The daily Olympics blog returns on Tuesday – in the meantime, learn what it takes to get a broken snowboarder to the Olympics in record time.
Finland’s Roope Tonteri, 21 years old, won the men’s snowboard slopestyle world title in 2013. But his hopes of winning gold on the sport’s Olympic debut at Sochi 2014 were severely dented by back-to-back arm injuries later that year.
Tonteri was referred to Harris & Ross, a clinic based in Manchester, in the hope that emergency rehab would somehow get him fit for the Games. Darren Roberts, the clinic’s high performance director, tells the story.
In action sports and extreme sports, athletes often succumb to injury.
It’s a case of when, not if – what I often refer to as “the cost of doing business” for action sports. You will go down, and sometimes you’re going to go down hard.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with these world-class athletes for more than 12 years. They redefine the nature of what’s possible and are true innovators and rule-breakers. When the inevitable happens and they become injured, they expect the same innovation and rule-breaking to return them to sport.
If a surgeon tells them it’ll be six months before they can get back into action, they expect to do it in three. This is where we come in – we’re known for specialising in returning athletes to sport from severe, career-threatening injuries in as fast a time frame as possible. Not because we cut corners or do anything cavalier with an athlete’s injury, but we do employ aggressive treatment paths that demand a lot from the athlete.
When I got the call from Red Bull Finland about double world snowboard champion Roope Tonteri, I was – by chance – at an orthopaedic sports conference. Our entire team of surgeons happened to be there, including Dr Adam Watts, our upper-limb guy. Roope’s manager explained that he’d re-broken his arm, having already broken it eight weeks previously in New Zealand, requiring plates and screws.
Video: Roope Tonteri breaks a bone in his upper arm in New Zealand, in August 2013 – the first of two injuries pre-Sochi.
The complication was two-fold:
1) This new break was above the plate, which is to be expected in these cases; and
2) Roope was supposed to be going to the Winter Olympics in Sochi in just nine weeks’ time.
Worse still, he had to be available for selection a couple of weeks before the Games, meaning we had just seven weeks. I asked for any images of the break to be sent to me, thinking that it sounded bad but not that bad – although it was likely to be complicated.
When the images came through of the break and the subsequent repair, it looked fairly catastrophic.
It was, to date, the largest fixation I’ve seen in anyone’s upper arm (see image, which shows the first surgery to fix a break in August 2013, then the second surgery in November 2013 showing the difficult spiral fracture from the second injury).
I handed the images over to Dr Watts and immediately his prognosis was not good for a return in time for the Olympics. In fact, he was worried that Roope might not be able to get back on a snowboard, competitively, ever again.
I called the athlete manager back and said we needed to see Roope straight away, and that the goal was to simply get him back to snowboarding. The Winter Olympics would be something of a dream scenario.
We’re all for positive attitude and ensuring we set demanding goals for athletes, but you also have to be realistic and honest with them. There was no use us telling Roope we would get him back for Sochi because, with this break, it was highly unlikely.
There’s a fine line between keeping an athlete’s head up and being positive, and giving them false hope – which completely derails the rehab process when they don’t return when you said they would. This whole process is as much about trust as the treatment itself. The athlete has to trust what they’re being told implicitly. Without that trust, the rehab plan will be very, very difficult – because you need the athlete to do everything you’re about to ask of them, to ensure they return to sport.
Red Bull Finland were great to work with, in getting in touch with us and doing everything they needed to do to ensure that Roope was properly looked after. As soon as Roope’s scar was healed on his arm – two weeks post-op – he was put on a plane to Manchester to spend his first week of intensive rehab with us.
We took him to see Dr Watts at Spire Manchester to get an opinion and direction from a medical perspective. And this is where things are different from the NHS – Roope was immediately told to get rid of his sling, and ceremoniously threw it in the bin!
It certainly took the Finn by surprise, but this always features in our management of injuries: you have to move to improve, and his arm needed as much encouragement as possible to heal. Dr Watts was very concerned about the lack of range of movement Roope had in his elbow, which could barely get beyond what you’d see in a sling. Getting this range of movement back was going to be both tough and painful – but without it, snowboarding was going to be very, very difficult if not impossible.
It was an intense seven days, designed to challenge every aspect of Roope while encouraging his arm to heal. The specialist kit we used included Exogen (an ultrasound bone-healing system), Compex (to stimulate the muscles) and GameReady (compression and cold therapy system) to accelerate recovery and healing as well as all the manual therapies. As with anyone who comes to us, we prioritised what we needed to do:
– Return to function: get range of motion back and start using the arm;
– Return to fitness: start building strength globally, not just in the arm;
– Return to sport: end stage rehab, building confidence in the athlete that the injury has healed.
A typical day for Roope
08.30 – Exogen and Compex muscle stimulator
09.30 – Gym session, lower leg strength
10.30 – Break
11.00 – Hydro conditioning session plus GameReady recovery
12.00 – Lunch
13.00 – Treatment – physio – electro acupuncture – massage – GameReady
15.00 – Break
16.00 – Gym session – trunk strength
17.00 – finish
18.00 – Exogen and Compex – GameReady
Roope was a great athlete to work with and, as mentioned before, this is where the trust element came in. Because we were completely honest and aggressive in what we were doing, he trusted us. This was vital as the ‘rehab’ was in fact the most intense training he’s ever done. The gym sessions were crushing and the physiotherapy with Doug Jones seemed more like torture.
Poor Roope seemed to be in nothing but purgatory for the whole week, but he did not complain or question it once. All he wanted to do was get back snowboarding as quickly and safely as possible.
