Part 3 (Finale): How I Blew Out My Knee and Came Back to Win a National Championship
This is the part three in a three-part 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 and our team’s devastating loss to Oklahoma on home turf in 2008. Here’s how the story ends.
1. Channeling the pain
When you’re going for gold, getting silver really does feel like being the first loser.
Waiting in the backroom in preparation for the award ceremonies with my team was probably the most depressing thing I’ve ever done. Some guys were walking around, muttering underneath their breath, others sat on the floor with their knees against their chest. It was hard to make eye contact with anyone.
It was especially hard for me because I felt like I had screwed it up.
In my mind, my fall didn’t just cost our team a precious few tenths of a point, it actually set us on the trajectory towards failure. I got thrown off my game and it threw my team off theirs. And that sucked.
But pain of this loss was not all a bad thing. After the award ceremony we got into a team huddle and someone, I think it was David Sender (a captain and a World Championship team member) spoke to us as a group and said something like:
“You all feel like shit right now? Yeah, you should. We didn’t deliver and we got beat. We let Oklahoma take it from us. I’m done here – it’s over for me. But I want all of you to remember this feeling. Remember how terrible this feels and make sure that when you go back next season, to never forget the pain you’re feeling now. Keep it. Use it.”
And we would.
2. Culture change is hard
VIDEO: The promo video I made for the beginning of the season: “Call on Cardinal”
Our team captains are selected by a vote of the team and approval by our coach. I was honored to be selected as one of the captains for my fifth and final season, along with Bryant Hadden and Sho Nakamori. During the Spring of 2008 I remember meeting a few times to talk about how we could shape our team’s culture to prepare for success.
Post NCAA’s it seemed like our team had lost their spirit. Guys weren’t working that hard and sometimes cut out early from practice. It just felt weak. I think psychologically, we were trying to protect ourselves from the pain of defeat by sandbagging ourselves. “If we tried so hard last time and had everything going for us but we still lost, then why try? That was our one and only chance.”
So as captains, we decided to take off the focus on NCAAs.
Our motto going forward, we decided, was all about training and competing to our potential. I remember Bryant saying – “We’ve got incredible talent on this team. We’ve got what it takes to blow the rest of the country away – but only if we compete to our potential. And that’s what we’ll focus on doing, each and every day.”
Remembering the pain was still important – but it was there to drive us to do our best each and every turn – instead of “saving it” for the one big meet.
It sounded like a good plan, but could we make a change in the culture?
3. A slow start
VIDEO: One of my final parallel bar performances ever. I added a number of new skills. Wish I had stuck the dismount! =P
Summer was slow. Several people did internships while training, others (including myself) spent some time traveling or otherwise out of the gym. But once September rolled around, we put our plan into action. We started changing the language in the gym:
- “Ryan, I know your Diamodov is better than that. Show me one that kicks ass.”
- “Hey Josh, you need to get a stronger block off the horse. I know you know how.”
In conjunction with this focus on personal capacity and the here and now, our coach also decided to really kick up the difficulty of our routines. Every one had super ambitious plans for big skills they would learn and compete that year – to the point of being overextended. But the idea would be to build as much capacity as possible, wow everyone with these big routines, and potentially drop a skill here or there before NCAAs, which would make the routine feel down right easy.
This fit well with our “compete to your potential” program because it meant instead of focusing on being perfect, our routines were packed with so many points that we just needed to score a solid hit and we’d still do very well. The demo reel of the video really show cases the crazy-hard skills we were doing.
We started off the season a little rough and actually lost our first few meets. This was almost better because we were no longer trying to defend a number one ranking, but instead focused on climbing back up from the bottom.
It looked like everything was on track…
4. Not everything is on track
This is the part of the story that’s kind of lame.
During warmups, we would do jumps off a block to practice “sticking” the landing. One of my teammates, Bryant, started doing some with a full twist just for fun. I tried some, knowing full well that ACLs are particularly vulnerable to twisting/cutting motions. And in an effort to stick one, I felt a snap. I stood up and there was a sharp pain in my knee.
I didn’t want anyone to see that I had hurt myself, so I slowly took my shirt off (we typically practice with no shirts) and made my “Fuck this hurts” face while my face was covered up. Then I walked calmly over to my assistant coach and told him I didn’t think I could finish practice that day.
- The bad news was: I had retorn my ACL.
