Erika Grahm is only 23 years old and she’s already written her life story.
Two days before the Swedish forward hit the ice at the 2014 4 Nations Cup she signed off on the final draft of her book, “From Paralyzed to an Olympian.” (It will be released in Sweden on Dec. 1.)
In the summer of 2011, Grahm was vacationing in Greece with her boyfriend, and while out for a run one afternoon felt pain in her back and glute. A few days later the tingling had spread to her hands.
Once back home in Sweden, Grahm brushed aside her discomfort as an old back injury acting up and went back to the rink.
Two weeks later – having since abandoned her practices – she could barely walk.
“I was just lying to myself,” says Grahm. “I didn’t want to tell someone because if I told someone it’s going to be true.”
By this time overwhelming headaches and exhaustion were confining her to bed up to 22 hours a day. Walking anywhere was a workout in itself, as she could only drag her feet less than a foot at a time to go anywhere. And she’d lost feeling in the right side of her face.
She would end up spending eight weeks in and out of a small hospital in northern Sweden, where a series of tests led doctors to suggest she had multiple sclerosis. It took a specialist at a larger hospital 30 minutes to disprove that diagnosis; three days later, Grahm finally had a name for what had brought her life to an abrupt halt: Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which the immune system attacks the nerves, leading to paralysis.
She spent a week in hospital hooked up an IV unit. Once home it took another month for Grahm to feel like herself again.
“After that a journey starts,” says Grahm, who lost 15 pounds of muscle. “I was a mess but I had only one thing in my head: I will be back. I wrote in my phone the day I got out of the hospital: here we go again. I’ll be back.”
She worked out daily with one of the national team’s coaches to rebuild her strength. With short- and long-term goals in mind, she was determined to get back on the ice.
“I was young and I felt I had many years to go in my career,” she says, “but the (2014) Olympics were a goal, because in 2010 I was the last player cut.”
Less than four weeks after leaving the hospital Grahm put her skates back on. She took her boyfriend’s hand and let him lead her around the ice.
“It felt unfamiliar and it was like I was so heavy,” she says. “It felt like my skates were under the ice.”
It took another four weeks for her to feel comfortable.
“I was frustrated because I couldn’t go, but in my head I was still the same hockey player.”
Grahm rejoined her club team, MODO Hockey, for the start of the 2013-14 season, but didn’t immediately play. The team’s coach was new to women’s hockey and had never seen Grahm play, but he’d heard what she could do.
“I was team captain before I was sick,” says Grahm. “And (my coach) told me I was (still) going to be team captain so something was familiar for me.”
Her biggest challenge wasn’t getting herself back up to speed physically. The complications, Grahm says, were in her head. She met with a mental coach once a week.
“He helped me to understand that I’m the same player, even though my body is not the same player,” she says. “I needed patience.”
Grahm not only plays for MODO, she works in the team’s office with its company sponsors. One day, having decided she wanted to know more about girls’ hockey, she emailed all the clubs in the district.
“Women’s hockey is small in Sweden,” she says. “We are only 3,000 hockey players so all girls play with boys. I did until I was 16.”
She started MODO Women’s Future, a project that has up to 60 girls, ages seven to 12, practicing together each month. Her teammates join her when they can. It’s a great opportunity not only for the younger girls to play as a team, says Grahm, but also for them to meet women who’ve gone on to compete at higher levels.
Grahm, herself, is competing against the best in the world this week at the 4 Nations Cup in Kamloops, B.C. The player fans see on the ice this week isn’t any different than the one they saw in Newfoundland & Labrador in 2010, the last time the event was held in Canada. But the person you meet off the ice definitely is.
“I’m happier,” she says. “I appreciate everything. When I was sick, I was like, what’s happening to me? I’m so glad that I can live my life again.”