Why I took the gamble and got a new one.
by Chris Anthony
In December 2000, during the annual 24 Hours of Aspen ski race, where two-person teams raced non-stop for 24 hours from the top of Ajax Mountain to the bottom reaching speeds sometimes over 90mph, I made a miscalculation and it changed my biomechanics forever. I was with my teammate Eric Archer and we were representing the United States in this international televised event. We trained for months preparing for this competition along with organizing all the logistics needed to be successful in this race. We wanted the win. Each of us had 6 pairs of 225 Downhills skis that would be rotating with a fresh coat of wax for each run. Our pit-crew was prepped, ready to be up all night taking in data and preparing our gear for every non-stop run. I felt we were more prepared than any team had ever been except the final training day did not goes as I hoped. On this day I blew it all and we had to forfeit as a team despite the fact my teammate Archer would start the event unofficially on his own.
I miscalculated how to absorb a road already gone over in practice twenty-plus in inspection and at speeds of 85 MPH. I was on the only pair of skis in my large quiver that had an older pair of bindings that did not have a vertical toe release. The incident happened because a snow groomer crossed the course between training runs and in doing so left a lip where one did not exist prior in training in earlier training runs. Now at full gas, The small change in terrain caught me off guard. The smallest change can create a large variation in the geometry of the slope at speed. I did not adapt and I ended up launching a few hundred feet out of control, flying through the air.
I’m sure I was swinging my arms in circles trying to save myself as I was kicked backward through the air downslope for a hundred feet. I can clearly remember my teammate Eric Archer in a perfect tuck to my right beneath me as I was flying out of control over his head.
The first thing I felt hit the ground was the tail of my left ski. Without the vertical release of the toe piece, the energy jerked my lower leg forward with so much power the leverage snapped my ligaments immediately.
I heard the pop. Fractions of a second later my entire body came down hard upon my back and I spun, sliding and whirling on the snow for another hundred yards into the fencing. Eventually, I came to a stop tangled in the netting. I was devastated, I knew something bad just happened to my knee, but I didn’t want to believe it. I had fallen a few hundred times in my career like this and walked away every time. I would certainly be able to do it one more time.
The safety crew was there immediately cutting me out of the fencing. I was asked if I was ok. I said “yes” except I think I may have hurt my knee. Instantly one of the doctors did a little manipulation and said “Yep, it’s gone”. In other words, my ligaments were no longer holding my knee in place, my legs muscles had immediately seized up to protect it. I thought no way. I tried to stand up with help and ended up in the sled. The pain didn’t kick in for a few hours until my body’s adrenaline subsided. The swelling came on immediately, along with the depression.
For the next 20 years, I would deal with a limited range of motion, loss of power, constant swelling, and at times pain so severe my eyes would water up while in the middle of a ski run. With all that I was determined not to let the sport of skiing slip away. So I sucked it up, adapted where I could, and lied about my injury so I could continue to be a part of the sport. Was it worth it? Hell ya! I have been able to limp my way through some amazing experiences filming with Warren Miller Entertainment for 28 years, competing as well as continue guiding in some of the most amazing locations on the planet and terrain. I just had to adapt, change the way I approached the sport, and work with some of the best doctors around.
I held off the initial surgery on my knee following the Aspen crash in Dec 2000 until April 2001 and managed to painfully make it through that entire season that included two Warren Miller segments. One of which was training with the United States Marine Corps and the other in Canada at Mike Wiegles Heli-Skiing Operation. I accomplished this by bracing my knee, building muscle, and making frequent trips to the doctor to have it drained and injected with cortisone. Ironically it was one of the most productive seasons I had on record. If I did not put myself through this I believe my career would have come to a stop that season.
When the time came for surgery that April 2001, I was relieved to have it cut open and go into a summer of rehab. However, that surgery did not go well. I never regained full range of motion and the swelling never stopped. For years I dealt with this, went to doctor after doctor, telling them what I felt like was happening in my body. Meanwhile, my right leg was being damaged by the fact I was favoring it and my back was starting to have problems for the same reason. Eventually out of the blue an amazing doctor called me. Dr. Millett from The Steadman Clinic. He sent me a text and said, “it sounds like I need to see you”.
