Monday, August 13, 2012

London 2012: The Knee Story

First of all, London 2012 has been a really good experience.  I knew what to expect this time around, from being bombarded by emails from team managers, to receiving an overwhelming amount of new gear and having to find a way to get it home (thanks, Carol and Liz!), to the logistics inside the Village, to the length of time between the warm-up track and competition.

I was considerably more comfortable with myself and my preparation for this Olympic Games than in Beijing.  Not saying I didn't prepare well for Beijing, I just understand my training and how big competitions go better now than I did then.  Bum knee and all, I felt more ready to compete well here than I did four years ago.

This post is going to be knee-centric, and I'll post another one soon about my overall experience with more pictures and stuff!  Here is the story of my left knee, from the Trials-on.

You can read my blog about Olympic Trials here as a back story.  When I wrote that blog, I didn't yet know what was wrong with my left knee.  The night of my competition at the Trials, I drove home to my parents' house in LaCenter, Washington.  The next morning (Monday), I flew to Spokane, Washington to help out at Ironwood Throws Camp, which I'm so glad I did!  Those kids were awesome.  Tuesday evening, I flew back to my parents' so I could spend the Fourth of July at home with them and my brother (it's never just the four of us anymore!).  Thursday, I finally arrived back in San Diego.

All those pre-made plans meant that I didn't get my knee looked at until Friday.  The doctor that did tests immediately after the competition in Eugene mentioned my meniscus, and Quincy and Chris seemed to think the same thing at my first appointment back in Chula Vista.  We did range of motion stuff and all kinds of rehab exercises, and then, "just to make sure it wasn't something more," Chris came with me to get an MRI at Dr. Chao's.  I thought I'd be fine to go alone, but boy, am I glad he was there with me.

Call me crazy, but I like MRIs!  I've only had two in my life, but both resulted in fabulous naps.  Since I had full range of motion in my knee, had already done well in rehab that morning, and had only heard the meniscus word from doctors up to that point, I never expected to hear Dr. Chao gently break the news of a complete ACL tear to me.  I had run (with a slight limp) a victory lap at Hayward Field!  I didn’t feel or hear a pop or anything.  I had a little bit of pain and just a tiny amount of swelling, but it felt like it could've been much worse, and like nothing a little treatment and rehab wouldn't fix.  I always imagined that an ACL tear would be right up there with the most painful things in the world, but it turns out that stingray poison wins by a huge margin.  I was completely and utterly shocked that that’s what I had done.

Had I been at the doctor’s office alone, I think I would still be crying with disappointment.  Chris Garcia is not only a fabulous athletic trainer, but a super motivating and supportive person.  He and Dr. Chao immediately started discussing the likelihood that I could compete well on a torn ACL in my block leg.  We had tape and anti-inflammatories.  I picked out a custom DonJoy red, white and blue ACL brace and got fitted for it that day.  I got to take a stim unit and Game Ready machine home with me to use while I watched reality TV (this summer was the first time I got to see the Bachelorette finale in 3 years!).  Unlike an athlete in a contact sport, I have predictable steps in what I do; there aren’t sudden collisions and changes of direction, so if I was careful about my foot placement, we decided I would be fine!

The next week was packed with rehab exercises, lifting and bike workouts to keep my quad tone, get as much stability in my legs as possible and maintain my power.  I have pretty good balance already, but Chris really pushed me, and it was awesome.  Honestly, I love rehab and always have!  When I finally got to London and talked to the team doctors about my secret injury situation, they were really impressed with my quad tone, and I was so proud of the work Chris and I had done!  Blam!  If this were the ACL rehab Olympics, I would absolutely win gold.

There came a point when we had to try throwing again.  My first practice back, I only wore the brace, and it was set at a 10-degree block (my leg wouldn’t be able to extend past a 10-degree angle).  It was low-intensity, but I took too many painful tosses regardless of not throwing hard.  Next practice, the brace was blocked at 20 degrees, and I had a massive amount of tape on my leg.  It was better, but my knee could still extend a little too far when I blocked, making it really painful if I were blocked off or too far forward.  I had about six throwing sessions in the 21 days between my diagnosis and my departure date, and we ended up with even more tape on my left leg and the brace at a 30-degree block.  My last throwing session was my best one yet; I could throw an inconsistent 54 meters at what I would estimate was 75% intensity, but I knew I would need competition adrenaline to be brave enough to hit a hard block.  I was throwing in those three weeks with weird, hesitant technique I’ve never employed before.  There were moments of brilliance, but visualization was my biggest asset, as I knew I could practice in my mind much better than I was practicing in real life.

