A Wrestler's Experience with Tommy John Surgery

When injuries push your goals up against the wall, how do you keep from giving in to the disappointment? How do you make proper decisions about your health when you’re not sure which path to take? When you go from being the previous year’s University World Champion, to ending your first match at the qualifying national tournament due to an elbow injury, you can feel pretty lousy about yourself as an athlete. However, with the support of high level medical teams, family, and teammates, I got through a tough part of my career and was able to continue wrestling. This is my story about the first major injury of my wrestling career.

The Injury

A typical surgery for pitchers on the baseball mound, Tommy John surgery (TJS) is when a surgical graft from either a tendon taken from your own body or from a cadaver, and is used to repair the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow. TJS is not an extremely common surgery for wrestlers like ACL repairs are, but it does happen. My experience was no less unexpected. I was competing in April at the 2010 University Nationals, and was vying to make my second University World Team. I had won the 2008 University Worlds, and I was excited to have the chance to add a second world title to my resume. It was my first match, and I recognized things were going south quickly when I reacted to a shot in a slightly different and possibly unusual way. With my left arm posted, my opponent insisted on driving me over that arm. I tried to stay sturdy but as soon as I heard 3 popping noises in my elbow, I relaxed and rolled to my back. Intense pain was next, along with intense anger as I was being pulled off the mat. I knew my chances for making the world team were shot.

"Whether or not I could still wrestle with a torn ligament in my elbow was up for debate." 

The diagnosis

I got back home and immediately had an MRI taken to see what the damage was. It was concluded that the UCL in my elbow was torn. Armed with this information, the decisions were still not straight forward. Whether or not I could still wrestle with a torn ligament in my elbow was up for debate. Some stated that if the ligament had rolled up by the bicep, I would have to have surgery. But how would we know if that had happened? No one could tell me. Some professionals agreed that if the ligament in the elbow was only slightly torn, it would tack down without surgery, and scar tissue would do the work of repairing the ligament. The reality? You only truly know the damage once a surgeon has opened you up.

In the end, with all the information and misinformation, I had to make the best decision for me. By May, I had moved to the Olympic Training Center and would have Senior World Team Trials in June. Not only would winning this competition qualify me for a world team, but making another Senior National Team (top 3 senior athletes in a weight class) would mean funding for international competition and training over the next year. A lot was on the line. At the Olympic Training Center, I had access to the best rehab and physical therapists the US could offer so I decided to try my hand at rehab. I had six weeks before I needed to be ready for the world team trials. Armed with a good attitude and an elaborate taping job at each practice, I put my head down and got to work.

Deciding on surgery

During the training camp leading up to trials, I ended up getting a bad ankle sprain. Now, I was not only rehab-ing my elbow, but also my ankle. I lived in ice baths and I wrestled in tape. I did what I needed to do to prepare for the most important US competition held each year.

My first match at world team trials was pretty wild and I lost in desperate fashion. It showed that even though I had done a great job training and working on the mental side of wrestling despite the injuries, the instability of my elbow made it difficult to wrestle a good match. Feeling completely defeated in the medical tent, my sister told me it was best to pull out of the tournament, call the Olympic Training Center, and schedule surgery. Tears were heavily involved, but I had a huge amount of relief that someone else was making the tough decision for me. The thought of surgery was scary, and I had convinced myself for weeks that my body was capable of healing itself and being strong through rehab.At this point in my training  I had to completely shift gears. I was a new resident at the Olympic Training Center, and now I wouldn’t be on the mat with the coaches, but in the rehab room. I had to get ready for my first surgery and 6 months of rehab.

The rehab

Healing from surgery was no joke. I had to eat right, sleep right, and train right. It was no different from every other day in the wrestling room. The rehab and surgery process taught me how to be diligent, and never leave a stone unturned. I followed my physical therapists instructions to a T. I had a surgical cadaver to repair the UCL and started my healing process. As I began returning to the mat (around 4 months), I learned how to get creative so I could rehab sport specific. I would have fellow teammates snap my head to the mat so I could practice a straight arm post for stability. I did all the baby steps required to do rope climbs again. My sister would pinch at the scar tissue in my elbow so I wouldn’t have sensitivity when my opponents grabbed a 2-on-1. I learned again how to be comfortable in the most uncomfortable of situations. By 6 months I was ready for competition. It still was another 6 months of adjusting the rehab, recovering properly from being so sore, and just learning how to feel and perform my best. 

This experience helped me realize that I was capable of doing what was necessary to get back on the mat. Deciding on surgery was a big deal, but it didn’t mean “giving up” like I feared. In the end, the lesson I learned is when you make the best decision for your situation, following it up with a positive attitude and hard work makes all the difference in your future goals.