It can be quite a sight to see for other gym-goers, when they see this small guy with the world’s largest fresh Frankenstein scar on his arm, being pushed through plyometric press-ups by me. It certainly puts other people’s injuries into perspective and how those injuries are managed compared to what we do.
— Darren Roberts (@TheRealConehead) January 12, 2014
Unbeknownst to Roope, we used the week to assess his whole body from a physio and performance perspective. It would be easy to simply have concentrated on his arm, but we needed to know how the rest of his body looked. Any strength and conditioning coach could have looked at Roope and had a field day – however, I take a much more pragmatic view.
When working with these athletes, their function might not fit into neat boxes as detailed in books, but they are world-class at what they do. Roope might not have been the best ‘athlete’ in the gym but he was a double world snowboard champion, so safe to say he’s actually doing OK. This is where, from a performance perspective, you must not lose sight of this fact. I’m always asking myself if I’m the limiting factor to the athlete. Is what I’m doing making them better or worse? Increasing Roope’s deadlift three-rep max is nice, but all I’ve done is increase his three-rep max deadlift. He’s not a measurably better snowboarder for it.
Roope charged through the week being poked, prodded and smashed in the gym for six hours a day. His Facebook and Instagram updates stated: “I will never injure myself again!”
Soon enough, week one was over and he returned to Finland with a comprehensive programme to follow and give to his medical team at home. The doctors there were not overly impressed with how hard we had pushed him – but that’s our methodology, you have to move to improve and that means the whole body, not just treating the injured area. Once back home, Roope did everything he was asked and even roped his snowboard friends into the finer things like cryotherapy and rowing repeats. They must have wondered what we’d done to him in Manchester!
Roope also had an appointment to meet the president of Finland as soon as he got back, so it was great to see a picture of him being able to shake hands with the President.
After four weeks at home, Roope flew out to us for another week of intensive training and rehab. This time he knew what to expect and we started the week at full speed – no easing into it, as in the first week. Once again he was the ultimate professional, doing everything to the letter in typical Finnish stoic style.
However, as the week drew on and the final consultation with Dr Watts approached, you could see the nerves creep in. We had a CT scan and appointment with Dr Watts on the second-to-last day, so the arm had every last hour to heal. A CT scan would reveal much more detail than an x-ray, and give us the best opportunity to tell Roope how much his arm had healed and whether he was clear to go to the Olympics.
Roope’s scan was in the morning, but his appointment wasn’t until the end of the day. This meant I was able to get the CT scan hot reported by Prof Waqar Bhatti as it happened – meaning I had the results. I asked Roope if he wanted to know. “No,” was the reply. He wanted to wait and see the doctor. He had undergone a normal x-ray before leaving Finland to come to us, and the doctors there had described his level of healing as ‘amazing’. So he, and we, knew we were in a good place.
The climax. We did a full day’s training and rehab as normal, with Roope pushed to his limit on everything. When the time came to see Dr Watts, Roope was understandably even more stoic than normal – and that’s saying something for someone who is Finnish.
I’d managed to keep the result under my hat all day and didn’t give anything away to Roope. When Dr Watts reviewed the scan, he turned to Roope and said: ”Your arm is 95% healed, you’re OK to go to the Olympics.” Roope erupted in typical Finnish over-emotional style and responded: “OK.” As matter-of-factly as though he’d been told what was for dinner.
As a performance manager and strength and conditioning coach, I was obviously ecstatic at the news, although I’d clearly known all day. To get such a terrible injury to heal so fast is testament to our methods, which might not fit in with traditional paradigm but – like I said at the beginning of the piece – these athletes are not looking for traditional methods.
With the news he was OK to make himself available for Sochi, the next day we took him straight to Chill Factore in Manchester and the indoor slope. Roope didn’t bring anything to the UK with him as he didn’t want to tempt fate, so we walked into the Burton shop to have a bizarre conversation which went along the lines of: “Hello, I’m Roope Tonteri, a Burton team rider. Can you give me a board, boots and bindings?”
The guys in the shop were great. They gave Roope everything he needed and Chill Factore kindly let him use the facilities. It was all a bit cloak-and-dagger, as Roope had a press conference planned as soon as he landed back in Finland to announce whether he was fit or not. So we had to make sure he was able to slip onto the slope unnoticed. Not only that, but Roope had the Finnish equivalent of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year as soon as he got back to Finland. He had been nominated and would have to attend the evening.
We sent Roope back to Finland with a revised programme, he made himself available for selection and was duly selected for the Finnish team in slopestyle.
He didn’t win the Finnish version of SPOTY, but for us, we’d already won. Simply getting him to this point was an incredible achievement by everyone involved. As for Sochi, Roope didn’t just qualify for the final, he qualified second overall! There was a real sense that he could get a medal, even gold. However, the dynamic nature of slopestyle is that anyone in the final has a chance, and Roope fell during both his medal runs – leaving him in 11th place. Such is snowboard slopestyle.
For us as a performance team, this was a great experience with a great athlete. To see him get through to the Olympic final in such dominant fashion was a dream come true for us, and one that looked extremely unlikely just eight weeks before. Roope hadn’t been riding all winter as everyone else had, he’d been in the gym with us. Everyone acted decisively and very quickly, from his Red Bull manager all the way through to us. This direct action, and not being bogged down in decision-making red tape, was fundamental to his recovery.
The main man in the centre of this, though, was Roope himself. He put in unbelievable amounts of hard work to ensure this positive result. His nickname is the “Honey Badger” – a super-tough, fearless creature from Africa. It’s certainly a fitting name for Roope. Although I just called him the ‘Hobbit’.