March 1, 2011
When Tiger Woods had his season-ending knee reconstruction surgery in 2008, he admitted in a media interview, "This is lowest I have ever been. This sucks."
Granted, this was prior to getting caught cheating on his adoring wife, the subsequent divorce, embarrassing details made public from his mistresses and the media frenzy that followed. So it’s quite likely he could now officially state he’s been far, far lower.
But at the time, the world’s number-one golfer, who was hundreds of millions of dollars secure in his career, said he’d hit the bottom.
If feelings of doom and depression could overwhelm the world’s richest and most notable athlete, what happens to us normal folk who have to adjust to life on the injured reserve?
Well, if you’re anything like Joe Johnson, you don’t adjust to injury timeouts from your sport. You defy them.
Joe, who works at The Canyons ski resort, is lucky to be alive. To be already skiing again is nothing short of a miracle.
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On October 30 of last year, Joe and a friend were rock climbing in Big Cottonwood Canyon. At some point during the rappel down, his gear failed and Joe plummeted more than 30 feet to the unforgiving rocky ground, landing on his right side.
"Fortunately, I don’t remember anything about the fall. I only remember leaning back and never feeling the rope catch me," he says. "I’m really glad I don’t remember it. I think it would constantly replay in my head if I could vividly recall a 30-foot free fall."
The friend was able to call 911 and administer first aid until Life Flight arrived. Joe was rushed into surgery. His injuries included numerous open wounds, a shattered elbow, shattered cheekbone and eye socket and facial lacerations. Pins, screws and wires now hold his arm together. Ten plates keep his face intact.
"Seeing myself for the first time after surgery was pretty gruesome," he recalls. "I couldn’t believe it was me."
But despite the pain and shock of what happened, Joe only had one thing on his mind. "I remember waking up after my surgeries with my doctor nearby. He was talking to me, trying to make me answer questions, I think to ensure I didn’t have brain damage. But the first thing I said was, ‘When can I ski again?’ That seemed to surprise him some."
The surgeons, who still can’t believe Joe didn’t suffer any permanent damage, told him it would be several months.
"But that seemed almost like a dare to me. I knew I couldn’t wait that long. That’s the thing about doing something you love, you have to be doing it to be happy," Joe says.
So against doctor’s orders, Joe gave way to the temptation of all the early-season snow and hit the hill on December 17.
"I was definitely nervous and scared to death of falling or someone running into me. But after the first couple runs, I got my confidence back. Even though I shouldn’t have been skiing six weeks after a traumatic injury, I really think it helped with the healing process, both mentally and physically."
And, he insists, being able to ski again so quickly was a building block for his next mental and physical test: Getting back on a climbing wall, which he plans to do this week.
"I’m going to start in a more controlled environment, an indoor climbing gym. And I’m going to go with my girlfriend, who is also a climber. I trust her and will feel safe with her there. That will help with any mental holdbacks."
As for any physical holdbacks, Joe says he’s regained his strength and he’s ready. "Not being able to do the sports I love has been more painful than the actual injury was."
And that is the unifying thread for all athletes, whether you’re an elite professional or a weekend warrior: Sitting out sucks.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, public-relations guru and globe-trotting thrill seeker. In a former life she worked in TV news, both as a reporter and sports anchor. She has bagged peaks on six continents, kayaked the Zambezi and Nile rivers, swam with great white sharks in South Africa and tracked mountain gorillas in Rwanda. She was once very nearly sold for 2,000 camels while traveling through Morocco.