A painful joint doesn’t necessarily spell the end…
I woke up to see an earnest young doctor standing over me. We were in the recovery room of Queen Alexander hospital Portsmouth. It was 1992 and I had just had the first of many surgeries on my troublesome right knee. Expecting him to pat me on the back and tell me I was as good as new, I asked him how the operation had gone. With no concern for my fragile mental state, he said:
“You’re the windsurfer aren’t you? Well you must think very hard about what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. You basically have the knee of a 60 year old.” “You don’t suppose he wants it back do you.” I quipped desperate to make light of the situation. But it didn’t take a genius to decode his message – ‘you’re f***ed mate.’
Worn and torn
For the two years previous, my knee had become increasingly sore and prone to swelling after a heavy session. I’d also lost a bit of movement. And because the quadriceps only tighten in the last 5° of extension, I’d lost muscle mass around the knee, making matters increasingly worse.
Following my initial consultation, the assumption was that a foreign body, a piece of cellular debris, was blocking and irritating the joint. A minimally invasive arthroscopy (keyhole surgery) would surely remove the obstruction and I’d sprint out of there – but apparently my condition was more sinister. The surgeon had spotted a small area of worn cartilage, which signalled the start of osteoarthritis (an incurable breakdown of the joint surface), for which hammering down speed and slalom courses with a weight jacket was not the suggested treatment. “If you ever want to play football with the children you don’t yet have, give up now.” Was my surgeon’s parting gift.
Worn brake pads.
Arthritis?! That is surely an old person’s condition. I was only 33 and enjoying my best season ever on the circuit – but a stake had just been driven through the heart of my sporting future.
But as I sank ever deeper into a morass of misery, an older doc hobbled in looking in far worse shape than me. It was the consultant, who’d I’d originally seen about my issue. He was an altogether different animal, a former rugby playing, beer-swilling, devil-may-care type. I relayed his colleague’s prognosis.
“I’m sorry about old misery guts. Bloody good surgeon though – far better than me – but never taken a day’s exercise in his life and believes people who do dangerous sports are just a drain on the NHS and deserve everything that’s coming to them.”
“So I wont have to give up windsurfing then?”
“Bloody hell no! With the odd tuck and trim, we’ll keep you going for a few years yet.”
“So when will I have to give up?”
“You’ll know … too bloody painful.” And let forth a Lord Melchett style ‘Baaaaah’ and left the room guffawing away.
Long story short – 4 weeks later I was on the podium in Fuerteventura and a quarter of a century after that, I’m still doing the sport full time – partly because I need to feed an ever more expensive family – but I also happen to love it and struggle to imagine a time when that particular avenue of joy will be closed. So what of the knee? Both doctors were right. As Misery Guts predicted, I’m not Ronaldo on the football pitch; and yet, as Lord Melchett promised, on the water, I have kept on keeping on with bearable discomfort.
The knee looks a little weird and crooked. But when people are worried on my behalf I ask then if they’ve watched the Paralympics and seen the heights people often reach with a shortage of limbs, let alone a slightly wonky one. So surely it’s no big deal for me to manage with one tender joint? Gradually and mostly subconsciously, I’ve worked out how to protect it.
For example, waterstarting I put my stronger leg on first on both tacks. Vibration and sudden shock loads really irritate it – hence I prefer the smooth, predictable carving of wave sailing to hammering fully powered with big kit over chop. Foiling has been a godsend because it’s a velvety ride (if you’re doing it right) and there’s relatively little force going through your body. Jumping I head up or bear away, depending on the tack, to avoid landing with all my weight on the bad leg. As for freestyle, powering up twisted and loaded is the worst – so most of the new skool stunts, especially switch foot moves, are off limits – which is probably good for my dignity anyway. But on the very ‘up’ side, having a potentially painful condition, incentivises you to sail more efficiently and use less grunt.
Being in pain, as any medical professional will tell you, is the body’s way of telling you it’s not happy and to ease up. Keen to get an update on my ‘knee-monia’, I paid a visit to an orthopaedic surgeon recently who happens to be a friend and good windsurfer. His first comment was that he’d never seen anyone function on a knee quite that bad. This was not a telling off. He actually congratulated me for not going under the knife and demanding a new one.
“It’s all about pain,” he said. “If you’re sleeping and then can do what you do – then don’t come to me.” He then told me I’d lasted this long because I’d kept going and therefore had good bone density and muscle mass around the knee. The trick is to stay out of pain – or at least keep it in check; he said the next phase for me is really important – and that by getting specialist physio help, I can get different muscles to fire to realign and support the knee, and even improve function, so I can continue to bore the windy world with my technique offerings for years to come.
I then discovered that he had been working with such a physio from Hampshire cricket on a study about combatting frailty and keeping people fitter for longer, be they octogenarians or top sportspeople. Knowing a thousand windsurfers who crave immortality, I demanded an interview with them both. It’s fascinating stuff and you can find it buried somewhere in this issue. Peter Hart – 25th FEBRUARY 2020
Pain relief by finding easier ways to do things. Photo Radical Sports Tobago.