best friend, coach, and mentor for quite some time and his support was so valuable. Even when I could barely move because I was in so much pain and I couldn’t read because of my concussion, he would be there reading manuals to me, showing me cool techniques and interpretations, finding things for me to cut with that wouldn’t hurt, and just being an all-around champ. I couldn’t train at the salle because it would trigger concussion symptoms, so he started teaching me Thibault in his driveway so that I could at least do some sort of sword training, and he helped me make plans for what I should focus on when I could train and compete again.
Since you were limited in your training, you took on other projects that kept you active in the HEMA community, such as being an integral part of the planning team for the Victoria Highland Games. What was your role in making the Victoria Highland Games a successful event?
I was responsible for logistics and planning – so figuring out what our main goals and the overarching plan were, and then breaking it down into smaller tasks to make sure that no details got missed. My role was to keep track of everything that needed doing and make sure it was delegated, and that things were happening according to our plan and the schedule we’d set for ourselves.
What were some of the challenges you faced while helping to organize the Victoria Highland Games?
So it’s actually kind of funny that I was handling all the logistics and planning, because I had a lot of issues with my cognitive ability after the accident. My concussion made me pretty stupid for a while – I had a hard time concentrating, reading was hard, I couldn’t remember things very well, I couldn’t make connections very easily, I was slow, etc… So it took a lot of extra time and effort to overcome all that and make sure things didn’t get missed – I wrote everything down all the time and I had so many reminders set for myself that it was ridiculous.
Apart from my personal struggles, the organization of the event wasn’t very difficult – we had a really good team of people who worked really hard to make sure everything went smoothly. Without that team I’m sure things could have gone very badly, but the event itself didn’t really have much in the way of major issues.
What were some of the highlights from VHG that you saw from other female fighters?
Honestly, I don’t know that I have any ‘highlights’, per se. I was out of fighting and coaching for such a long time that what I loved watching was how far some of our women had come in the time since I’d been away. Watching them pull off techniques they used to struggle with, seeing them having clearly solved issues they used to have, that sort of thing. Obviously it’s always a pleasure to watch Nicole Smith fight, and her gold medal in the rapier tournament was well earned. I was also particularly proud of Jen Bowles for making it into the elimination bracket in the open longsword tournament.
When did you decided that you were going to compete in the Victoria Highland Games, and how did you know you were ready for it?
Ha, I’d honestly decided that I was going to compete in that one long before I even started planning it. I’d also decided I was going to fight at Purpleheart Open and SoCal Swordfight, but obviously those didn’t work out since I was still too injured. My first day back to sparring longsword was April 17th (I remember because it was a huge deal for my recovery and I may have cried in happiness about it), which was only a month before VHG. After that went well and I was able to up the intensity fairly soon after, I knew that I could do it.
As for being ready for it… I honestly went into that tournament having no expectations. I had only been back to full training for a month, and after so much time off I wasn’t putting any pressure on myself. So I don’t know that I could say I was ready for it in the way I’ve been ready for other tournaments, there was a lot of a “let’s wing it” attitude going on there.
You made quite the astonishing comeback. Tell us what you won and who you fought!
Thanks! I won silver in both the open and the women’s longsword.
I ended up fighting Lianna Teeter in the gold medal match in the women’s, and she was, as always, tough competition. After having fought pools and eliminations in two events that day, and going into that match immediately after fighting my finals match in the open steel, there was a lot of exhaustion at play by the time I made it to her. It was a tough fight and she ended up getting the better of me – she earned that gold medal and I’m always happy to be able to compete against her.
VHG was actually the first open longsword tournament I’d competed in, and obviously it went pretty well. I wasn’t actually planning on fighting in it at all – it was my first tournament back and I’d only been sparring again for a month, so I had planned on only doing the women’s to ease my way back into things. But then somebody dropped out of the open and they needed a body, so I decided to jump in.
I think the most fun fight I had in that one was against Reese Pollock, who had actually been coaching me in all my other matches. We ended up tied at 8-8 and it went to sudden death, where I took him with a sweet unterhau to the torso.
The gold medal match-up in the open couldn’t have been better though – I met Josh Furrate at Longpoint 2017 and we’d been friends ever since. At Longpoint we had one free sparring match, which was an absolute blast even though it ended up being cut short because he had taken an injury earlier in the weekend. Ever since that match we’d both been itching to fight each other again, so to be able to have our rematch as the gold medal fight was so perfect. He’s a phenomenal fighter and person, and although it obviously would have been nice to win gold in an open tournament, the fight we had was amazing and I have no shame in losing to him.
How did it feel to double medal at your first event after taking so much time off to heal yourself? If nothing else, it shows your dedication and perseverance. Kudos.
It feels fantastic, especially to have one of the medals be in an open longsword tournament – for a woman to medal in an open longsword tournament is exceptionally rare. It definitely made me super grateful to my therapists for helping me hit the ground running when I was able to get back to training, and to my coaches and training partners and Blood and Iron for making that one month of training I had beforehand really pay off. I’m very proud of my performance that weekend.
What was your most exciting fight in the women’s longsword event at the Victoria Highland Games? Why?
Fighting Amanda Clark in the semi-final was my favorite match in the women’s longsword. She’s affectionately referred to as ‘The Tank’ at Blood and Iron, because she’s so tough. I’ve been coaching her and training with her since she started HEMA, and it makes me so happy to watch her progress as a fighter. She’s come a long way and she definitely made me work for it, I’m very proud of her.
What seemed to be your most successful tactic when fighting in open longsword at VHG?
Patience and control were the two biggest things for me in the open. I don’t mean patience as in hanging back – I’m a very aggressive fighter, and I like to use that to my advantage. I’ve struggled with tunnel vision while fighting in the past though, so keeping a more broad awareness of the fight and being patient enough to respond to what the other person is throwing at me in the exchange was invaluable. It’s something I really only developed in that month of training before VHG and it paid off in spades. Big thanks to Julian Schuetze for helping me bust through that plateau. And control in terms of single-time counters and controlling the centerline. I made a lot of covered thrusts and zornhau because I wanted to control their weapon.
Who was in your corner for most of your fights? How did they help you succeed at VHG?
Reese Pollock was in my corner for every fight of the weekend except for the match I had against him. I was actually a bit concerned about coaches going into this tournament, since both of my usual coaches (Sean and Kevin) weren’t going to be there. Even in the other sports I’ve competed in, I’ve always had a hard time with finding a coach who can understand the way I think and process information during a fight.. Reese stepped up and ended up being exactly what I needed though. He helped me stay excited and relaxed, and especially in the open longsword he played a major role in helping me succeed and advance as far as I did.
Now that you are back in fighting shape, what is the next tournament on your radar?
I’m going to Europe in August, and I’ll be competing at Fight Camp and the Dutch Lion’s Cup. Fight Camp is really more of a fun thing for me at this point, so the DLC is my next serious tournament. I’m really looking forward to fighting in European tournaments for the first time and encountering an entirely new set of fighters and styles.
Thanks for your time, Jane! We look forward to seeing what you do in Europe, best of luck there. We’ll be sure to follow-up!
The opinions expressed by the subjects of our interviews are their own, and do not express the opinions of Women of HEMA or its authors.