Anatomy of an Injury

author : Scott Tinley
comments : 1

By Scott Tinley 

“Don’t it always seem to go…”
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

          Most sports have their defining injuries; those physical maladies that are mostly guaranteed if you play long enough. Football’s concussion, baseball’s torn rotator cuff, basketball’s strained ankle—each signify the structure of the game if not the style of play. In ski racing, the chances of an athlete suffering a torn ACL are considered 99.5 % by many orthopedic doctors. I wonder if the ½ % is for the lucky or insightful skier who stops in the middle of their last run and walks the rest of the way down.
          Triathlon appears not to have one specific kind of injury but instead is known for its negotiated periods of rehabilitation. When the medically-trained tell us our injury could require at least a week of altered training, we skip a swim workout. We hear, “two to three weeks off” when it’s serious enough to refrain from using that body part for a several months. And the morbid prescription for surgery and “maybe next summer” is replaced with six to eight weeks, deep tissue massage and something called a cold laser treatment.
          Rehab is for retirement.  
          Our interpretation of and response to injuries are perhaps more telling of our personalities than our plans to heal them. It’s not so much a case of denial as it is disbelief. We are multisport athletes. We are in control of our lives and our bodies. We don’t get hurt.
          But we do. And we might be glad that we did.
          Much of what I learned about sport and about life did not come during a snappy, pre-dawn 10 miler or recounting the training program that led to a worthy victory. It was when I was hurt; plodding the neighborhood on crutches, breast stroking 25 yards in the slow lane, and drawing letters of the alphabet with my toes while perched on a physical therapy bench. Indeed, those first dark days of an injury can open the lens to a longer view of life.
          As athletes bent on the task at hand, we don the scarf, down the Saki and say “go” to an audience of one. That drive and focus, however, is what enables our greatness. It is not to be denied. But neither is the netherworld of being sidelined when the system breaks down. Whether the result of trauma, overuse, naïveté or arrogance, if we play sports long enough we will be forced to stop. And what we do when a force beyond our control pulls the brake lever can be the best of times or the worst of times.
          The tale of the injury is the tale of two worlds divided. Our identity forged in the physical movement is fractured. As if to say, “I run, therefore I am,” existential angst rears its ugly head less we remind ourselves that there is life beyond our terrestrial march in 400 meter circles. You know this. I know this. But it doesn’t make it any easier when we hear those fateful words—we should put that (enter body part here) in a cast for a month or so.
          Still, injuries are like people; some we can stand to have around longer than others. And many are the athlete who will treat their injury as they would a major race preparation—with careful attention to detail and scientific advice. But it’s never easy and more times than not we have a tendency to forget what patience, empathy, and self-knowledge came with a forced vacation from training. I don’t have an answer for how we might best use our days, weeks, and months away from an activity that has come to pulse through our veins.
          But then I’m healthy right now.
          My creativity however, has an inverse relation to my training mileage. I wrote one book in rehab from a broken neck, one as I waited interminably for homeostasis to return an adrenal system gone awry, and one in an effort to make sense of why so many others had suffered more than me. The books are out-of-print and the injuries have healed. And people still get hurt bad. Same as it ever was.
          The psychology of athletic injury suggests that an athlete’s response is connected to their coping mechanisms, feelings of loss of control, and types of support systems.  I’d imagine that anyone who has sat on the couch with an ice pack can relate to these areas. The more difficult challenge is to keep relating to them as we return to health and fitness; which is to say we might appreciate both the fragility and the resilience of the human body. Some days I just don’t understand why I can’t swim more than one 100 yd sprint under 1:10. Other days I see my friends pull themselves out of their wheelchairs, roll into the deep end with 100 yard smiles and I wonder where their strength comes from. And I’m so shallow with mine.
          There is such pleasure and reward to be found in the grand effort; some continuous drive to achieve and excel. But in those two-world dichotomies of head and heart, mind and body, spirit and spine, they can be two junk yard dogs pulling in opposite directions or they can find holism in a hand shake. We don’t always get to pick our injuries but we can control what we do with them. There are hundreds of bones in the body to break, and miles of soft tissue to tear. But the ways that the human body repairs them is still a medical marvel.
          Lying on the side of a steep ravine, my foot pointing the wrong way and blood finding its path of least resistance, I ask the same question I will six to eight weeks later when I return to the trail and spit on the root that rocked my world.
          “How did I get here?”
          And laugh at the wonderfully-edible mayhem that is an athlete’s life.

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date: November 10, 2010

Author


Scott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

Author

avatarScott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

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