The Road to Recovery: Part 1

Why I love NACs, summed up in a photo. Notice how there’s no fencing involved!

“We’ll walk this road together, through the storm
Whatever weather, cold or warm
Just letting you know that you’re not alone
Holler if you feel like you’ve been down the same road.”

-Eminem, “I’m Not Afraid”

In twenty years of fencing, the “monotony” of NACs and national events is something I’ve lived for. Show up at any national event, and each venue looks the same: the concrete walls and floors, the familiar odor of fencer when you check the tableau, the vendors lining the wall, and the theatrical components of a close bout that often rival the thrill of Michael Bay explosions.

For NACs, a plane ticket costs upwards of $500 sometimes, a hotel room just as much. But these costs hardly matter when I can sit and have a beer with friends after a long day, watch my favorite sport, and partake in the post-event shenanigans that reduce our maturity levels to that of adolescents.

I’m the guy who continues to show up at NACs because I love being there. It’s been roughly ten years since I’ve had national points or a relevant domestic result. I’m way out of competitive fencing shape, and I’m lucky to make a 128 when I show. I continue to attend NACs because they’re a great opportunity to hang out with friends I’ve had my whole life, fence some elite competition, and watch some good fencing long after I’ve been eliminated.

The truth is, I don’t have a right to be writing a post like this. Sports recovery stories are reserved for people like Lance Armstrong who came back from cancer to win seven (steroid infused) Tour de France titles. Adrian Peterson came back from a torn ACL to win the NFL’s MVP and a 2000+ yard rushing season. Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda caught on fire and returned 39 days later to place 4th at the Italian Grand Prix. My aspiration is to just show up and fence, and not one thing more, and I know I’m not the only one who does this only because they love it.

As I write this, I’m in excruciating pain, I’m still replaying the injury in my mind, and I remain in disbelief that it happened. But I’m looking forward, thinking about the steps I need to take to get back on the strip, and I will do everything Dr. Magur (my orthopedist) tells me to do in order to return.

The Injury

Let’s estimate and say that I’ve fenced more than 200 tournaments in my life, NACs included. On the conservative side, let’s assume I fence seven bouts per event, totaling 1,400 bouts in my life. Then, let’s take my favorite action, which is a fleche in preparation, and assume that I look for this action and commit to it perhaps five times per bout. Not including practices, this calculation comes out to 7,000 times that I have executed a fleche in preparation (usually into my opponent’s parry-riposte!)

It was time number 7,001 that my body failed me and put me where I am today. After ten years of not fencing foil, I decided to suit up and fence a Division III NAC in Reno. Following a respectable finish in pools, I began my first DE searching for this action as my opponent came forward doing the wavy foil hand thing, known as “preparation.” I had secured a six touch lead and felt tactically comfortable in closing out the bout. As he approached, I bounced, luring him into my two meter zone. When I instinctively found the right moment to attack, I pushed off into the fleche…only something wasn’t right.

As I launched in the air, I felt a large pop in the back of my ankle like someone had slashed my heel. I landed the touch and crumpled to the ground, knowing immediately my Achilles tendon had torn. I’ve never been much of a crier, and I’ve always had a notoriously high pain tolerance, but I’m not certain I’ve experienced greater pain in my life than a rupture. I lay there screaming on the strip, knowing full well what my injury was even before the trainer told me. Adam Watson, (who had been coaching me that day) hobbled me over to the trainer’s table where they all but confirmed my suspicions: it was torn. I could barely muster the breath to call my girlfriend, who I left an inaudible message for because I was in tears.

As I was wheeled out of the venue on a hospital gurney, I saw the best of fencing, and the worst of fencing. Both Adam and my friend Nathan Anderson (head coach of Denver Fencing Center) came to my aid to help me pack and gather my stuff as I continued to sob my eyes out, and many friends approached the gurney to console me. By the time I got out of the hospital, I had 37 missed calls/texts ranging from friends back home, to club parents, to friends, and even Olympic Silver Medalist Tim Morehouse.

And now, for the worst. As I was wheeled out of the venue, the parents of my opponent approached me, and I thought it was to offer well-wishes. Nope. The father said “Do you want to see your injury on replay?” I thought he was joking. He put an iPad in front of my face, played it, and said: “looks like you won’t be fencing next round” as he turned and walked away.

In all my years in the sport, it was the most hurtful, classless act I’ve ever experienced, and I began to cry more as I had to immediately relive the lowest point of my fencing career. Needless to say, when I returned home, I wrote the family name on my bathroom mirror, so when I wake up in the morning, it’s the first thing I see as I begin months of rehab.

After hours in the hospital and dehydration as I sat in my sweaty fencing gear, I was finally released, only I had no car and had to go without pain killers until yesterday evening (which included a cross country flight with a connection). Let me tell you how fun that is. The good news is, the worst is over. The best is yet to come.

What’s Next

I met with my orthopedist this morning, and we’re proceeding with surgery this coming Monday to reattach the tendon. It’s a two hour procedure that reduces re-tear rate to about 2%, but the rehab process is long, tedious, and must be adhered to strictly due to the sensitivity of the tendon.

Swelling. Ow.

My fellow TFC admin Leland Guillemin asked me how I was feeling as I approach this challenge. In the grand scheme of things, I’m excited. Yes, excited. I know where I am now, I know I’m not healthy, and I know that there’s a long road ahead to get back to doing what I love. I could wallow in self-pity for a few days, but fencing is such an important part of my life that I can only look to the future instead of acknowledging the present. Today, before my doctor could even shake my hand, I asked him how soon I could get under the knife. Every second I’m not recovering is another second I’m pushing off fencing, and quite frankly, that’s not a reality I’m willing to face.

While I’m staying mostly positive, there are some difficulties I’m dealing with in the interim. I warned my girlfriend I would be going insane within the next few days. When she asked why, I listed:

  1. The pain is awful.
  2. I’m not able to move much.
  3. I can’t take care of myself.
  4. I’m having trouble focusing on work with the painkillers.
  5. The frequent reminder that December is when I’ll truly be better, and the fact it seems so far away.

I want to conclude this post in once again thanking my friends and readers for your kind, encouraging words. The number of people who have reached out to me who I have never even met has been overwhelming, and I am truly grateful. I happen to also have the best girlfriend in the world, who was waiting for me at the airport when I returned, and has been spiritually encouraging to the nth degree. I love you, Erica!

I promise you all I will return stronger, I will work harder than I ever have, and I will be back on the piste. We fence for one touch at a time to win, and I’m taking this one day at a time to recover. Let’s roll, whifferninnies!

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