How I Blew Out My Knee and Came Back to Win a National Championship (Part 2 of 3)

This is the part two in a three-part series about the knee injury that changed my life and my road to an NCAA championship. In part one I talked about growing up as a gymnast, learning the Yurchenko double full, blowing out my knee and undergoing my first major surgery. Here’s what happened next.

PART ONE | PART TWO | PART THREE

1. Try to make me go to rehab

My 21st birthday. Got quite inebriated and still managed to make it all the way home and up a flight of stairs on crutches without stumbling even once.

I ended up having three knee surgeries just from the knee dislocation:

I had a great knee surgeon (professional soccer players would ask for him by name) but anyone who’s had surgery knows that physical therapy makes an ENORMOUS difference in your recovery. I was lucky enough to have an amazing physical therapist, Melissa was knowledgeable, compassionate and tough. I worked with her 3x a week for 90-120 mins at a time, for over 2 years – and it made a big difference in my outcome.

It’s amazing how fast your leg muscles atrophy after you stop walking. At first, I couldn’t even fire the quad muscle – so my sessions would focus on leg raises and using electrical stimulation to force muscle contractions. I pushed myself HARD and more often then not, would break a sweat with all the physical exertion. Melissa put me through a vast battery of exercises, from manual resistance to elastic band work to light weight resistance. And always TONS of icing.

SIDE NOTE: Being on crutches sucks – they are awkward and slow you down big time. I hated the limitations they placed on my day to day life and this intense hatred manifested in my becoming pretty much the fastest guy you’ve ever met on crutches. I modified my I could run short distances on crutches, crutch up stairs faster than most people walk stairs – I even crutched over 5 miles in a 24 hr period doing Relay for Life. (This turned out to be a bad idea and led to an infection and eventually a third surgery where they cleaned out my knee. But my point remains – I’m a very competent crutcher.)

At a young age, gymnasts are taught to visualize – to help them learn new skills and prepare themselves for competition. This technique has been shown to be almost as effective as actually training the skill because it drives cortical output signals which causes stronger muscle activation levels.

Knowing this, I visualized myself doing routine on every event, every day. Not just my old sets either, but the routines I wanted to do when I returned to competition – which included skills I had never even done before. Each day I would rehearse a mental meet in my head and feel myself performing new skills in sequences and in routines – at least twice all the way through.

Slowly but surely I made progress. With the help from Melissa, my family, my girlfriend Olivia (who went above & beyond the call of duty) and my teammates, I began to get better. I started walking. Then leg pressing. Then light jogging. Then jumping and landing. Eight months later, it looked like I might return to the gymnastics floor…

2. Back in the game

Snapped by a Stanford Daily photographer. My parents were so proud to see me in the paper =)

During the whole rehab process, I made sure to go into the gym everyday – even on days when I had two or more hours of physical therapy. I did as much strength conditioning as I could – pushups, pullups, weights when possible and lots of core (back, abs and obliques). I also spent time coaching the young guys, acting as a second pair of eyes. Why do all this? Simple:

1) I didn’t want my teammates thinking I was giving up, or even slacking just because I got hurt.
2) I didn’t want to get fat and out of shape.

This set up me up well when I was finally ready to start training again. First event to come back was the pommel horse. We’d slide big soft mats in every time I went and I had to either come off the horse in a controlled manner, or force myself to land on my back or stomach. I was able to get a lot of my skills back pretty quickly and my first meet post injury was exactly one year later – returning to the UC Berkeley arena to do pommels.

Eventually I started doing parallel bars again too, which was always my strongest event. Landings were scary but continued to do lots of leg conditioning to strengthen my knees. That season we had ranked number one in the preseason and held that number one ranking for the majority of the year. We trained very hard. We were very excited because the past two seasons we had gotten 3rd and we felt like this year we were going to make it all the way. In addition, NCAA Championships were to be held at Stanford University.

Winning was at the top of everyone’s minds. After every routine, after every meet, more often than not, someone would comment about NCAAs. “Make sure you stick it at NCAAs.”  “You better catch that release in Finals.” We were all very aware whatever happened during the season, we would have to nail it in finals to win the title.

As you might guess, this isn’t necessary the best approach to take.

