Learning to Heal
When I was growing up in Indiana, writer and producer Angelo Pizzo was viewed as royalty because of his Indiana-based films. Of the three greatest sports movies of all time – Rudy, Hoosiers, and Breaking Away – Angelo Pizzo wrote and co-produced two of them. Maybe I’m biased from spending three decades in Indiana, but Pizzo captures the human spirit and the love for sport like no other. So, last Fall, when a friend invited me to a viewing party for Pizzo’s latest creation, My All-American, I couldn’t say no.
My All-American, starring Finn Wittrock and Aaron Eckhart, tells the story of legendary Texas Longhorn safety Freddie Steinmark and the unexpected role that he played on the Longhorn’s football program in the late ‘60s. As you might expect from a Pizzo film, Freddie Steinmark overcomes his small stature to convince Longhorn coach Darrell Royal that he has the skills and talent to play college football. Throughout the film, Steinmark’s leadership inspires the team and pushes them towards the 1969 college football championship. Without divulging too much of the plot, as the season progresses, Steinmark begins to suffer knee pain and discovers that the pain threatens his football career and maybe more. Steinmark’s knee pain and his fight for his future highlights the film’s dramatic climax.
Driving home after the movie, my wife and I discussed the film’s poignant ending and how we could apply its lessons to our lives. After a brief pause, my wife mentioned the knee pain that I had been suffering with for almost five years. As I shared a few weeks ago in another post, I began to suffer from cycling-related knee pain in 2013. After the pain derailed my bike racing dreams that summer, I took the entire winter off to let myself heal from what I identified as an overuse injury. But, when restarting my riding the following spring, the pain came back after a few weeks. And, so the cycle continued for the next few years as I would take more and more time off the bike to heal while never actually eliminating the knee pain.
As my wife and I talked about My All-American and Freddie Steinmark, I couldn’t help but compare Steinmark’s knee pain with my own. I didn’t think that my knee pain was being caused by the same thing that Steinmark suffered from, but we were loosely united in that our pain threatened our ability to participate in a sport that we loved. As I rubbed my throbbing knee, I wondered how I could have been so stupid as to have never gone to a doctor after all those years and pain. But the idea of orthopedic surgery scared me. I was terrified that the doctor would tell me that my days of riding a bike were over. What would I do if something I loved so much, cycling, was taken away from me? Despite this uneasiness, Freddie Steinmark’s story gave me motivation to face my fears and heal. Hiding from the truth wasn’t cutting it anymore, I needed to seek out medical attention.
That next Monday, I was nervously sitting in the waiting room of Park Nicollet’s TRIA Orthopedic walk-in clinic trying to convince myself that my knee pain wasn’t that bad. As I sat there, I was trying to come up with any hair-brained excuse to leave before my name was called. Before I could persuade myself to escape from the waiting room, a sports medicine doctor called me back and started twisting my limbs, checking flexibility and strength. After a few minutes, he dropped the bombshell. My knee pain was being caused by an injured iliotibial band and a weak right glute. I nervously asked what kind of surgery would be needed (I was convinced that they were going to have to cut me). The doctor chuckled and said that all I’d need was some physical therapy and I would be as good as new. After all those years of avoiding doctors because I didn’t want to face my injury and this guy was telling me that all I needed to do was work on my core strength and even out my butt muscles!
Over the next few months, Belle, my physical therapist at Park Nicollet Rehabilitation, ran me through the wringer. Apparently just keeping a copy of Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage book isn’t enough to ward off injuries, you actually have to do the workouts. For the first several weeks, I was instructed to do a series of exercises using my King Athletic foam roller (another tool that only works if used!). Slowly – and initially painfully – I’d spend every morning massaging out the knots of connective tissue and muscle. At first, every role felt like knives being forced into my butt and thighs. Then, just as the foam roller started to feel comfortable, Belle upped my regimen to include a series of planks, squats, and leg lifts.
From that point forward, my day would start with me pushing myself through nearly an hour and a half of physical therapy in my townhome’s loft. It was uncomfortable, it was boring, it usually made me late. Thankfully, over time, I realized that I was getting stronger. A 30-second plank might have felt impossible one week, but a couple weeks later, I could hold a plank for 60 seconds and occasionally lift one of my legs in the air mid-plank.
Finally, Belle let me get back on the bike and gave me a multi-session bike fit that made Specialized’s Body Geometry Bike Fits look like child’s play. Belle carefully filmed me cycling from all angles and showed me how my right leg wobbles back and forth with every pedal stroke, the likely culprit for my injured IT band. I would have to start to re-learn how to pedal so that my knee would go up and down like a piston. Practice makes perfect, so Belle sent me home to begin doing sessions on my trainer.
It’s been four months since my physical therapy sessions came to an end and I’m still doing my exercises every day for at least an hour. When I miss my morning workouts because of a busy work schedule or travel, I can tell. My body is becoming accustomed to the new strength and without the physical therapy, my body starts slipping back into bad habits. Strength-wise, I still have a long way to go. But with the 2018 racing season as the goal in front of me and the encouragement from my wife, I’m hopeful that I’ll stay strong.
There you have it. From feeling like I might be permanently crippled to going down the road towards healing and possibly reaching my dream of racing my bike. After all those years of fretting over my bum knee, all I needed to do was visit Park Nicollet’s acute injury clinic. Who would have ever expected the catalyst to get my stubborn self into an orthopedic’s office would be a movie about the University of Texas? Thank you Angelo Pizzo, Finn Wittrock, and Freddie Steinmark. Hook ‘em