Does Your Sports Injury Mean the End of Your Athletic Career? 

How do you know when a sports injury can be rehabbed and when it is time to find something else to do? Some inspiration to help you decide.

 

We’ve all seen the old-man crew down at the local longboard break. Sipping coffee before daybreak, talking story about the days the waves were uncrowded, and getting ready to paddle out on the more mellow days. Sports injury, old age, slower bodies…although they may have slowed down, they are far from quitting.

 

But what about the athletes who probably should have retired a couple of years earlier but refused to give up? Professional sports are filled with examples. NFL quarterback Brett Favre comes to mind and even Michael Jordan trying to make a comeback after a brief try at baseball.

Here is a good question: when is enough enough? Well, At 47 years old, Kelly Slater is still winning Triple Crown titles. So there is also that…

 

What happens when a sports injury or age means we can’t do what we used to do? Our whole lives might need to change.

 

Linda Benson
Linda Benson was one of the first females to surf Makaha, Hawaii. At 75 years old she still takes surf trips to mainland Mexico where she knee-paddles into waves and still finds time to hang out on the nose. Photo: Pilgrim Surf and Supply.

 

 

When is Enough Enough?

When to retire from a high impact sport and take up something more gentle on the body is a complicated question. A sports injury changes your life. One only has to look at any adaptive sports athlete to see how personal the decision to call it quits is.

In 1996 Jesse Billauer was among the top 100 junior surfers in the world. One surfing incident would change his life forever after he broke his back and became quadriplegic. Almost 20 years later Jesse would become the world champion of adaptive surfing. And then there are people like Bethany Hamilton who still compete at the top level despite major physical limitations. Or what about Olympic Skier Erin Beck who had three major organs removed and 12 rods placed in her shoulder after a skiing accident that almost killed her? She went on to qualify for the Olympics 10 years later but once again, had her dreams shattered when she was forced to withdraw. Her previous accident had cost her one of her kidneys and now it was too dangerous to continue with just one. 

 

Bethany Hamilton
Bethany Hamilton. Photo by Aaron Lieber

 

 

It’s Not a Sport, It’s Who We Are

Our sports become our identities, especially if our sport revolves around waves, snow, or other weather conditions. We take jobs that allow us the flexibility to do our sport. We live in places where our sports are more accessible. Our friends are the people we do our sports with. It’s how we spend our money, vacation time, and organize our social circles. It is even our connection to spirituality and a power greater than ourselves. What happens when a sports injury or age means we can’t do what we used to do? Our whole lives might need to change.

 

Out-Training the Sports Injury

It seems the first choice for most dedicated athletes is to overcome. Olympic Skier Lindsey Vonn is a wonderful example of an athlete who, despite devastating and frequent injuries, refuses to hang up the skis and continues to compete at the highest level – Her documentary “The Climb” is a must-watch movie for anyone dealing with a sports injury.

The surf world watched as surfer John John Florence missed most of the 2019 season with an ACL injury only to come back at the end and qualify for the 2020 Olympics. Both Lindsey’s and John John’s instagrams are filled with rehab and physical therapy videos and photos. These athletes trained as hard to recover as they trained to be the best, at their sport.

 

John John Florence
World Champ John John trained in the gym as hard as he does in the waves to overcome his ACL injury. Photo: Petra Lorentz

 

But what if you can’t out-train your injury? Like Jay Liesner, a paralyzed surfer who took 18 years to get back in the water just to float. After ten years of adaptive surfing, inspiring everyone around him, open wounds on his hips forced him to make the call to surf his last waves. Can you imagine? Never getting in the ocean again?

 

Paralyzed Surfer
Jay on one of his last days in the ocean.

 

 

When it gets Personal

These stories really put things into perspective for me. After 15 months of rehab, surfing only when it was small and perfect, and only for short sessions, I am asking “Is it worth it?”.

Every session, no matter how short or mellow, seems to cause additional pain to my sports injury. I’ve tried other options, SUPing and bodyboarding, but with worse results. When do you say enough is enough? Isn’t it good enough that I can get into the ocean for a snorkel or a swim? There is freediving and surf photography. Honestly, I’d just like to be able to go to a yoga class or go for a run again. Maybe I can still participate at some level? Or maybe it would be easier to just leave the ocean and reinvent myself. Perhaps take up a lucrative career or just focus on being a mom which will be happening here in just a few short months. 

 

 

Yeah but, Quitting Ain’t that Easy!

There is an 85-year-old surfer I know, they call him Mouse. He still comes down to the beach every morning to hang out with the surf crowd. In the back of his truck, there is always a SUP, a wetsuit, and a set of golf clubs. If he deems the waves are right, he paddles out. If not, he hits golf balls into the ocean and sips his coffee with the rest of the retired surfers. He always has an encouraging word for the groms and girls when they exit the water. How does Mouse decide if it’s too big for him that day or if his body is feeling up for it? 

 

Mouse
At 85 years old Mouse is still lifting spirits with his warm smile and big post-surf hugs. Photo: OB Chronicle

 

 

The Day the Music Dies

I don’t know if anyone can answer that question. Does there ever come a day when you look out over the ocean and decide you are never going back out there? Or is there always a sliver of hope that, no matter how much your body has changed, you will one day regain your strength? 

 

My neighbor is Peter Cole, one of the first people to ever surf Waimea Bay. Peter is now nearing 90 years old. On trash day I see him and his beautiful wife working together to drag their heavy bin to the street (and by-the-way, they always refuse help!). When the waves are flat. Peter still swims against the rip current at the beach in front of his house. I’ve never seen Peter without a smile. What is it like to know you once surfed the biggest bombs at Waimea but you never will again? For Peter and Mouse and the crew of old guys down at the beach sipping their coffee, it doesn’t seem to bother them.

 

Peter Cole
Peter Cole charges Waimea Bay. Photo: Historic Surfing Images

 

Don’t Count Me Out Yet!

That is how I know I’m not done. Because it does bother me. I don’t need to be the best surfer, or even as good as I was. But dammit, I’m still a surfer and there are a lot more waves left in this body. I’m going to surf no matter how much it takes from me to get back out there. 

But this is my story and I’ve been blessed. I am 35 and I can recover more easily than someone who is older. My injury was severe and serious but not nearly as bad as it could have been. Others have not been as fortunate. And for those who are wondering about making this very hard call for themselves, my heart goes out to you. It might be one of the biggest heartbreaks you’ll experience in your lifetime. For me, it has been. But it has also been the greatest learning opportunity. 

 

 

What’s Your Story?

Injuries and aging are difficult parts of an athlete’s life. At some point we all face at least one of these challenges. We’d be lying if we said it doesn’t shake us to the bones.  You are not alone! How have you dealt with this unwanted aspect of being an athlete? Let us know in the comments or in our facebook group.

Cover Photo by Darin Volpe

 

I am a writer and wanna-be big wave surfer. Surfing is my muse. I write about it and how it’s teaching me to live better. I hold certification as a nutritionist, personal trainer, yoga instructor, and lifeguard instructor. My story “100 Days in Mexico” of how a solo road trip surfing my way through Mexico changed my life can be found here www.melanielainewilliams.com

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