3. Big men on campus

April of 2008: it was the beginning of Spring Quarter at Stanford. The weather was warming up, seniors were cruising towards their diplomas, girls were out in their skirts and sundresses – it was a wonderful time. Excitement was in the air. Every teammate had been cajoling their friends to come to NCAAs – which were held at Maples Pavillion – the arena where the Stanford Men’s Basketball team plays. We were going prime-time!

Stanford alumni from many class years had flown in to watch this meet. This WAS the year that Stanford would reclaim the championship. Since the glory years (’92, ’93, ’95) Stanford Men’s Gymnastics had come up empty handed and wasn’t really even close to winning at all until recently. Our class of five guys were very proud of ourselves – we came in, changed the game and were going to close the deal, right here on our home turf, and graduate as ultimate champions.

SIDE NOTE: In a typical meet, each team will have six guys doing routines on each event and get to “count” the score of four routines (the other two are discarded). The competition order is arranged in ascending order so that the guy who typically scores the highest goes last. However, the first person who goes first has a big responsibility to set the tone for the event. When a team nails the first routine in their line up – everyone else is emboldened to hit their sets too. I believe clutch performances build on each other (as do chokes).

The preliminaries on Day One went great. I was chosen to be the lead off guy on parallel bars. I nail it big time. The rest of the parallel bar line up does great. We take that momentum into the rest of the competition and eventually win our session. You can see my routine in the video above – one of my best performances ever.

Unfortunately it wouldn’t be enough.

4. Forty-five hundredths of a point

(A fan’s highlight of the competition. The last 10 seconds really shows how amped up the arena was. We could taste that victory!)

We won our session in Day 1 of NCAA’s by 4.55 points – a wide margin. But it was “New Life” scoring and tomorrow was a whole new meet. Day 2 would decide it all.

In mentally preparing myself for Day 2,I spent a lot of time saying- “Don’t do anything different. Just do it exactly as you did yesterday.” This is, in hindsight, terrible self talk. I had been having some issues with my Diamodov (which is the 2nd move in my routine, the one where I’m out on one arm) and you can see that it was a little bit off on the first day.

Again we started on the parallel bars and again I was first up. Instead of being aggressive and going for it on Day 2, I tried too hard to replicate the past. On my Diamodov, I was a little too far out on one arm. I couldn’t pull it back and ultimately fell off the bars.

Instant one point deduction.

Needless to say, this was not the start we were looking for. I was frustrated with myself, but tried not to let it show – instead, focusing on cheering for our next guy. The team performed decently throughout the rest of the meet, but there were a few more uncharacteristic falls by some of our best athletes (you can see one of them toward the beginning of the youtube video). We just weren’t getting after it.

We ended on vault – a very high scoring event. Our biggest opponent – Oklahoma – was on the rings – which is also a strong event for them. Oklahoma is in the lead, but we think we can catch them. We post a solid final score: 362.750 that puts us at the top of the leaderboard (again, watch the end of the video to see how exciting this all was).

The only thing left to do was to sit and wait as Oklahoma finished up their ring routines. Slowly their final score crept up – still, we held on to the lead. We watch in silence as Jonathan Horton (Yes, the kid I met back in Part One) closed the meet with a killer ring routine.

The score was announced: 16.1 – the highest scoring ring routine of the entire meet. The leaderboard flickers and BAM – the names swap. The final score:

  • Oklahoma: 363.200
  • Stanford: 362.750

It was a surreal moment.

We walked in the number one ranked team in the nation to the biggest, loudest, most supportive crowd most of us have ever, or will ever, face. We walked out devastated, having forfeited the NCAA title for lack of 0.45 pts.

But it was in this moment of pain that we forged the strength to finally take the title.


PART THREE (the finale!) will come out later this week, but in the meantime I wanted to share something with you:

Many people don’t know that men’s gymnastics is dying at the collegiate level. In the 70′s, we had nearly a hundred colleges with men’s gymnastics. Now we’re down to just a handful. MIT shut down their program last year. And sadly, UC-Berkeley’s gymnastics team (along with several other sports) is on the chopping block. The sport I love is may no longer be around for my children and it’s something I refuse to let happen. The Cal team is mounting one final effort to reinstate the program and need help from people like you. Please, please visit http://calgymnasticsforever.com/ and consider making a pledge to support their program. Thanks so much.

