"This is a living creature, not a play toy"

The other day I was asked, “can you still do a backflip?”  I had to think about it, it’s something I haven’t done in years.  A big part of me would like to play around with it, particularly because the question was being asked in reference to doing a sick Crossfit workout with back tucks in it.  Plus, I do miss gymnastics.  Last year I looked up an adult gymnastics open gym at a local gymnastics club.  The name adult gymnastics cracks me up, like the designation “adult” indicates, ‘something you really have no business doing, but if you insist, here’s a class for you’.  I told myself I would give it a try after the Games.  Turns out there’s never a convenient time to injure yourself, whether the Games are approaching or not.  I don’t want to put limitations on myself, but I think to be realistic with myself, playing around with gymnastics/tumbling beyond Crossfit-esque gymnastics might be taking things too far.

 My hyper-awareness of the possibility of injury results from my long history of knee problems.  I know I’m not alone in having knee issues, as I’ve had a number of people message me about their own struggles.  By almost any measure, the situation with my knee has been exceptionally bad.  Rather than dramatize it with a long narrative, here’s the quick run down on the orthopedic happenings of my youth:

  • 8th grade, torn meniscus, right knee, arthroscopic surgery
  • 9th grade, torn meniscus, left knee, arthroscopic surgery
  • 10th grade, torn left ACL, reconstruction (patellar tendon graft)
  • 11th grade, torn meniscus, left knee, arthroscopic surgery
  • 11th grade, torn left ACL, reconstruction (cadaver tissue graft)
  • College Freshman, torn left ACL, bone graft and ACL reconstruction (hamstring tendon graft)

    This was taken the day I tore my ACL...the first time.

If you aren’t versed in sports injuries and that list means nothing to you, know this-you do not want a torn ACL, and you certainly don’t want three.  It put quite a damper on my dream of a successful collegiate gymnastics career, and it did a number on my self-image in a couple of ways.  I had participated in gymnastics since such a young age, being a gymnast was largely how I defined myself.  I felt like something had been taken away from me when I wasn’t able to continue in the sport.  Beyond the inability to perform in my sport, I also became pretty uncomfortable with the appearance of my leg.  Seven surgeries in a five year period left me with what I felt were atrocious scars and atrophied muscles.  There was actually a period of time I didn’t feel comfortable wearing shorts and skirts due to my “ugly” leg. 

“On the girl’s brown legs there were many small white scars.  I was thinking, do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and the moons on your dress?  I thought that would be pretty too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly.  That is what the scar makers want us to think.  But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them.  We must see all scars as beauty.  Okay?  This will be our secret.  Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying.  A scar means I survived.”- from Little Bee by Chris Cleave

 The psychological impact resulted in a sort of subconscious avoidance of a variety of movements.  I say subconscious because since I was still relatively active I didn’t realize I was avoiding much until I began Crossfitting. At that point I realized I was afraid of squatting deep, jumping (box jumps, double unders), single leg movements like pistols, any cutting or turning like on a shuttle run, and generally had some fears about anything that wasn’t slow and super controlled.  It’s actually a blessing that I decided to give Crossfit a try- I almost didn’t.  Right before I started Crossfit I was having a lot of knee pain and instability.  When I had it checked out I found that once again, my ACL was not intact.  I don’t know if it was some kind of graft failure along the way, or an acute trauma that I was somehow not aware of, but I wasn’t surprised at all to hear recommendation for yet another reconstructive procedure.  I went home and started some intensive medical research (yeah, I Googled) on “ACL revision”.  What I gathered was that outcomes for revision are not generally as favorable as those for primary ACL surgery, and that revision is not really intended to facilitate return to intensive participation in athletics.  Given that bit of information, I decided another surgery was not right for me. 

 It’s definitely not unheard of for people to participate in athletics with no ACL.  DeJuan Blair does it.  Hines Ward does it.  Brazilian ‘football’ legend Pele did it.  Overall I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in activities I love.  There’s a fair amount of bone damage that has resulted from instability in the joint.  There have been times when things are really painful and it literally hurts to walk around in normal life, or I have the kind of pain that keeps you up at night.  There are times when the pity party is in effect and I think how great it would be if my left leg were completely healthy and fully intact.  The upside is, it forces me to stay smart about my training.  Crossfitters and other athletically inclined people sometimes love to pound ourselves into the ground.   I feel like the situation with my knee- not only the routines and practices it takes to keep it healthy (knock on wood), but my knowledge of what it’s like to go through surgeries and rehab month after month-helps me keep my focus on training smart and maintaining health.  I try to keep this in mind when I’m fussing about a subpar workout.  A poor training session can be a great learning opportunity, and walking out healthy is a victory in itself.  Does that sound lame?  I just don’t care about getting gold stars for being “hardcore” and working-out in a way that is injury provoking so I can claim tough status.  I guess it’s all about perspective.  However, if there’s a competition with backhandsprings for distance you better believe you’ll see me flipping down the field.

