Olympic paddler Kayla Imrie: "You can view a period as a positive tool - it's a superpower"

After a decade-long struggle with heavy menstrual bleeding, the 29-year old wants to help other women talk about their periods.

4 min By Ashlee Tulloch
Kayla Imrie - New Zealand Olympic paddler 
(Picture by 2020 Getty Images)

It has taken a long time for Olympic canoeist Kayla Imrie to find a solution to her heavy menstrual bleeding.

The Kiwi has three world championships medals and is a contender for the Olympic podium in the K4 at Tokyo 2020.

The condition, which was eventually diagnosed as menorrhagia, meant recovery was difficult.

Her naps were long.

“I'd sleep for about two to three hours every single day” - Kayla Imrie on the Olympic Channel Podcast

“I got some blood tests taken… [and] I was I was borderline anaemic.”

After years of trail and error, she has found a solution.

Kayla is speaking out for 2021 International Women’s Day and looking to change the conversation around periods in sport.

''You can view a period as a positive tool."

“It's a little bit of a trigger warning for your own personal health… suggesting that maybe you should slow down, or talk to someone about something.

“It’s a superpower that men don't have.”

Seeing a doctor

The first thing Kayla did was take ownership of her situation. She decided to speak to coaching staff and medical staff about her condition.

“I was like, ‘Look, I like bleed really heavy.’

“I'll be going to the bathroom every hour, hour and a half for the first two to three days.

“I'm changing super tampons, like constantly… [the blood is] flooding through my underwear.”

“I would have huge naps, [but] I'd still wake up and I'd still feel [bad].

"In my own heart, I just knew there was a better way.”

Finding the right solution

Kayla competed at Rio at Rio 2016 in the K4 500m boat and finished 5th. Her and her NZ crew have higher expectations for Tokyo 2020, but to improve her performance and life, she felt she needed a solution to this issue.

She tried several contraceptive pills but nothing seemed to work.

“They put me on [one] contraceptive and I bled for like eight weeks straight… just heavy bleeding for eight weeks”

Kayla was then offered a contraceptive jab that stopped periods altogether.

This seemed to work initially.

“They recommended me to come off it after two years and get my cycle and then go back on it again.

“I did that. And after I had been off it, I hadn't got my period for another 18 months.

“So, that freaked me out quite a bit.”

The next option was an intrauterine device (IUD).

According to the British NHS website, it’s a small T-shaped plastic and copper device that's put into your womb (uterus) by a doctor

Sometimes people call it ‘the coil’.

“My periods came back."

Kayla's relief was short-lived.

“They were extremely heavy… Later, I find out that the IUD makes your periods heavier as well.”

There was another option that was similar – a hormonal intrauterine device. After some reluctance, Kayla agreed to give it a try.

The doctor suggested prescribing Kayla a ‘mini-pill’ that would help with the bleeding plus some supplements to help level out her blood-sample readings.

As it stands, things seem to be heading in the right direction.

“I still bleed, but it's manageable… I'm not having the problems that I had before.

Noticeable and measurable improvements

After all the false dawns, Kayla is taking things slowly. Her blood samples initially didn't show any difference but she felt better.

Eight months into the new regime, her iron levels started to go up.

“The rest of my blood composition was starting to look a little healthier as well…

“But the best thing of all - without actually seeing the numbers - was that I started only needing to nap for 20 minutes a day.

“I felt absolutely incredible turning up to training.”

International Women's Day 2021: A message of hope and resilience

Kayla was compelled to share her personal journey in order to start a wider dialogue.

“It's probably 12 years later from my first period where I felt completely embarrassed and uncomfortable to talk about it at the start.

“The purpose of these conversations outweighs the discomfort because it's going to change that social stigma.

“It's natural. Everyone's got it. And [the social stigma] is slowly changing.

“If my story helps someone who might have an issue feel more comfortable to be able to speak up, then we're all winning.”

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