Why Not Be a Superstar: The Story of Snubby J (aka Ken Jenkins)

I want to introduce you to a super awesome dude - Snubby J (aka Ken Jenkins). Inspired by the Blue Man Group, he built (with his dad) a PVC pipe instrument and has learned to play a number of songs with it. Watch the video below, it’s fantastic.

On one hand, the fact that he’s done all this is amazing. I mean you can kind of see it in the faces of the other guys in the performance. I can just imagine the thought process in their head:

  • What’s this kid doing with this goofy haircut and weird instrument?
  • Whoa, interesting – he can make music with this!
  • Man, he’s pretty good!
  • WTF, how the hell does he know so many songs?
  • What?? His friend knows how to play a little too?!? OMG

One hand, without taking anything away from Ken, you can argue that this movie is what this kid has done is triggered the failed simulation effect. This is a concept I first learned from Cal Newport of Study Hacks:

The Failed Simulation Effect: Accomplishments that are hard to explain can be much more impressive than accomplishments that are simply hard to do.

Which makes a lot of sense right? Becoming Class President while maintaining straight-A’s is hard, but imagineable. Running a business out of high school that makes a 33x return on investment in 10 months is unimagineable. Becoming a dude who lobbies UN delegates in South Africa is unimagineable.

Becoming a dude with 2M+ views on Youtube for performing a self-taught medley of songs on an instrument you built yourself is unimagineable.

But here’s the kicker – it’s just as easy/hard as doing anything else. Ken is helpful enough to answer a number of questions in a youtube video and basically it boils down to:

  • he followed his passions (Blue Man Group, performing arts)
  • he was resourceful (built the first PVC instrument for less than $300 based on trial & error and light internet research)
  • he was persistently focused (he’s been playing since around 2007).

None of these things required lots of money, special connections or insane talent. All the things he did are within most people’s reach – he just happens to be the only one who cared enough to go for it.

So go be a superstar. It’s not exceptionally harder than anything else – and is totally worth the effort. it just requires you to think and act a little differently.


PS – If you’re curious about the songs he plays in the video above, here’s the list:

-Office Theme Song (0:18)
-Linus and Lucy (0:38)
-Turkish March (1:13)
-Mario Brothers Theme (1:27)
-In the Hall of the Mountain King (1:54)
-Bad Romance (2:07)
-Viva La Vida (2:50)
-Like a Virgin (3:03)
-Crazy Train (3:23)
-Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger (4:01)
-James Bond Theme (4:15)
-Pirates of the Caribbean Theme (4:35)
-The Final Countdown (featuring my friend, Quin) (4:56)

Jason Interviewed on University of San Francisco Radio + RT Podcast #7

Radio Interview on KUSF

I had the good fortune of being asked to speak on KUSF Radio a while back and the interview is now up. I was a featured guest on the show Mind and Body with Dr. Winston Chung – a licensed psychiatrist.

Dr. Chung wanted to talk about Rejection Therapy because he’s always interested in methods of dealing with psychological fears and anxieties without the use of drugs. I don’t think RT is a replacement for help from a medical professional – but I DO think it’s something like exercise for your psyche in that doing it is uncomfortable but beneficial.

I had a lot of fun with the interview – it was my first at a “real” radio station. Dr. Chung is a really cool guy and made it fun for me. I think it turned out well.

The interview is streamable on the website at: KUSF 01.12.11 730-8 PM Mind And Body DJ Dr. Winston. If you prefer the direct mp3 link – it’s here.

Note: Sadly, it looks like the University of San Francisco just sold the rights to broadcast on 90.3 to another station so I may never get to do a follow up interview with Dr. Chung – bummer. Looks like I’m not the only one upset by this news.


Toxic Conversations, Resolutions and “No Mind”: Rejection Therapy Podcast Episode 7

Also finished up and ready to go is Episode 7 of the Rejection Therapy Podcast. I’m sorry it took me a while to post this but better late than never right? This one is all about New Year’s Resolutions, why they’re hard, how to set good ones, and why you should make Rejection Therapy one of your resolutions. Don’t give up on making a change in your life just because it’s late January – it’s never too late to change your life.

