By Toh Xun Qiang
The recently concluded Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang saw 23-year-old Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu become the first man in 66 years to bag two consecutive Olympic figure skating gold medals.
But his victory was a hard-earned one. Last November, he fell and badly twisted his right ankle during a training session. Upon his return from Pyeongchang, he revealed that he had performed his gold medal skate with his ankle only partially recovered.
On 7 Mar, it was announced that Mr Hanyu would be withdrawing from the upcoming world championships, so that he could focus on recuperation.
Many athletes have come up close and personal with the phrase “blood, sweat and tears”. Some injuries can compromise an athlete’s ability to ever take part in their sport again. However, what sets athletes like Mr Hanyu apart is their tenacity to push on, past the pain of their injuries.
Striving for greater heights
While rock climbing at an indoor gym in 2016, 24-year-old Lynnette Koh fell five metres off the ground and landed flat on her back.
The impact of the fall caused her so much pain that the usually composed Koh immediately started crying.
“I was just lying on the ground, squirming and crying in pain as I realised I couldn’t get up,” said the final-year Sport Science and Management student.
She was then rushed in an ambulance to Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
“Everything was a blur and I only remembered hoping that nothing would go wrong,” she said.
However, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan revealed that Koh had suffered a burst fracture in her T12 thoracic vertebra — the middle segment of the human spine. Bone fragments could penetrate the spinal cord and cause paralysis and neurological damage.
“It was a horrible day with lots of crying. I was really afraid when they said I had to go for a surgery,” she said.
As Koh’s MRI scan indicated signs of spinal cord injury, she was sent into surgery just three days later to prevent neurological damage and to preserve the functionality of her spine. She had four screws, three inches long, held together by two metal rods that were inserted into two segments of her spine to protect her fractured vertebra.
During her physiotherapy session the next day, Koh found that she was unable to walk to the physiotherapy area that was a short distance away from her ward.
Even when the physiotherapist helped to support her weight, she was unable to stand on her own or move her legs forward.
“It was too painful and (it felt like) I had forgotten how to walk,” said Koh.
“Imagine going from being an avid runner to learning how to walk again. It was such a painful reality for me to accept,” she added.
Koh eventually regained her ability to walk independently after nearly two months of daily physiotherapy.
Despite being advised by doctors not to participate in any form of sport for the rest of her life, just two and a half months after Koh’s recovery, she started sport climbing again.
“It was difficult climbing again because of the fear. My doctors told me that I would be different after the injury, that I was not the same as before. I was very scared to take falls again because another injury could be worse (for me),” she said.
However, Koh soon got used to the backaches she felt when climbing, which were side effects of her surgery. She started climbing recreationally and at a lower intensity to get her fitness level back.
Slowly, Koh started taking part in the sport competitively again.
While on exchange in Canada last year, Koh represented the University of Western Ontario in the provincial competitions organised by the Ontario Climbing Federation.
She also represented NTU in the recent National Schools’ Bouldering Championships that concluded on 17 Mar.
In the near future, Koh, who was a member of the national climbing team prior to her injury, hopes to return to the team again and represent Singapore in international competitions.
Koh’s parents were initially reluctant to let her continue the sport, but they have since accepted her passion for climbing and trust that she can look after herself.
Koh is now more cautious and restrained when climbing. She does not push herself towards demanding courses, and tries not to take falls as she does not want to risk another injury to her back.
“Despite bringing me such sadness at that point of time, I don’t think my passion for climbing will ever die. As much as it has brought me more pain with this injury, climbing has brought me even more joy than in the past that I won’t ever stop doing it,” said Koh.
One knee, twice hit
Final-year Nanyang Business School student, Michael Goh, suffered his first knee injury in 2011 during a friendly futsal game at Kallang, when a soccer ball hit his ankle and caused his knee to pop.
He was blocking a shot from a player three metres away.
“The pain was excruciating and I fell to the ground. I couldn’t move my knee for 10 minutes,” said the 28-year-old.
Goh’s friend then carried him off the pitch to rest while the others continued playing, but did not administer first aid or get him medical attention.
After some time, Goh decided to join the game again, but found the injury too severe and left the pitch a second time.
When he woke up the next morning, Goh felt an excruciating pain in his knee and could not get off his bed.
At a polyclinic near his house, Goh was diagnosed with an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear. He was then scheduled to see an orthopaedic specialist in Alexandra Hospital two weeks later and to go for an MRI scan. The scan revealed that he had suffered a complete ACL tear and a ruptured meniscus.
The ACL, a flexible tissue that connects the shin bone to the thigh bone, provides rotational stability to the knee. Menisci are connective tissues that cushion and stabilise impacts on the knee joint.
A complete ACL tear causes severe pain in one’s knee and results in a loss of motion, while a meniscus rupture locks the knee and removes mobility.
“I was really worried,” said Goh, who started playing soccer when he was in kindergarten.
He turned to Google to learn more about the injury, as he was afraid he might not be able to continue playing soccer.
“I even went to find out if there were successful soccer players in the English Premier League who continued playing after ACL reconstruction,” he said. “Knowing that there were a number of such athletes reassured me, and taught me to be patient with my own injury. I knew my time to play again would come, as long as I made sure to be disciplined during the recovery process.”
Goh underwent an ACL reconstruction surgery in early 2012, in which his ACL was replaced with another tissue from his body to restore his knee.
After the surgery, Goh, who was serving his National Service at the time, was given two months of medical leave and was advised to walk with crutches during the entire duration.
“I couldn’t move my knee for three weeks after the surgery, and my muscles atrophied,” he said. “My leg would give way if I didn’t rely on the crutches.”
He added: “The first few weeks were really frustrating because I couldn’t go about my daily activities.”
After completing six months of physiotherapy, he immediately went on to take his Individual Physical Proficiency Test, where he achieved a Gold standard.
A few weeks after being discharged from physiotherapy, he started playing football on weekends again.
Three years later, in 2015, Goh suffered his second ACL tear.
He started getting frequent knee locks during his soccer games, when his knee would momentarily lock in a position before gradually regaining mobility.
On one occasion, a fall after a header attempt caused a knee lock that was extremely painful and resulted in soreness.
Afraid that it might be a relapse, Goh went for an MRI scan. The results revealed that he had suffered a partial tear on his ACL and meniscus, and had to undergo surgery again.
“I was very dejected when I found out I had to go through surgery again,” said Goh. However, he took comfort in knowing that he would be able to continue playing soccer after the operation.
Since the two surgeries, Goh has been cautious to not put stress on his knee. He now wears a guard to protect his knee when playing soccer, which requires agility and explosive movements.
However, he has no intention to quit soccer anytime soon, even if it may worsen his knee condition.
“I would feel lifeless without soccer,” said Goh. He added that being good at soccer has boosted his confidence and allowed him to develop soft skills like teamwork and communication.
At present, Goh plays as a defensive midfielder for the Admiralty Community Sports Club, a second tier club in the National Football League which trains twice a week.
On top of that, Goh works out on his own every weekday for 15 minutes to stay fit.
“Although my knee may not be as strong as before, it is good enough for me so long as I can continue doing what I love,” said Goh.
“I grew up playing soccer. It is a part of me, and it’s made me who I am.”