Dr. Millett was the only doctor I had come across who understood athletes and the awareness we have of our bodies. While doing surgery on my better right knee he looked in my left knee too and dig into what I theorized was going wrong. He woke me up from the surgery and said he found the problem. I had a free-floating bone fragment that was tangled in my Peroneal Nerve.
Two days later I went back under the knife and Dr. Millett removed the fragment. It provided some relief but the amount of damage done by this object was extensive. My left knee had already started to shift its mechanics to compensate and mentally I was in a negative cycle. Dr. Millett suggested that one day I might need a new knee. The thought scared the crap out of me.
Around 2015 I backed away from a double knee replacement at the last minute. Then I met a very unique woman, Dr. Bramley. Dr. Bramley introduced me to the world of regenerative medicine. I was invited to fly to Hong Kong for a series of tests and was injected with stem cells and several rounds of PRP (Platelet Rich Plasma). At a minimum, Dr. Bramley told me that she could control my inflammation, which I have learned creates a variety of health problems. At maximum, we could reverse the damage. Which I do feel took place on my healthier right knee. The experience was life-changing.
Dr. Bramley ran me through a series of tests and determined I would greatly benefit from a changed diet, exercise, and lifestyle regimen. She accomplished this by analyzing my blood panels and DNA background and calculating my future diet through the data. I came home from Hong Kong with a new approach to how I was going to eat, stem cells, and a plethora of supplements. My overall fitness went through the roof and my inflammation went way down. I did not need to have my knee drained all the time and ultimately I canceled a double knee replacement and ultimately any replacement by five more years.
At the beginning of the 2019 – 2020 winter season, I took another horrific crash while speeding under flat light. With the lack of sharp vision, I hit a huge ridge left in the slope by a groomer. Once again, I was skiing with a friend who watched me fly through the air facing the wrong way, upside down. Had I had two healthy knees I would have been able to better absorb the impact of the ridge instead of using only one leg, the impact ultimately ripped my ski off and sent me on another trajectory of pain.
I limped through the rest of 2019-20 season skiing in more pain than ever. By my last run during an annual trip I guide in Italy I had to send my group to the bottom of the mountain and told them I would have to meet them at the bar. I side slipped my last run that day. Back in Colorado during the beginning days of Covid I painfully started to get in shape for total knee replacement surgery that I decided was inevitable with replacement specialist Dr. Kim. Yes, I worked to get in the best physical shape possible before going under the knife at The Steadman Clinic Vail Valley Surgery Center.
I had never been so nervous about going under the knife, while for Dr. Kim this just seemed as standard as an oil change. Sometimes I think surgeons should go through their procedures as a requirement.
I arrived early in the AM for the procedure and woke up later that afternoon in the recovery room. I briefly remember Dr. Kim coming in and giving me a thumbs-up before I went back to sleep. That evening I was out on crutches and home. I passed out and woke up the next morning feeling like a champ. I thought I would be a tough guy and skip the meds as I crutched my way into the kitchen. I made breakfast, got to work on my computer, and felt excited to get back on track with life. By 9 PM that evening I was in agony, my pain would not subside and I was calling 911. Painkillers were necessary and I needed them for quite a few weeks, of course, I tried not to overdo my prescriptions but I gave in to the fact that they are crucial. The nights were hell. The days I kept myself occupied by rehabbing, elevating, and icing.
I was more conservative than what was prescribed for crutch use. I stayed on them and made sure that I was retraining the gate of my walk for 4 weeks. However, a week out of the surgery I did get a full rotation on the indoor bike. The hardest thing was trying to get a full extension. The knee wanted to be bent. Extending it was incredibly painful but had to be done. Sitting for hours watching TV with weight on my knee to push it flat was exhausting but was absolutely necessary.