Click here to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes!

What Do You Do When You’ve Got Tons of Ideas But You’re Not Executing?

(Photo credit: One Too Many Dices by centralasian)

Got a reader question the other day and I thought it might be valuable as a blog post. Devan writes:

QUESTION: I currently run some drop-shipping sites, and I have 100′s of ideas for start-ups but I feel overloaded with ideas, and never actually just do one. If that makes sense. So if you have any experience on that a post would be cool.

Great question Devan and thanks for reaching out. I have some thoughts on this issue that I’ll try to share. I know you’re talking specifically about startups, but I’m going to broaden this to “projects” in general, because I know there are a lot of people out there who might “grok” it better with this phrasing.

The truth is, this is a really tough nut to crack. My computer is littered with folders filled with half-started ideas and PDF’s to be read and podcasts to be listened to “someday”. I think it’s not uncommon for people who are naturally curious about variety of things to have challenges focusing on one particular “thing”. Luckily there a couple of solid ways of addressing this issue that you might find helpful.

1) UNDERSTAND THAT YOU’RE A SCANNER

There’s a great book by a woman named Barbara Sher called Refuse to Choose!: Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams (affiliate link) that talks about people she calls “Scanners”. Here’s her description for them:

Scanners love to read and write, to fix and invent things, to design projects and businesses, to cook and sing, and to create the perfect dinner party. (You’ll notice I didn’t use the word “or,” because Scanners don’t love to do one thing or the other; they love them all.)

Our society frowns on this apparent self-indulgence. Of course, it’s not self- indulgence at all; it’s the way Scanners are designed, and there’s nothing they can or should do about it. A Scanner is curious because he is genetically programmed to explore everything that interests him. If you’re a Scanner, that’s your nature. Ignore it and you’ll always be fretful and dissatisfied.

Sher’s book is great – it really helped me appreciate and come to terms with my has a number of exercises she encourages Scanners to pursue and the one I’ll share here is about capturing your ideas.

2) CAPTURE YOUR IDEAS

In Refuse to Choose, Sher tells Scanners that it’s important for them to embrace their nature and integrate it into their lives, rather than blocking it out and being miserable, or indulging in irresponsibly and suffering from the adverse consequences.

One of the most important things to do here is to save all your ideas. Every time an idea pops into your head about a startup, save it. Write it down somewhere. Email it to yourself. I like to use Evernote to track blog ideas, startup ideas, project ideas, etc.

I think part of the anxiety around “never executing” is that you become afraid these ideas are fleeting and if you don’t do something about them right away, you’ll lose them. Well if you save these ideas, then they’re yours forever. You can go start a company around one (if you think of something really really good) – or you could take your time, combine good ideas together, and just feel more secure, knowing all your good stuff is safe.

3) KNOCK OUT STEP ONE

Often the reason why we don’t do anything with our ideas is because we start thinking about all the work they’ll entail. We get discouraged and scared – and that’s never good. So don’t do all the work. Start with something super simple.

In the design world this would be called “prototyping” and in the lean startup lingo it’s building an “MVP” (short of minimum viable product). It’s good for idea-prone folks to think through what they’d have to do to nail step one of the project. Maybe it’s doing some research and writing a couple paragraphs on why the idea makes sense. Maybe it’s sketching out some outlines. Maybe it’s making a few phone calls to potential customers. Go do something that’s simple yet core to the idea.

4) TAKE ON PROJECTS THAT ARE INHERENTLY VARIED

Looking back at the things I’ve really stuck with, I see that variety is baked in. As a gymnast, you have six different events to compete on and a huge multitude of skills to learn. That kept things fresh and interesting for me. In writing this blog, I am free explore variety of topics – startups, gymnastics, rejection therapy and other personal experiments, interviews, etc. However, I can bucket all these things under “blogging” and it’s part of a single project/endeavor. I love that.

I’d encourage people with a range of interests to look for things like blogging or running a business or hosting a series of meetups as a way of exploring a variety of interests while sticking to “one thing”.

