By CEO Robert Forster, PT
If not for the worldwide COVid crisis we would be assisting US athletes this week at the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.
This would have been our 10th Olympic Games providing athlete support and the latest chapter of a journey that began nearly 40 years ago on a short car ride from the Westside of Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley.
In 1981, shortly after arriving in Santa Monica Ca. as a newly minted Physical Therapist just out of school, I met a young track coach named Bobby Kersee on a shared ride to a speaking engagement.
Kersee told me that his goal for the young college age Track and Field team he coached was to win a bucket full of medals at the upcoming Games in Los Angeles.
Valerie Brisco-Hooks (left), winner of the gold medal in the 200 meter dash, and teammate Florence Griffith, winner of the silver medal, hold the American flag after the race. The victory gave Brisco-Hooks her second gold medal of the games at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
I could tell right away Kersee was smart and his passion was convincing and contagious. I made a commitment on the spot to help and we agreed to meet on the UCLA track that next week for the start of what would become a successful, decades long partnership.
I did not hesitate as this was an opportunity that put me on a a path to the reason I had come to Los Angeles. As a former NCAA wrestler whose career was cut short by injury, I had moved from New York to Los Angeles as soon as I graduated from Stony Brook University Physical Therapy School to pursue a career in elite athlete sport medicine.
Kersee was looking for someone to keep his athletes healthy over the next three years that would require arduous training and advanced support to get them to the starting line healthy for the Games at the Los Angeles Coliseum. He had been searching for someone who understood athletes and the latest scientific prevention and treatment techniques.
It was a tall order considering that several of his athletes would compete in multiple events. He explained the training would have to be structured and aggressive just to make the Olympic Team, and then to succeed through the multiple heats of the qualifying rounds at the Games to get to the Olympics final of each of those events. Although he said it wasn’t going to be easy, I was sold on the challenge before we hit the Sepulveda Pass.
Over the next few months, Kersee and I worked together to create a new and unique 360 degree wrap around athlete support system not previously seen in sport at any level.
We created a “state of the science” approach of advanced recovery techniques, injury prevention, injury rehabilitation, nutrtion and hydration all designed to peak his athletes and achieve great performances not just at the 1984 Games, but for several Olympic cycles for each athlete. He stressed to me that longevity meant success for athletes in this most demanding and unforgiving sport events. So we innovated a new approach with those goals in mind.
We designed strength and conditioning training not just for performance, but also included specific techniques for injury prevention to help his athletes withstand the punishing four hour training sessions he doled out. We created nutritional support that had to be 24/7, not just when coach was around.
There would be regular injury prevention sessions at my office so I could discover damage before the athlete even knew there was impending injury. When injury did occur in spite of our best efforts, we were the first team to utilize water training techniques to maintain fitness during rehabilitation when an athlete needed to be off the track.
Rejecting Status The Quo
Back in the early 80s, I too often watched in frustration as the best athletes in the world, once injured sentenced to lying motionless and wired to little black boxes that would miraculously lead to healing but at best seemed to only serve to temporarily diminish pain.
Practitioners with sketchy credentials promised dubious healing powers to desperate athletes who saw their dreams vanishing when injury struck. My professional training taught me that all rehabilitation should be active and all efforts must be focused on returning normal function to the injured area and to then re-establishing the total body movement patterns necessary to compete effectively. An “active rehabilitation” approach replaced the passive protocols I witnessed at almost all the big meets back then.
A simple approach proved to be most effective: return full range of motion to each injured joint and strengthen the muscles that maintain normal alignment and create proper movement. Stretching, strengthening, specific cross fiber massage techniques to reduce scar tissue and icing were, and are still, the simple but effective treatments that got Bobby’s athletes back into action fast.
In this active approach there is little need to address the pain, as it resolves quickly when we keep an athlete moving and doing the right exercise to fix the problem; return normal joint function and the pain will go away. I continue to rely on these techniques today for my patients in my private practice and the elite athletes that seek our care.
At the Olympic Trials in June 1984 Bobby Kersee qualified 7 athletes in eleven events and at the Games two months later those athletes won 10 Olympic medals: Al Joyner: Triple Jump Gold, Valerie Brisco Hooks: 200m Gold, 400m Gold, 4 x 400m relay Gold, Jeanette Bolden: 4 x 100m Relay Gold, Alice Brown: 4 x 100m Gold, 100m Silver, Jackie Joyner-Kersee: Heptathlon Silver, Greg Foster: 100m High Hurdles Silver.
But it Wasn’t Easy
At that time Olympic organizers were focused on putting on the events without embarrassing mishaps and glitches, not the athletes and great athletic performances in mind. The athletes’ personal coaches had little access to their competitors during the Games, and personal Physical Therapists were banned from the warm up area completely.
Not willing to delegate our coaching and support responsibilities to USOC staff members with little knowledge of the athletes’ personal history and physical condition, we pulled our team out of the Olympic Village and housed them in a local hotel where we could continue to anticipate and serve their every preparation need.
For me and Tom Lynn, PT, it meant 12 and 15 hour days performing a carefully orchestrated program of physiological support for every workout, every heat and every Olympic final. There were pre-event warm up routines including massage, stretching, specific drills, and visualization techniques for mental preparation. Post workouts and competitions, there was a prescribed cool down on the track, then stretching, more massage and routine icing for recovery. Physical Therapy treatments were conducted into the late hours of every night. The next day it would start all over again, and again, and again for two weeks until every heat and every final for every athlete, in every event was concluded and the medals were collected.
When Jackie Joyner-Kersee was injured in one of the 7 events comprising the Heptathlon, our hyper focus on athlete support was never more evident. Everything else stopped, and all our focus was concentrated on getting to Jackie – but the Olympics officials would have none of it and between us and Jackie was a ten foot high fence and LA’s SWAT team.
There was only one thing to do; jump the fence and deal with the SWAT team. After a brief but passionate conversation, they lowered the machine guns pointed at us, and I finally got to Jackie and administered taping techniques needed to get her back on the track for the next event.
This was repeated with each expected but feared mishap as we had to scramble to get the athletes what they needed to win. These experiences were formative as our approach was refined and upgraded with each of the next 8 Olympic Games. All told we have helped US athletes win over 60 Olympic Medals and have had at least one athlete on the Gold Medal podium at each of these games. Along the way we have treated tens of thousands of local athletes achieve their athletic goals, injury free!