Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On My Knees… and Plushenko’s Knees, and Shabalin’s Knees…

Fortunate soul that I am, I was a grown woman before I ever found myself sitting in a hospital awaiting surgery. But ten years ago, there I sat—anxiously awaiting a “scope” on my knee with the following ideas churning through my brain:

--Will this hurt as bad after surgery as it does right now?
--I’m a terrible sleeper; will the anesthesiologist really be able to “knock me out”? And if he does, what if I wake up while they’re still sucking stray cartilage out of my body?
--Does this surgery officially make me an athlete like everyone else in my family that has knee trouble?

I was still skating weekly back then—nothing fancy, but I quietly hoped my scope could be attributed to hundreds of sit spins in my lifetime. It seemed more glamorous than saying I’d spent too much time on the Stairmaster in the early 90s… even though it happened to be true, and was in all likelihood a bigger contributor than the skating.

For what it’s worth, I learned plenty of lessons about myself as I got back up to speed in the weeks that followed. Among them:

--I can never develop an addiction to Vicodin—I was sick to my stomach soon after taking my first post-surgery dose.
--Me and crutches don’t mix. In short? They suck.
--Hospitals charge something like $12 a roll for extra-wide Ace bandages. (This is probably common knowledge, but as I said at the top, I’m a fortunate soul and hadn’t spent much time in medical facilities at that point)

But of course the most important lesson: RESPECT YOUR KNEES.

As that Baz Luhrman ditty about sunscreen famously told us about a decade ago—coincidentally, around the same time as my scope-- “you’ll miss them when they’re gone.” Ah, how true. In the days leading up to surgery I was hobbling around like an injured monster in a horror flick, yearning for the days when I could bend down to tie my shoes normally again. I thought of two of my brothers (and maybe a sister too?), all athletes of some kind, all having undergone surgery themselves. I thought of my dad, an all-around jock back in the day, with the long surgical scar on one knee that I used to trace with my finger when he was sitting around in shorts watching TV.

I think of all of that nowadays too, as I carefully pace my daily exercise in efforts to keep my knees from hurting. But since hearing about His Evgeniness and how
his knee problems have returned, and why they’ve returned…(hint: as you might have already read, Plushy is reportedly practicing quad/quad and triple axel/quad combos to give himself even more of a competitive edge.)

… I have to ask, in all honesty: Dude, have you lost your mind? You have Olympic silver, Olympic gold, and a string of World titles. Is it really worth pounding your joints into a creaky, aching mess for the rest of your life? (And, um, wouldn’t it be kinder to your body—and the skating world—if you’d pour some of that energy into the footwork and spins you claim you heard “whispers” about?)

And I perpetually think of Maxim Shabalin (of the world champion ice dance team Domnina/Shabalin), and how he continues to suffer from chronic knee pain, and probably has no business continuing to compete… but whether it’s pressure from the Powers That Be for his skating federation, or his own determination, he’s surely training as hard for the Olympics as he possibly can. His motivation is a bit plainer to see; they’ve only got one World title to show for their trouble thus far. But good Lord, where do you draw the line between gutsiness and simple common sense?

True, I have no real interest in seeing either of these guys in Vancouver anyway. I admit that. But I have one other name that comes to mind with all of this; an American, still-young woman by the name of Tara Lipinski. It wasn’t her knees that gave her trouble, it was her hips—one hip in particular, messed up so badly by repetitive jumping passes at age 18, two years after her Olympic victory, she was having the kind of surgery usually reserved for women over the age of 70. To my knowledge, she hasn’t been able to skate professionally in seven years. Julia Sebestyen and Fumie Suguri are older than her… and are still competing!

Whether it was “worth it” or not could probably be debated for hours. The fact that it’s heartbreaking, sad, and could have been prevented… not so much.

What price glory?

An old question, but I guess that’s all I’m really asking.

A 2002 Ice Wars appearance by Lipinski— her last time on that once-annual event—is the
Clip of the Day.


Katrina said...

Tara's problems are the reason that I'm extremely in favor of the age rule both in gymnastics and figure skating. Don't push the athletes. I understand that especially with the women in gymnastics there is a time issue but there are definitely ways to train.

Good write!

Sharon said...

Good post, Kelli, you raised some excellent points. I'm not an athlete but 20 years of nursing and I found myself under the knife in October for a torn meniscus. My knees are a disaster right now and I don't imagine they are going to improve a whole lot. I plan to treat them with care since I still have more years of work ahead! I know it's a hard reality to face but trouble with your joints really becomes a lifelong struggle and some of these athletes need to take a good hard look at what they are doing and decide what is truly the right course.

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