[ read time ~ 5 minutes ]
Lindsey Vonn ended her 18 year career on Feb. 10, 2019, due to multiple knee injuries. She is arguably the greatest American skier of all time: 14 Olympic starts, 25 World Championship starts, and 82 World Cup wins. (The record for World Cup wins is 86, held by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark.)
As I watched HBO Sports’ documentary Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season, I found myself wanting to share it with everyone struggling with a knee cartilage issue.
Obviously, most of my clients aren’t the greatest skiers of all time.
But many of my clients with knee pain have similar struggles.
Here are 3 struggles they hold in common with Lindsey Vonn:
1. IGNORING or DOWNPLAYING SYMPTOMS: “I don’t like anyone telling me what I can or can’t do, including my knee.” --Lindsey Vonn
Two weeks before the start of her final season, Lindsey had this conversation on the ski lift with her physical therapist:
PT: Are we planning on two [runs]?
Lindsey: 2 or 3, we’ll see how it goes.
PT: How’s the knee in warm up?
Lindsey: Um, it’s still not as bad as it was before, but…
PT: I’m looking for it to not get to that point.
Lindsey: Well, yeah, but we’re not skiing tomorrow.
PT: I know, but I can’t promise that [your knee] recovers in one day.
Lindsey: Yeah, it will.
Lindsey was familiar with pain. She had been able to ski through it. However, at one point, she said she was in a lot of pain, but her biggest complaint was stiffness.
As she was warming up prior to skiing down the mountain, she stood on both skis and attempted some shallow squats, a movement that she needed to perform at speeds up to 80 mph. There was resistance inside her knee, and it was preventing her from squatting as easily and as deeply.
While she was describing the resistance inside her knee as stiffness, this type of resistance is frequently due to swelling. Regardless, the “stiff” feeling was interfering with her ability to perform at the phenomenal level to which she had been accustomed.
So she had deep tissue massages, had her knees taped, and wore knee braces. But none of this eliminated her symptoms.
Ignoring or downplaying pain usually happens for one of two reasons: (1) lack of readiness to accept what the pain means, &/or (2) feeling like there’s no other option. Often people with knee pain are told that they will eventually need a knee replacement, so they push through the pain until that time comes.
The alternative that my clients have chosen includes determining the current strength of their knee joints, temporarily limiting the activities that put too much stress on their knees, and performing prescribed exercises that improve their knee joints.
2. BARGAINING: “Can’t we just inject something into it? ... There’s gotta be something we can do, right?” --Lindsey Vonn
X-rays of Lindsey’s knees didn’t look good. Her orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Thomas Hackett said, “The knee is now really getting to be what we call bone on bone, which means… there’s not much cartilage. This is the knee of someone who’s almost 60 years old. It’s pretty remarkable that she’s been racing at the level she’s been racing at with a knee like this.”
During the final days of her last season, another orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Christian Fink confirmed to Lindsey, “You have [a] cartilage problem… The meniscus is weak.” Lindsey had her swollen knee drained and then was given a cortisone injection. This temporarily relieved enough of her symptoms so she could ski in the World Championships in Sweden--the final event of her career.
Like Lindsey, my clients try a lot of things before they inquire about working with me to overcome their knee pain. It takes months or years for many of them to change their focus from temporarily getting rid of pain to preventing pain by strengthening their knee joints.
3. FEAR: “It’s really scary to think about not having something [skiing] that I love so much.” --Lindsey Vonn
No one wants to give up an activity that brings them joy-- like walking or running, basketball or gardening. And there’s a common perception that once you stop doing a particular activity, that it’s all over. That you won’t return to it. That further physical decline is inevitable.
Admittedly, sometimes clients don’t return to exactly the same level of activity. For example, the ultramarathoner may decide to run 5Ks. Or the gardener may decide to use raised beds rather than stooping and kneeling as frequently.
Looking at the long-term picture is critical. As Lindsey eventually stated, “There’s no reason to destroy my body if I’m not able to ski the way I want… I want a future where I can ski with my kids. And I think the thought of not being able to do that definitely outweighs the fact that I wanted to reach that goal of 86 wins.”
Lindsey had a team of coaches, a press manager, a trainer, a physical therapist, and a ski technician. Regardless, she still had to work hard to transform these struggles. As she put it, “the emotional swing is really difficult to manage as an athlete and as a human being.”
But she did it. She transformed downplaying symptoms, bargaining, and fear into acceptance. This transformation empowered Lindsey to announce, “I just really wanted to break that record, but I can’t… I’m not giving up. I’m starting a new chapter.”
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