• This Is Why

    Back On Track

    An Olympic athlete finds a new calling.

    Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why' 

    Kuehl, Kristin 75x110  

    The morning of my 27th birthday I awoke to discover I had become an "S." At least that was my thought as I looked in the mirror. I wondered how and why my oft-sore back could have morphed overnight into a vertical sine wave. One hip was up, the other was down, and I was in a lot of pain. So, I did what any self-respecting Olympic hopeful would do: I called my mom.

    I tearfully informed her that I was an "S" but wanted to be an "H." (Yes, in hindsight it makes more sense to have wished for an "I" shape, but you know what pain can do to a person). I'd been having back problems on and off for a few years, and being a discus thrower certainly hadn't helped. I'd dealt with other orthopedic problems, as well, and had visited the training room far too often. In fact, I was such a rehab regular that before undergoing low back treatment on March 17 one year during college, I had a roommate write "Happy St Patrick's Day" across my PSIS (posterior superior iliac spine) just to mix things up.

    But my 27th-birthday "present" was less amusing. My doctor told me I had a couple of herniated discs, and he couldn't say for sure I'd be able to keep throwing. This was scary news, because it meant, for the first time, I'd have to work though an injury that might have a long-term impact on my quality of life.

    Fortunately, with conservative therapy and the encouragement of some outstanding medical professionals, my athletic career continued. During rehab I developed a great appreciation for the role of physical therapy in the recovery process. Over the next 8 years I was treated by physical therapists (PTs) all over the world.

    I grew to rely on two PTs in particular, whose skills were top-notch and results were even better-Liz Shorn, PT, FAAOMPT, at Physical Therapy Orthopedics Inc in Minneapolis, and Mike Clark, PT, DPT, with the National Academy of Sports Medicine. They taught me that the main source of my back problems was dysfunction in a number of my other joints and muscles. Liz and Mike balanced me out, fixed me up, and taught me how to prevent injury while optimizing my performance. I ultimately revamped my training routine, paying strict attention to my lifting technique.

    My 1-rep max numbers (the maximum amount of weight one can lift in a single repetition for a given exercise) didn't improve much, but I grew stronger and wiser in other ways. After all, a discus only weighs 1 kilogram, and it doesn't go very far if the person throwing it is in pain, has less then optimal ROM, and lacks neuromuscular control.

    I did make the US Olympic Team, and my most successful seasons came after my back injury. Still, at no point through any of this did I think about becoming a PT. I had been an art education major, for crying out loud! When I "retired" from throwing in 2005, however, I knew I wanted to find a meaningful career that played to my strengths. I tried my hand at personal training, but selling sessions was not a gift that I possessed. Also, I found that many of my clients had orthopedic issues beyond the scope of my role as a personal trainer. Those people needed a PT. Perhaps that PT should be me.

    I'm now in my second year of school. I'm looking forward to helping patients turn their "S's" back into "I's." In the meantime, the letters on my immediate radar are D-P-T.