- The good news was: I could keep going if I wanted to.
It was a serious decision and something I thought about. Ultimately I chose to keep going – I had come this far and I wanted to see it completion.
Because I had already damaged my knee before, this ACL didn’t affect me as dramatically. I took a few weeks off, continued doing lots of PT, and slowly resumed training and competition. To secure my knee, my trainer would tape everything up and then I’d put my giant knee brace on.
It was unwieldy and a lot of work but I was going to make it.
5. “Just another day in the office”
As the season progressed, our team really started coming together. Practices were tough but energetic. We really started nailing this high scoring sets in competition. And it felt like people were responding to the “compete to your potential” mindset.
In fact, we even had a saying that started with Sho. Whenever we would do an amazing routine or skill, instead of getting super high-fivey about it, we would just shrug our shoulders and say “Just another day in the office.” Because we were professionals and outstanding performance was just what. we. did.
One of the highlights of the season was winning against Oklahoma at Maples Pavilion in our conference championships. That was redemption for me. They came to our house and got taken down. It was the first time we had beaten OU at conference championships in the past five years. We hoped it was a good omen.
5. Getting on to that podium … finally!
VIDEO: Technically a promo video for the 2009-10 season, you can see some great clips of us winning around 50 seconds in.
The meet went by in blur. I only remember snippets. Some great routines. A few falls. A lot of sets where we fought and stayed with it. We competed the way we trained – nothing worse and nothing less. And at the end of the night, we were champions.
I ultimately didn’t end up competing in NCAAs.
One the last practice before we flew out to NCAAs, I landed wrong on a parallel bar dismount – something I had been concerned might happen throughout the season but always ended up fine. It was just a sprain – no tears. But it was enough to keep me out of the meet. I was disappointed … and it sucked having to tell my mom that she wouldn’t get to see the last meet of my career.
Outside of the slight bittersweetness of not being able to fully redeem myself for the 2008 failure – it was awesome to win. A number of my teammates from 2008 came out to watch the meet and we all celebrated together – I told them that this victory was as much theirs as it was mine.
We had finally done it – we had closed the deal and won.
A couple pictures…
6. Lessons learned
When trying to generalize a story like this, the lessons run the risk of becoming cliche and sounding like the crappy motivational posters you’d find in Dilbert / The Office. That’s partly why I went into so much depth about what happened. There were ups and downs and its not something you can wrap up neatly into a bow. But I do think there are some things I’ve learned that I’ve taken on to other areas of my life and I would like to share them.
- Visualize your success before it happens. I mean this figuratively and literally. Every year, our team would commit to winning NCAA Championships. We knew what success looked like and that’s what drove us to work hard, even if it took us 14 years achieve our goal. And when I was returning to competition, I focused on imagining myself performing new skills and doing full routines so that when I came back, it felt completely natural. Imagine yourself confidently nailing that sales call, or being more calm with your kids and when the time comes, it’ll feel right.
- Don’t be perfect, be aggressive. When I tried to do my Diamodov “perfectly”, I psyched myself out. When our team felt like they had to be perfect to win, we lost. When we focused on doing in a meet what we do in practice (which was just solid, aggressive performance) we won. Don’t try to avoid making mistakes. Go for what you want and know that passion and enthusiasm beat tepidness and over-caution nine times out of ten.
- Savor the journey AND the destination. Winning was awesome. But that one shining moment will not be satisfying if you hated the many years leading up to it. Just coming back to competition for me was a dream come true – and after the injury I was grateful for every day that I could continue to do the sport that I loved. Whether you’re doing a startup or a PhD – remember that journey matters as much as the destination.
- Winning with others is better. Dan Gill is a Stanford Men’s Gymnastics alumni who cofounded a startup called Huddler. (He’s pretty much my hero.) He’s a 9-Time All American and a 2-time NCAA Vault Champion. He told us he’d give it all up to win one team championship. So while striving for individual success is totally awesome – what’s even better is winning with others.
- Never give up. I know this is such a cheesy ending but ultimately, that’s what this story is about. If you have a dream and you’re willing to do whatever it takes, and go however long it takes to reach that goal – you dramatically raise the chances that you will find a way to succeed. It’s what Paul Graham talks about in his essay How Not to Die. So believe in yourself, believe in your dreams and as long as they stay compelling to you – never give up on them.