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)
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