Image: C4-C7, Spinal Vertebrae – March 22, ’07

Being injured sucks. Physical pain. Emotional suffering. A bad injury can crush your ego like a sour grape. Feelings of helplessness, frustration, defeat. Recovery can be agonizingly slow, taking weeks or months, even longer. Acknowledging physical limitations can be as painful as getting hurt in the first place. Allowing the body time to recover is a hard pill to swallow. Some are better at it than others.

Injuries can lead to denial, then anger. Pretty soon, widespread despair can overwhelm. Lost mobility, missed workouts, ice, heat, pills, casts, braces, sleepless nights, intense pain; all experienced just waiting to heal enough to begin what could be a long recovery. At the time, it’s hard to admit defeat. Patience is tested. The body is stronger than the mind, so attitude is everything, but emotional stability will surely be challenged. Eventually, the process of working to regain strength, flexibility, and endurance can begin.

Physical setbacks are an unwelcome reality of sports. Character is tested when faced with adversity; in fact, it’s defined. Recovery can be a long road, but ultimately being hurt offers the best perspective to appreciate your former intact self, often enabling and unleashing dynamism more powerful than ever before.

There are all sorts of injuries: broken bones, pulled muscles, lacerations, torn ligaments, even just a simple sprain. Acute injuries can knock you out of a race, but chronic injuries can hold you back for years. Athletes sideline themselves all sorts of ways: under-training, over-training, not warming-up properly, crashing hard, or in the most regretful and demoralizing case, through an unanticipated accident. I’ve had my fair share of each. Some were minor, others significant. I’ve broken a wrist and an ankle. I’ve pulled and sprained all sorts of muscles. I’ve had dozens of stitches and staples. I’ve torn a rotator cuff. I’ve had large amounts of skin crusted over with road rash. I’ve herniated disks in my neck and thrown out my lower back. Damn, I’ve thrashed my body so hard so many times it’s a wonder I can still do everything I like to do. Each injury left me frustrated and sore, but I was always champing at the bit to get back out there and regain lost ground. Recovery can be a tedious process, but in hindsight it’s as rewarding as it is humbling.

Telemark ski tip to the dome. A stark reminder to wear your helmet all the time, even when it’s nice and sunny out.

Only a handful of athletes have the amazing ability to push hard year after year without sitting out even a single game. Look at Cal Ripken Jr, dubbed the Iron Man of baseball. Ripken played a record 2,632 consecutive games across seventeen seasons. Unbelievable. Others can bounce back from severe adversity to etch their names at the top of the podium, marking repeated feats of strength, endurance, and will. Take Lance Armstrong, the triathlete turned cyclist who overcame stage three testicular cancer before going on to win the Tour de France a record-setting seven times. Impressive. The downhill skier Picabo Street suffered repeated 75 MPH crashes resulting in torn ACL’s and a snapped femur, but she kept coming back for more World Cup and Olympic medals. Badass. Professional athlete or eager outdoor enthusiast, the rules of recovery are the same; mental toughness is more important than physical prowess when it comes to getting back in the game after an injury.

I’m no sports physiologist or psychologist, so I won’t offer advice on how to handle the physical and mental aspects of injury. However, I’ve experienced first-hand that time and fortitude can prevail over most injuries. So when you find yourself busted and bruised, get up, dust yourself off, take some time to breathe and lick your wounds, then when the time comes, get back on it and push yourself harder than ever before all the way to a smarter, harder, and more grateful athlete. I’m overcoming an injury right now and am doing all I can to wrap my arms around this wise approach to self-improvement.

“When written in Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters – one represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” – John F. Kennedy. April 12, 1959