Not the most exciting video, but it demonstrates how Crossfitting has helped me increase my comfort level in movements involving my knee.

“Success is no accident.  It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”  Pele

Author: Elisabeth Akinwale

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  • Elisabeth, Thanks for sharing your injury story and timeline. I had no idea of your previous injuries. I thought you were really special when I saw the CrossFit Games so I looked you up. I am totally inspired by your preserverence and feel that I’m not alone.
    My knee reminds me every day in the form of fear and pain. I too had ACL reconstruction surgery with a cadaver tendon 3 years ago. It is pain I can work through and fear that I trust I will conquer.
    I wasn’t seeking CrossFit, but wanted to find fitness at a new level after my tennis injury. From the first time I did a workout (it wasn’t pretty), I knew thhis was my platform to rediscover my drive. Reading your story adds more fuel to the fire.
    I think this is again, part of the community of CrossFit don’t you think? Sharing.
    Thank you Elisabeth!
    Claudia Berk Tennis player and CrossFitter from Akron, Ohio

    • Hi Claudia, thank you SO much for commenting! Reading your experience makes me very happy for you that you too found Crossfit. It is such an amazing outlet for those athletic aspirations, and I think because of the variety it’s possible to manage an injury like we’ve had and still excel. I really hope you will continue to progress through the physical pain and the fear. I have certainly had many ups and downs with both, but the more time I get under my belt with CF I’ve discovered things that help pain-wise, and every success chips away at any remaining fears.

      I completely agree, sharing should be something we do in our community- we can all learn from each other and provide support and information. I don’t do this blog for a “me show”, I really want to hear from people, so thanks again for posting.

  • i stumbled across your blog through rudy’s site. i’m very happy i did…i have a torn acl and never had surgery for a variety of reasons. i started crossfitting a year after i tore it and was so scared i’d make things worse, and have always thought i’d never really be able to reach a high level of athleticism because of it. there are some things i’m cautious of, but overall i feel very strong. it’s nice to know there’s someone out there kicking butt with a bum knee. gives me a little hope. 🙂

    • That’s awesome Jess! I truly don’t think your knee has to be a limiting factor in your performance, ACL or not. Best wishes for continuing to feel strong and building confidence doing work on that knee!

  • When I moved to Chicago and was browsing to get familiar with the CF scene I found your name in that Dry Wall post. I was inspired by your frankness and decided to google you.

    I have a much shorter athletic background and injury list, but your perspective on training/goals and clarity of purpose in your posts have inspired me in the process of refining why/what I do. Just wanted to say thanks and keep it up. Maybe we’ll cross paths!

  • I googled ‘black people and crossfit’, read the Drywall post (absolutely hilarious!!!) and made my way over to your site. I just had a session of acupuncture to help with my knees, I’m willing to try almost anything now that my brain is in love with crossfit. Keep up the good work, its awesome seeing another black chick move weight.

  • Just a note on your video, if you are trying to do pause squats you generally do not want to bounce out of the bottom. It kind of defeats the purpose of pausing. Otherwise, congrats for persevering through injury, anyone who has been through a major athletic injury knows its equally mental as well as physical to get back out on the field/court/platform again.

  • Thanks for this! I, too, have had multiple knee surgeries and tore my first ACL at 12 playing soccer. I have more pity parties than one person is allowed about how these injuries have affected my health (weight, athleticism). I started CrossFitting a few months ago and have been battling through the pain. I keep telling myself it’ll stop hurting so bad when I improve my fitness and drop some weight – trying to see the big picture…long-term. I think the 2 biggest things I’ve taken from your post is that a) I’ve been scared of certain movements for many years, so developing those movements again will take some time (be patient, work hard!) and b) train smart – I push myself (and my coaches do this too) too far sometimes. Not pushing yourself to injury doesn’t mean you’re weak………..right? Still trying to figure out this balance.

    • Thanks for commenting Elizabeth! It sounds like you’re doing all the right things and sometimes it IS hard to get away from the “no pain no gain” mentality. But does it make sense to destroy yourself one day only to be sidelined, or getting surgery the next? I don’t think so. Taking proper care of your body isn’t being weak!

