Never Quit: A Personal Guide for the Injured Athlete

Heidi Armstrong

For this post in the Never Quit blog series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi Armstrong, founder of the Injured Athletes Toolbox (IAT), former University of Texas collegiate swimmer and endurance mountain bike racer.  

The format will follow our typical Q&A style, plus some additional questions for any injured athletes out there.

PKB: Tell us about where you were at your lowest.  

In 1999 I suffered a major crash during the mountain bike racing National Championships. After years of painstaking rehab and finally getting "back on the saddle," I had another serious fall while backcountry skiing.  Only this injury was different. I was left with an extremely obscure knee fracture and completely torn MCL.

My lower leg looked like it was held together by the skin when left unbraced and was eventually diagnosed with Arthrofibrosis on my left knee. Of all knee pathologies, arthrofibrosis is arguably the most difficult to treat surgically.  

PKB: What motivated you to stick with rehabilitation for so long and ultimately find a recipe that works?

At the onset, I was increasingly bitter and moody, highly unlike my normal temperament. Without my sport I felt like I had no purpose.  Late into my first year of gimphood and before my second surgery, I realized I had better find another way of coping or my best friend and roommate, Christine, was going to toss me over the 3rd story balcony :)  I wished for another severely injured athlete to connect with, but I couldn’t find one. 

Like a lightswitch, I woke up one morning and recognized the importance of adopting new tools to assist on the road to recovery.  They say if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. For me, the hammer wasn’t working.  

I didn’t always need force. I needed softness. I needed to forego denial and surrender to what was. I needed balance, resilience, guidance, and optimism. I needed to reconnect with that voice inside that urged me to never give up, that I would walk again and that somehow - by some miracle - my swelling would dissipate. The voice that told me one day I would sit on my mountain bike and race again.

PKB:How did you begin the process of change?

I realized the only way out of hammer-land required assembling a small army of gifted practitioners. These included:

  • a Licensed Professional Counselor to penetrate my anger and help me unravel my real issues.
  • new orthopedic surgeon with experience relevant to my pathology.
  • chiropractor specializing in Active Release Therapy to address years of compensatory issues that accompany injury. 

PKB: Where are you now in your rehabilitation? 

I was an endurance mountain bike racer and would like to be able to return to that.  I do my best to never ask the question of when that will happen but I do have hope it will happen one day.  I don't ask when because setbacks are a normal part of recovering from injury.  

Looking too far down the road can lead to disappointment   I liken it to riding a mountain bike: it's important to look where you're going, but not too far down the trail, otherwise you'll lose your balance.  In the short term, I'd like to be able to walk for an hour without pain in my left knee.  Time will tell - it may take another surgery to get there.   

I will probably do another 10 mile swim for Austin-based Colin's Hope next year.  It is really important for me to have goals that require planning and persistence, since I am used to training for endurance events.  Also, an event like Colin's Hope offers community and a support network.  

PKB: What advice would you give someone who's just experienced a major injury and is about to embark on the path towards physical, mental and emotional recovery?

The first thing I would recommend is to keep journals of 1) your progress, 2) fears, and 3) what you're grateful for.  I tell everybody that journaling is not only exceedingly therapeutic for you as an inured person but could someday serve as a spring board for helping someone else.

Secondly, find a way to move that is kind to your injury and will keep you in motion of some sort.  For some that might be as limited as practicing yoga on the floor, something I did for an entire year.   You can' take movement completely away from an athlete. 

Finally, ask for help.  No matter how embarrassed you feel or how much you don't want to burden someone - ask for help.  Don't try to be injured alone. Alone is the worst place to be and one of the biggest mistakes I've personally seen people make.

PKB: What is your biggest lesson learned from what you've gone through as an injured athlete? 

My biggest take away is injury revealed aspects of myself I had never explored before, from writing to other creative endeavors.  These were parts of myself that I actually needed in order to become a more balanced person.


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