Reaching Olympic-size Goals

By Saralyn Switzer, Physical Therapist

The Olympics just finished and most of us watched in amazement as the top American athletes competed in every sport for the medals. Their determination, drive, and dedication seem inconceivable, and yet we can relate to them. These strong, fast, agile athletes faced challenges along the way, including injuries; many requiring physical therapy during their recovery process.

Lolo Jones ran the 100 meter hurdles. She suffered from back pain which severely limited her performance and eventually progressed to the point where she was unable to walk or run. Last year she was diagnosed with a tethered spinal cord and underwent back surgery to release the spinal cord. She had to go through the recovery process and could not run while rehabilitating. Just one year after her surgery her discipline and determination allowed her to reach her goal of qualifying for the Olympics. Her hard work led to a 4th place finish at this Olympics.

Tyson Gay ran the 100 meter and 200 meter race, and participated in the 4x 100 meter relay. In 2011 he injured his hip and required arthroscopic hip surgery to repair the labrum and an impingement in the hip. This surgery required him to rest from running and rehabilitate until November 2011. But from that point on he trained and pushed until he made it back to the Olympics. He was rewarded with 4th place in the 100 meter and the 4×100 meter relay placed 2nd at the Olympics.

Bryshon Nellum ran the 400 meter race and the 4×400 meter relay. He was shot in his legs in 2008 when walking by his college campus. This injury tore through his muscles and required three surgeries to repair the damage. After each surgery he needed physical therapy and had to start his training from the basics and work his way back up. Yet despite doctors’ uncertainty if he would ever run again, he qualified for the Olympics and won a silver medal in the 4×400 meter relay. At the closing ceremonies Bryshon was nominated to carry the flag for the US by the other athletes.

Trey Hardee competed in the decathlon in track, including throwing, running, and jumping events. In 2011 he tore a ligament in his elbow during the javelin throw of a competition and in September 2011 underwent surgery to reconstruct the ligament, a Tommy John reconstruction. This pushed him to train harder on his running and jumping so he would score higher in these events. He had to do extensive physical therapy on his arm and start throwing gradually to work back to javelin. All his training and physical therapy paid off and he won the silver medal in the decathlon at the Olympics.

These athletes made remarkable recoveries after these surgeries. They all went through the physical and emotional pain and fear of possibly losing everything. They took the risk and gained it all back. Their primary goal of getting to the Olympics was only achieved by setting smaller goals every day in physical therapy. Simple goals like getting out of bed after surgery, dressing and walking on their own are accomplished and replaced by new goals, such as, walking the stairs without pain, or opening a jar. In physical therapy each goal builds on the previous goal toward the greater one that each individual and therapist sets for them. For these athletes, the ultimate goal was the Olympics, but I’m sure along the way their other goals matched our own: playing with our kids, going to work, get back on our bike, or walking in the sand. What we set as our “greater goal” is just as important to us as their goal of reaching and succeeding at the Olympics. Keep that in mind when you need the motivation to complete another day of physical therapy or walk further than yesterday. Remember, we all have the determination, drive, and dedication like the Olympic athletes to reach our aspirations!

Photo Caption: U.S. sprinter Bryshon Nellum competes in the men’s 4 x 400-meter relay (Feng Li / Getty Images )

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