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.

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  8. Al Abut says:

    my bud and inspiring coworker @JasonShen continues the epic story of how he came back from knee injury to be a champ: http://t.co/Z1Eyq0V

  9. Al Abut says:

    my bud and inspiring coworker @JasonShen continues the epic story of how he came back from knee injury to be a champ: http://t.co/5wREMvZ

  10. [...] series about the knee injury that changed my life and my road to an NCAA championship. In part two I talked about the physical therapy I did to recover from my knee injury, the return to competition [...]

  11. [...] don’t think I’m invincible under pressure. I’ve blown it when it counted. I get nervous and fumble my words – especially on camera or in front of beautiful [...]

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