5) ENGAGE OTHERS

I think the projects and endeavors that have been most successful for me (What’s Next: 25 Under 25, the Rejection Therapy Podcast, or even finding a new roommate) have involved other people. It can be easy for me to get demotivated if I’m slaving away by myself – and it’s a lot easier for me to get fired up when I know that my work is going to impact others.

So next time you come up with an idea that you find particularly exciting, email a friend or two who you think might be interested. Propose you two work on it and nail a step one (or step one, two and three if you’re feeling ambitious).

What happens if your friend isn’t interested? No worries, email some other people. What if no one’s interested? It’s certainly not the end of the world. Maybe you should rethink the idea – or at least how you pitch it. Or maybe you need to get new friends… ;-)

How I Blew Out My Knee and Came Back to Win a National Championship


  

Today (January 19th) is the four year anniversary of the knee injury that changed my life. Most people I know have heard bits and pieces, and finally I’m putting the whole thing together in one place. This story is for every anyone (athlete or not) who’s struggled with an injury – yeah it sucks big time, but do ALL your physical therapy and be unreasonably optimistic. Things can and will get better.

PART ONE | PART TWO | PART THREE

The Synopsis

On January 19th, 2007, while competing for Stanford Men’s Gymnastics at the UC Berkeley, I suffered a total knee dislocation while performing a double-twisting Yurchenko. My ACL, PCL, MCL, LCL and meniscus were instantly torn. It hurt a lot.

I underwent multiple surgeries, required the use of crutches for months and spent a couple hundred hour in physical therapy. One year later, I was back in the arena as an active competitor. In my final season, I was elected a team captain and helped lead our team to win the 2009 NCAA Team Championship – our first victory in over 14 years.

It was at once the worst thing, and the best thing to ever happen to me. The permanent damage has kept me from enjoying many normal physical activities – but the experience overall has helped me develop an inner strength that cannot be measured.

This is my story.

1. Get ‘em while they’re young

Fooling around with some of my gymnastics summer campers.

You really need to start doing Gymnastics at a young age in order to train your body and your mind properly so I’m glad I started classes early. I was about six years old.

My mom is a gymnastics coach so I was in the gym all the time, but she didn’t want me involved in the sport at first. Her training in China was grueling and tough – she didn’t want such a hard life for her only son. Before my injury I would laugh when she expressed this sentiment. Here in America, we do sports for fun!

Now I just nod and say “it was worth it”.

I sucked as a kid and in the off chance I placed at a meet, it was 5th or 6th. But I loved it and worked it. When I turned 10, something happened and I started improving a lot faster. I jumped a level, and participated in the Future Stars program, which was created by USA Gymnastics to identify young talent.

I ended up earning a place on the “Junior Development Team” which meant I got to go to a camp in Colorado Springs. I trained with other “Future Stars” like Jonathan Horton (2008 Beijing Olympic team member) and got to see how US National team members trained. It was at this time that I realized “Man, not only is gymnastics a lot of fun, but I could actually become really good someday!”

On a side note – if you can provide children opportunities to legitimately experience that feeling, you are doing them a huge favor.

Of course it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

2. Getting hurt isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Unwrapping my knee after the first surgery. The smell of blood was very strong and nauseating – I had to call my gf for backup.

I think injuries are a healthy part of participation in sports. I think it’s important for kids to suffer some kind of minor injury when they are young. Break arm, twist an ankle, sprain a shoulder. Kids recover quickly and it teaches them about enduring pain, understanding safety and valuing their health and mobility.

Gymnastics is a sport that lends itself to injury. You are engaged in a ton of flipping and twisting and putting your body into positions that are quite unnatural. (This gymnastics blooper reel is illustrative of what can go wrong). You make sure to take as many precautions as you can and prepare yourself physically and mentally as much as possible – but at some point, you’ve just got to freaking go for it.

Over 16 years of gymnastics, I’ve personally:

  • broken an ankle
  • dislocated multiple fingers
  • landed directly on my neck multiple times (including after a botched one-and-a-half flipping dismount off the high bar)
  • straddled the parallel bars right onto my you-know-whats
  • split my forehead skin open with my shin (got a Harry Potter-esque scar out of it!)
  • endured countless bruises, scrapes, blisters and rips

I think gymnasts have a very special relationship with pain because we experience such a high amount of it on a day to day basis.