The physical side of this whole ordeal has been the easy part.  I started working with Wendy Borlabi right after getting diagnosed because I knew the timing of this injury was a bear of a mental problem.  She and Chris have been amazing encouragement and strength for me.  I would not have made it to the Olympic runway without them, Ty and Jamie!  Even with their support and that of my amazing friends and family, this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I have never been through such an emotional roller coaster for such an extended period of time.

I would be overjoyed with my progress one day (I ran!  I skipped!  I did my normal warm-up without my knee shifting!), only to return the next morning for practice in pain and with so much frustration that seeing Britney reduced me to sobs of such intensity that they rank fourth on my list of lifetime hard cries: 1) when Grandma passed away in December, and (tied for second and third) when it was family dogs Nani and Nio’s times to go.  I’m good at focusing on the task at hand though, so when I had a job to do, I did it to the best of my ability and stayed as positive as I possibly could (which is pretty freaking positive!).  The hardest part of every day was bed time, when I had no task to occupy me and my mind was free to fabricate vivid mental pictures of what competition would be like.  I fought so hard to make those movies in my brain into what I wanted to happen at the Games!

Re-living the last month through this blog is actually much harder than it was going through it at the time.  I did my very best to not let myself feel the negative emotions of the situation at the time, and I only really had four or five days that I would consider bad.  That includes the time I was in London.  Now that it’s over, it’s easier to be bitter about the poor timing of my injury, but that doesn’t suit me.  Yes, my PR would have won a silver medal this year, but there’s no use in what-ifs, and perhaps everyone else’s results would have been completely different if I were healthy and in the final.

I’m proud of my 56.23m effort on my first throw in the qualifying round last Tuesday, but I know I could have thrown a little bit further.  That first throw was my shot; I knew it would hurt a whole lot to throw at competition speed, and that I would be automatically hesitant on subsequent throws.  That’s exactly what happened; even though throws 2 and 3 flew well, it felt like my body simply refused to transfer energy properly through my busted leg.  The shakes I got immediately after I was done with my third attempt told me just how badly I wanted to succeed, but also clued me in to how much I had just asked of my hurting body!  The overwhelming feeling I had the next day was simply that I was glad to be done; I am no longer living in fear of the pain of throwing without an ACL!  This was my second-best major championship distance yet, and two meters better and 11 places higher than my first Olympic showing in Beijing.

I apologize if anyone feels slighted by me keeping the extent of my knee injury a secret!  I knew that if I talked about it with everyone, it would give me an excuse to not try my hardest to overcome it at the Olympics.  Thank you so much to everyone who offered me strength, whether you knew it or not!  I needed and used every single positive word.


  1. You are just soooooooooooo awesome. I'm so impressed by your positivity, and it was very neat to get to watch you throw live. Can't wait to read all about London!

  2. Kara, my daughter Katelyn suffered a torn ACL while at Mt. View HS in Vancouver (she played against you in basketball)...she had the surgery (Rebound Clinic in Vancouver)and went on to play college hoops and soccer...keep up the positive attitude and hard work...proud of you

  3. KP, I've had 2 reconstructive ACL surgeries, and I've had both menisci in my left knee removed. I got through college throwing javelin, long jump, and I'm still triple jumping. I think the mental game is the hardest...trusting your body after you've recovered, but if you stay positive, persistant, and keep things in perspective, you'll be stronger than before in many different ways. I hope you'll be able to find fortune in this unfortunate situation!

  4. Kara
    Thanks for sharing your story. You are such a courageous athlete. We are all so proud of you.

  5. Yes, You are such a courageous athlete!!!

    Here a picture to tell the story :

    All best
    Eric G.

  6. You are such and amazing woman. Your positivity and hard work inspires me. Keep it up Kara!!! Jav <3

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