Every day I would walk through the village on crutches, working on my gate and going up and down every staircase I could find. Every two days I would go in and work with a Physical Therapist. The best part of this was the elevation and ice that came with it. At 4 weeks I could spin the bike with no resistance but I purposely stayed on crutches a bit longer. I was up to 3 hours of some sort of rehab a day on my own. The downtimes just trying to get the full extension of my leg, trying to decrease inflammation as well a constantly trying to break up the scar tissue. That is probably the most important thing you can do and the least fun.
Breaking through the stiffness of the scare was the most difficult. When you first see the incision running across the top of your knee when you wake up you instantly think Oh My God, This is horrible and wonder if the body can come back from this type of damage. The scare is horrible. The spin bike needs to become your best friend no matter how uncomfortable it feels bending the knee.
At Week 6, I was finally starting to sleep a little better. I woke up every morning and laid on this recovery pad called the BEMER which helps to increase blood flow through the body. I moved my biking from an indoor spin bike, outside onto a townie with flat pedals. I stuck to level terrain and rode with very little resistance for a couple of hours. I ended the day elevating and icing while still continuously massaging to break down the scar tissue around the knee.
Increasing the range of motion is extremely important. Especially extension. Sitting down with your leg extended in front of you while gradually pushing down on the knee so that the back of the knee eventually is touching the ground is very uncomfortable but necessary.
The little things are huge. Especially diet. I ate for months so clean and tons of protein. Thankfully I had a wonderful girlfriend at the time and we made the healthiest homemade meals during the deepest part of the lockdown. Restaurants not being opening might have been a blessing.
By week 9 I was able to get on my road bike with clip-in-pedals. This allowed me to become more aggressive and start building power. It is very important to make sure your knee alignment is correct in the clip-ins. The last thing you want to do is develop improper muscle alignment.
By week 12, I was starting to get out of the saddle on my road bike and hammering up Vail Pass. The knee was stiff at the beginning of the ride but would loosen after 15 -20 minutes. I was also starting to hike again. Something that I had given up on years ago unless it was near a lift I could ride back down. Most staircases had even become an issue.
I did everything slow and meticulously. Granted Covid cleared my calendar of work other than sitting in an editing room working on a documentary I plan to release in the fall of 2021 about the 10th Mountain Division. Which I could not get back to this for at least a month in a half. The uncomfortable feeling of trying to sit at the computer while my leg was elevated and iced was too much.
Seven months in and my muscle tone started to come back and at 9 months I was riding my road bike hard every day and felt amazing. In fact, I was climbing and descending mountains again. I was in a better place physically than I had been in almost 20 years. I was in heaven and for a moment did even want to think about putting ski boots on and skiing with the chance of destroying this amazing physical and mental place I had reached.
I was not in a rush to get back on the slopes. Some of the most significant pain over the years besides the joint pain came from the alignment issue pressing on the Peroneal nerve. I had to have ski boots custom-made to try and engineer around the nerve. It was bad. But Thanksgiving came and went, the snow started to fall and I put my ski boots on and nervously took my first run. I took about one-half of a run before my brain figured out I did not have any feedback coming from my left knee. Then another two runs for my brain to realize I was not in pain. On day three I did something without a thought that I had not done in years, a hockey stop on my left leg as well as clicking into my bindings without manually assisting. But perhaps the most amazing thing is, I am skiing stronger than in years past because the pain is not shutting down my muscle’s activation.
I took things a few steps further. I invested in a very complicated footbed system from Gorsuch. These footbeds have been inserted into my street shoes, bike shoes, and ski boots. They have helped me with alignment and cushioning.
I have used everything to get back to a place where skiing has become freedom again, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics combined with a very structured rehab and nutrition program brought me back into this wonderful sport I enjoy so much. I hope my story helps give you hope and the courage to fix what ails your body too.
Chris Anthony is a 2018 Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame Inductee, a featured athlete in 28 Warren Miller films, Veteran of 9 World Extreme Skiing Championships, Executive Director & Founder, Chris Anthony Youth Initiative Project, Former Alaskan Extreme Skiing Champion, Beaver Creek Ski and Snowboard School Trainer, Alaska Helicopter Ski Guide, Producer, Ski Personality and Write Motivational Speaker. Learn more about him at www.chrisanthony.com
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