For example, I knew guys that would pop 4-6 ibuprofen pills *everyday* just to manage normal training pain. My shins looked like a battlefield from all the times I had smashed them into the wood on the pommel. It was not uncommon for me to step into the shower and wince at some part of my body that I had scraped during practice and was not even aware of until it started burning from the water. (“Oh! I guess I must have scraped myself over there).

But all of that was just a warmup for what was to come.

3. The year of the double twisting Yurchenko

When I was preparing to graduate high school, a teammate gave me a clock that counted down to 2008. It was to remind me of the time left until the next Olympics – which was a goal of mine. I had done fairly well my freshman year and had even reached a number 9 ranking in the all-around at one point for the entire NCAA. Pretty cool. Sophomore year was also a good year – I had gotten stronger, more consistent and learned some new skills. But I was worried about plateauing. I needed to take it to the next level.

Junior year was supposed to be my blow out year. Well … I certainy blew out something.

The summer between my sophomore and junior year I was training a new vault. For several years, I had been competing a Yurchenko 1.5 Twist (this is a round off onto the board, back handspring onto the horse into about one and a half flips … with one and a half twists). Something clicked that summer and after a lot of drills and a lot of fals starts, I was finally able to add another half twist – making it a Double Twisting Yurchenko.

This was a big deal to me because I’ve never been considered an “explosive” athlete and I felt like I had made a breakthrough. This was one of the many signs for me that 2007 would be a big year for me and I was excited to compete the Yurchenko.

Little did I know I’d only do it twice in competition, ever.

4. “Felt good in warmups – I should be fine”

I remember being annoyed because my coach wouldn’t let me spike my hair into a faux-hawk. He thought it looked unprofessional – but of course I thought I looked stupid with my hair down and ungelled. You can see my hair in this video of my pommel horse routine (the vaulting horse is in the background).

Warm ups went fine. I think I completed one double twisting Yurchenko and it felt alright. Not great but good enough.

The thing about vault is that you typically train onto lower and softer landing surfaces than the actual competition. We practice our vaults on mats that are stacked on a big soft “resi-pit” or “whale mat” as we sometimes called it. We’d try to made the landing harder when doing mock-competitions, but it is still worlds away from having two 8-inch mats ontop of basketball floor as your landing surface.

This was our first official meet of the season and I wanted to perform well and of course BEAT CAL. (Incidentally, the Cal team has always been a bunch of outstanding guys – very cool people who are fun to hang out with outside of the competition floor).

Pommels came first, then floor then vault. I remember feeling the sweat evaporating off my hands. Unlike on other events, pre-meet jitters were a good thing for vault – they gave you the additional oomph you needed to go big.

The moment comes. I salute the judge.

The run down the runway felt fine. It was only after the round off and punch did I feel a little concerned. My “block” off the horse wasn’t as strong as I would have liked. I remember thinking “Ooh, this one is going to be a little rough on the landing”.

There was never any question in the air about finishing the skill though. Gymnasts are taught early on to never “balk” on a skill, especially if it’s in a meet. You’re more likely to be injured if you freak out in the middle than if you stay with a skill even if you’re not feeling great about it. No backing out - I was all in.

And like in poker, sometimes going all in doesn’t work out for the best.

5. And here comes the snap

Not everyone feels comfortable watching the video. I’ve watched it at least 50 times at this point but it’s still pretty intense.

It happened really fast. I landed and my left knee gave in. It simply collapsed. I instantly start screaming at the top of my lungs from the massive pain that came on instantly. When I ran out of breath, I inhaled quickly and let loose another gut-wrenching scream.

The pain dialed back from 11 to like an 8. After dispelling all that air, I was able to get a bit of handle on myself, and just rolled around on the mat swearing. Coaches and trainers from both my team and the Cal team come rushing over. I grab a hold of the Cal team trainer’s meaty hand and act like I’m trying to crush it like putty. I knew then that my season was probably over.

