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Feb 18 2000: On Rehab, Injury, and Work

So, today spring training gets underway in earnest. So many of the articles I’ve been reading have been about the players who have rehabbed from injury or surgery during the winter. Even Cal Ripken! Pitchers galore. And more.

I’ve been “recovering” from a back injury since 1996, so I can say something about strength, or lack thereof, and about how it takes a kind of focused mindfulness to come back from injury.

I’ve been practicing tae kwon do for over a decade now. And I’ve had my set-backs because of injuries. Doing something physical at a very high skill level, I’ve come to appreciate just how hard it must be for some of these players.

I injured my knee skiing in 1991, right after starting up in tae kwon do again after a three year hiatus. That time, I was stupid. I “stayed off it”–meaning I didn’t work out for about a month, but I was still walking from the T station to work every morning, and working on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator. I did untold damage to the knee by not going to the doctor right away, but I was between health insurance providers at the time (my job had just switched companies and I didn’t have a doctor assigned yet). Besides, it was the first time in my life that I’d ever been injured. That’s right, all those years running cross country track, but I’d never sprained my ankle. Never broke a bone or needed stitches. Never dislocated my shoulder. So I had no mentality for how to deal with injury or rehab.

Then there’s the fact that I was out of shape in the first place. I never would have hurt my knee in the skiing fall if I had been in shape. But after all those years of cross country track, teaching skiing professionally, and tae kwon do in college, I had no concept of what being out of shape was. never in my adult life had I been so inactive as those two years at a desk job. I didn’t jog, didn’t ski, didn’t do anything. I even ruined my eyes at that job. (Don’t get me wrong, it was a good job, an exciting and fulfilling one… but it led me to neglect my physical self.)

That’s why I wanted to get back into tae kwon do so badly, and why it was particularly heartbreaking to have to stop again after only about two months of it, because of the knee.

Like I said, I “stayed off it” for a month. Then I went back to tae kwon do class, because I was bound and determined that I wasn’t going to slack off.

And that’s when I did the real damage. The muscles still being weak in my leg, and giving no protection to the ligaments, I blew it out again in class.

That time it was a year I was out, but that time I finally went to a doctor. Got an orthopedist. Then got a physical therapist. And started doing quad exercises.

I’ll never forget the moment though, when the physical therapist said to me that I’d probably never compete again. Here I’d been going in to therapy with the mindset that I’d be as good as new when I was done. Insert Six Million Dollar Man music here…”we can rebuild her, we have the technology…” But he brought me up short with that dose of reality. I remember feeling physically ill at that moment, dizzy. To tell you the truth, I didn’t have plans to win any more medals and had figured I was done with that years before. But to hear him say it was no longer an option… it was a blow to my spirit. I cried when I got home.

Later, though, I came to decide he was wrong. I look at someone like David Cone, or Kerry Wood, or Jackie Chan, for gods sake, who have not only recovered from serious injury, they have returned to form and been able to perform at a very high level. I kept doing my exercises with the thought that although some things are unlikely, they are not impossible.

I’m still doing those exercises today, nine years later, because the inherent flaws in my knees are still there, and given the noises it has been making, I think the “good” knee is going to be the one to go next. But as long as I keep doing my exercises, I have a chance to keep it together.

That’s hard when my back is out. The back injury was a similar story to the knee, only this time I was in the best shape I had ever been in in my life. When I got my black belt I weighed 10 pounds less than I do now, could work out two to three hours at a time without feeling tired, and felt more or less invincible. That’s the problem–I felt invincible, and thought I could lift something that I could not. And–crack–I threw out my back.

I didn’t go to physical therapy this time–I didn’t need machines to do the rehab really. What I needed was to do lots of stretching, lots of trunk strengthening exercises I can do at home, and I needed to stop doing a lot of things that put stress on my back.

Nothing makes a person feel old like a bad back, though. Instant old lady feeling. “Oh, my back!”

Now it’s a couple years later on the back thing, and really only about three months ago did I feel like I could start trying to get back in shape. My cardiovascular system is at another all time low, my flexibility is shot, and I have a long way to go to get back to the level I was at in 1996 when the injury occurred.

But I look at guys like Cal Ripken, and the other players who are suffering through the dull winter months on their machines and doing their sit ups and their stretches and so on, and so forth… and I think maybe I can make it. Sure, they have professional trainers working with them, and sure, they get paid to get in shape, and I’ve just got me.

But maybe that’s all I’m going to need. Me, and the inspiration those guys give me.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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