  • Elisabeth, thanks for sharing your stories about your knees injuries. I just stumbled across your page while researching crossfit and ACL recovery. Our histories are sadly similar though my injuries stem from playing soccer. Can I ask how you decided not to have the 4th surgery? I’ve recently re torn my left ACL ( cadaver graft in 2007). Until 2 weeks ago I was at the top of my game, and in the best shape of my life. I am still training body weight wod and running-butnlaying off the weights. Just thinking about surgery–the pain, the rehab, no crossfit for awhile…ugh, can’t even go there. How did you get your knee stable again and overcome that “what if” voice in your head? Best of luck in the games this season!!


    • Hi Erin! I hope you’ll see this response, it’s been awhile. The main reason I decided against the surgery is that from the research I did a knee with ACL revision times 3 would not really be intended for athletic participation. I want my knee (and the rest of my body for that matter) to be intact not necessarily for the sake of being intact but so I can fully participate in life and the activities I enjoy. I essentially felt like I would be getting my ACL done again just so I could walk around on it. But I can already do that.

      I TOTALLY know what you mean when you said, “can’t even go there”. After SO much rehab year after year, just thinking about it is emotional. Even the logistics of it- I have a little boy, live in a third floor walk up, how would this work…no! The downside is I don’t really know what the long term health consequences will be for my knee.

      Anyway, I wish I had a great answer with regard to gaining stability. I don’t know that any physician would recommend or even sign off on what I’m doing. I wold say take it slow and listen to your body. Over the years since my last reconstruction there have been many times I was CERTAIN I would have to get surgery. Pain, instability, swelling. It won’t be a straight road, there are still tons of ups and downs. The what if voice is still there. i get very nervous for bounding box jumps, for example. there’s a fine line between just being smart about it and letting your fears control you, ya know? I was asked this weekend about things I do to manage it, I will consider writing something more detailed up and posting (I have to do some thinking, it’s all so second nature now I have to gather my thoughts).

  • Coming from ongoing knee problems due to a tear in my right patellar tendon, I have been doing my best to rehab and make great progress. Reading your post here is very inspiring and motivated. And seeing your performance at Regionals this year, it only makes me want to bust my ass even more at mine this weekend!

    But tell, is it completely pain free now? Me I have to take it slow still on things like jumps, and definitely pistols.

    All the best for your Games prep!

  • Cool Post, I’m glad to see such a high level athlete discussing injuries. Sometimes I see the volume and intensity of training and wonder how people stay injury free. Thanks elisabeth

  • hi! I’ve had two ACL reconstructions on my left, and lots of torn cartilage on my right. I just started Crossfit and am curious if you felt better or worse when you started – i’m feeling strong, but me knees are very sore after squats and leg work, and feel a bit funny, like they’re hyperextending… was this your initial experience? I’m just wondering if I should power through it or take it really slow and be concerned about injury.

  • Hi! I did not know you had all of those surgeries on your knees. That makes it even more impressive what you’ve been able to do, and what you continue to do, in CrossFit. I tore my ACL in college playing basketball and had surgery around 7 years ago. I didn’t do all of my rehab and still have issues with it. I just found out today that I tore my other ACL while playing in my Alumni basketball game. I have been training for CrossFit so hard this year and was looking to try to make another trip to Regionals. This news is very disappointing to me but it makes me feel a little better to see how such a strong woman has gone through a battle with knee injuries that is much more extensive than mine and continues to do great things in CrossFit. Keep kickin’ ass!! 🙂

  • Hi Elisabeth,

    thank you so much for sharing your lessons with honesty, humility, humor, and brilliance. I’m a modern dancer, and ran track & field in high school- 15 years ago. I’m new to seriously lifting so I’m always looking for perspectives and ideas on training that might help refine my understanding. I appreciate your sober words on injury and prevention, and the candid sharing of your story. You’ve inspired me to always strive for proper form and technique (being a dancer, I always gotta make it look good 🙂 ) not only as a means of efficiency, but as a form of injury prevention. Thanks for being so awesome. In the world of Google where a search for “african american women olympic lifting” still returns only white women, or black women who have clearly never lifted a day in their lives holding 5-lbs dumbbells, i’m so happy I found you on the interwebs.

  • I just wanted to say that this is probably the most inspirational thing I’ve read. I’m 23 and have osteoarthritis in both knees after 5 surgeries, 4 of which were complete ACL reconstructive surgeries. It is such a struggle everyday and to see what you’ve overcome to be where you are is such an emotional boost to help me keep going. I lost a college soccer scholarship and dream because of my injuries and reading this just gives me hope to keep going. I just wanted to thank you because you have unintentionally changed my life.