Getting Back to Normal

by Colin Aina


It's been just over 17 months since I had knee surgery and my path to recovery has been a rather smooth one. I was lucky to have a good friend and colleague as my therapist, Terry Moreno- Toste of University Orthopedics, as well as one of the best ACL reconstruction surgeons in the northeast, Dr. Robert Shalvoy. I was also lucky to have my massage therapist, Kristen Paradies of USMT.

Relatively speaking, surgery was the easy part of the affair. It's the rehabilitation to reverse the atrophy of the immobilized leg that's paramount.

I stayed on top of the rehab and  tried to do everything I could to get back to as close to 100% as possible, while all along having my sights set on my goal of climbing Mt. Rainier in the coming summer, and getting back to the sport of strongman.

I achieved my goal of climbing Rainier in early July and had planned on competing in the Granite State Strongman Competition in New Hampshire a few weeks after I returned from Washington. Well, seeing as how I mailed my entry in May, I couldn't back out. This would be the first full, five event competition I'd do since the previous July.  

Leading up to Rainier, training for the competition had been going pretty well considering my right leg was still a bit weaker than my left, but was feeling good. My few apprehensions were driven by the fact that my numbers for certain lifts hadn't yet been matched to pre-injury ones. Now, in terms of performance and training, I'm all about numbers and percentages. Being a track athlete, that's how you gauge against others and more importantly, yourself. Seeing how your training has affected your time and distances for a given event always fascinates me...seeing results. In my sprinting days, I would be able to correlate my mental and physical readiness to run my fastest times with my 1 rep max on my back squat max. If I was in the high 400's and low 500's, I was ready.

The fact that I hadn't hit relatively "good" numbers prior to the strongman competition concerned me a bit. Deep down, I knew that my knee was fine to survive the competition (in some cases, the new ACL graft is actually stronger than the original) but I was more concerned about doing well and most importantly, not losing to people that I know I could beat had I not been injured!

Two weeks prior to the competition, I pretty much scrambled as much quality training as I could to get ready. The competition was one that favored my abilities: clean and press for reps, sand bag carry for distance, frame hold for time, sand bag load and deadlift, and keg over a bar for reps. I tried my best not to look at the competitor list beforehand. One aspect that I like about the sport is that everyone knows each other in their given weight class and there's a good amount of camaraderie. Laura would periodically mention someone on the list and say, "do you know him?" Or "have you competed against that guy?" Deep down I slightly wanted to know. There are a handful of guys I've had fierce competitions with and I wanted to know how hard I'd have to work to beat them(!).

The day of I was pretty nervous, anxious, but excited. Laura acted as my moral support and "mom" for the day. Alicia was competing too, Gabe Simoes drove up to watch and Kate Bacon was planning on coming up too. Just having these people there as well as seeing a lot of friends I've met through the sport made me feel more confident. Oh, and there was one face I was very happy to see. Rewind to about 4 years ago and the first competition I ever did. I met a lightweight named Francois Duchesne, a very animated Quebecois from just outside Montreal competing. Francois is a decent strongman, but what makes him memorable is the battle cry he emits whilst competing. His bloodcurdling cries are accompanied with eyes bulging and veins pulling away from his face. He competes with such intensity and pours his all into every competition. Everyone in New England knows Francois Duchesne! 

Francois and I caught up on each others' exploits in a creole of English and French (I'm not fluent, but I can converse on a remedial level). We wished each other luck and I continued on with my warmup.

My warmup routine was fractured by intermittent conversations with other fellow competitors I'd not seen in a while and filled them in on my injury/surgery update. Most surprising was to see an old college teammate of mine, Tom Stepan. This was his first competition and competed in the novice class. What most surprised me was his size. Now, Tom was a cross country/3000m, 5000m and steeplechase runner in college (2003-2007) and was all of 140lbs sopping wet. He had been training at a friend of mine's Crossfit in NH for about a year and was currently a lean and solid 200lbs. 

On to the events!

First up was the 200lb sand bag carry for distance. I was second in the order, which was fine because there were only 4 of us. As Christian started off, I was anxious and nervous. I knew that my knee was healed and that the strength in that leg was at about 95% as my good one, but I still had the normal jitters. I carried the sand bag 364ft for first place, less than a foot farther than second place. A sense of relief came over me as I finished...knowing that the first and one of my least favorite events was over. I refocused and got ready for the 200lb axle clean and press.

I love pressing events mostly because they're a stronger event of mine. I was able to get 8 repetitions which was good for first place. I was feeling a bit more positive, but I felt some weird "twingey" stuff going on around the insertion points of my hamstrings around my knee. I wasn't too concerned and I had expected the area to maybe feel shaky at times.

Third event was a 500lb frame hold for time which I held for 28 seconds and another first place. I was pretty surprised that things were going this well.

Next event was a sand bag load onto a wheel barrow and deadlift. We had to grab a 150lb sand bag, load it into the wheel barrow, run around and grab and load another and then deadlift the wheel barrow. In all honesty, this event was pretty easy and we were all separated by a few seconds, but I was lucky to come out on top.

The last and most taxing event was keg over a bar. Similar to a stone load event, I was last in the order. This was great because I could see how many reps my other competitors got, and I would know what I needed to do to maintain the lead. The first competitor got 12 reps, the second...14, the third...13. I now knew that I wanted to get at least 12 reps. The whistle went off and I got to it. At about 30 seconds I had done 7 reps, and I was totally feeling exhausted. I took a few breaths and tried to block out the noise of everyone yelling at me to keep going (this break lasted about 3 seconds, but felt a lot longer). I ground my teeth and pushed hard for the remaining time and ended up with 13 reps...tied for second for the event and first overall. 

What was learned from this experience??

An injury or setback doesn't necessarily mean the end of your goals. 

I could have easily accepted that I would never be the same after the injury and not invested the time and effort to returning to competition. I kept thinking that there are people out there that have sustained worse injuries who would give anything to return to normality. I was fortunate to have a great team of friends, colleagues and medical professionals who assisted me along the way, as well as the knowledge to get myself up and running.