As noted earlier, I’ve dislocated several fingers. Your joint feels really tight when it’s dislocated – and while painful, popping the joint back into place feels much better (for obvious, anatomical reasons). I remember wanting to kick my leg straight to “relocate” my knee, but then also thinking this would probably be a bad idea. What ended up happening was since everything was torn, my knee kind of just sagged back into place since nothing was really holding it together besides my hamstring, my patellar tendon and some skin.

Eventually, I hobble off on a pair of crutches, my knee wrapped in tons of ice bags. I make a point of staying to watch the rest of the meet and even eating pizza with the guys before going home. It turned out my vault score still beat every one of the Cal guys who all fall / botch their landings (though without the horrific injuries to boot).

6. Going under

You usually feel pretty lousy after surgery. The best part is that you get breakfast, lunch AND dinner in bed. The worst part is struggling to accurately pee into a container.

Our team physician, Dr. Garza, was typically the jokester. While a busy man, he always has time to make fun of your haircut or your non-rigorous major. So when he walked in with a somber look, I knew things were bad.
“We’re going to have to do two different surgeries to repair your knee. There has been major damage to all four ligaments. You see all this dark space here? That’s where your ligaments are supposed to be. Instead there’s nothing.”

Of course the clincher: “We’ll likely need multiple surgeries to repair the damage. You should seriously consider if you want to be doing gymnastics when this is over.

Sometimes people ask if I regret doing gymnastics, or regret learning the double-twisting Yurchenko. My answer of course is never. I knew my injury was a fluke – my coach had done his best to prepare me but sometimes things just happen. I had worked hard to prepare myself and sure, having stronger leg muscles could have helped – but I blame no one for what happened. My focus was not on the past, but on the future.

For whatever reason – am overly optimistic, read too many comeback stories, thought Dr. Garza was talking about worst-case scenarios – I never seriously doubted that I would come back to gymnastics. It felt like life had just bashed me in the face: all I wanted to do was spit my bloody tooth out and say, “That the best you got? Watch this.” To be honest, the millions of little inconveniences was the worst part of the injury – never the big stuff.

Going into surgery is kind of scary. The worst part is the waiting. You get there super early in the morning (or at least I did because they wanted to do my surgeries first), change into that stupid gown and just lie there forever. It’s chilly, you’re sleep deprived, hungry and pretty much alone.

Eventually the anesthesiologist comes over, sets up your IV, and starts you off with some “warmup” stuff. It feels funky going into your bloodstream and your body starts to feel a little tingly. As everyone finally gets ready, they wheel your gurney over to the operating room. You’re feeling decently woozy at this point but you still recognize your surgeon, even with his mask on. He says some nondescript upbeat words to you and goes back to preparing. You’re moved off the gurney and onto the operating table.

For a brief moment, you are just lying there, listening to all the beeping noises, watching all kinds of surgical assistants buzz around you. Then the anethesiologist adds something to your drip and your head starts to feel heavy.

It’s hard not to make comparisons between going under for an operation, and death. I knew that I had a very high likelihood of coming out fine on the other side, but there’s always that nagging concern in the back of your mind. I always tried to make the most of those final moments and ask myself: “If I never woke up from this, can I be satisfied with what I’ve accomplished? Have I made the world a better place? Will my friends and family know that I cared about them and tried to do right by them?”

Fortunately (or perhaps, through deliberate decisions I’ve made on how to live), the answers to those questions was always “Yes.” But there was never much time to ponder as an oxygen mask would soon come over my mouth and I’d breathe in its cold, weird-tasting air. By the second breath I’d be out.

When I woke up, the real work would begin…


Click here to read PART TWO. Also, I want to thank you for reading – and would like to share something important with you.

Many people don’t know that men’s gymnastics is dying at the collegiate level. In the 70′s, we had nearly a hundred colleges with men’s gymnastics. Now we’re down to just a handful. MIT shut down their program last year. And sadly, UC-Berkeley’s gymnastics team (along with several other sports) is on the chopping block. The sport I love is may no longer be around for my children and it’s something I refuse to let happen. The Cal team is mounting one final effort to reinstate the program and need help from people like you. Please, please visit http://calgymnasticsforever.com/ and consider making a pledge to support their program. Thanks so much.