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Field of Play: The amazing Olympic comeback story

Posted: Thursday, December 5, 2013 | 11:40 AM

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Lindsey Vonn tests her tender knee Wednesday during training for the FIS World Cup women's downhill at Lake Louise, Alta. (Alain Grosclaude/Getty Images) Lindsey Vonn tests her tender knee Wednesday during training for the FIS World Cup women's downhill at Lake Louise, Alta. (Alain Grosclaude/Getty Images)

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More often than not, the most compelling story of any Olympic Games involves the struggle of an injured athlete to get there against all the odds.

More often than not, the most compelling story of any Olympic Games involves the struggle of an injured athlete to get there against all the odds. 

The drama infrequently reaches a climax when the wounded star does the unexpected and triumphs. Encapsulated in the tale is the consummate scenario in which sees the protagonist heroically summon all the powers of body, mind and will to write the perfect script.  

Simply put, it's called overcoming great adversity in order to rise to Olympic glory. And though such stories have become somewhat cliché, they still resonate because ordinary people identify with the plot. Everyone understands the challenge facing an underdog or the quest to fulfill the impossible dream.

On the way to Sochi 2014, there are a bevy of such stories.

The most public is that of American alpine skier Lindsey Vonn, the superstar who ripped up her knee at the world championships in Austria less than a year away from the Games. 

Vonn, who is poised to become the most prolific female skier of all time, subsequently re-injured the same knee but is delaying further surgery to forge ahead to her date with Olympic destiny. Winning in Sochi, in spite of the injury, would guarantee the reigning Olympic downhill champion legendary status.

Closer to home, NHL scoring machine Steven Stamkos fractured his leg in November. Yet he appears to have what it takes to aspire to a place in Team Canada's lineup in Sochi. 

No doubt, the postponement of the naming of hockey rosters until Jan. 7 has at least something to do with wanting to get injured stars like Stamkos into the Games and watch the magic unfold.

Then, there's pioneering freestyle skier Kaya Turski of Montreal. Her sport (slopestyle) is making its Olympic debut at Sochi and she's the world champion. But she tore her ACL in August and has undergone experimental surgery involving a synthetic ligament wrapped inside a cadaver graft from the tissue bank. Turski is well on her way to beating the odds and recovering in time for the Games.

"The Olympics embody the motivation beyond all others," said Dr. Robert Litchfield, the orthopedic surgeon from London, Ont., who repaired Turski's knee.

"The reason any successful athlete exists goes well beyond the physical. They are mentally and emotionally strong and incredibly driven."

But there are other factors which facilitate these kinds of comebacks, not the least of which has to do with opportunity and expertise.

"These athletes have access to resources that the lay public doesn't," said Litchfield, who will be in Russia as Alpine Canada's team physician.

"They can rehabilitate from four to five hours a day, whereas most of us have other jobs to do. They have physiotherapists, chiropractors and training facilities.

"And in addition to these things, they are already in peak physical condition. They begin rehabilitation from a much higher baseline than most of us."

While all of this is true, there is another more intangible reason why the Olympic comeback story is, indeed, possible: the element of desire.

That's why the story of bobsledder Heather Moyse of Summerside, P.E.I. is so appealing. At 35 years old, she is less than a year removed from major hip surgery. Still, the 2010 Olympic champion (with Kaillie Humphries) has returned to high-performance athletics.

After a dalliance with track cycling and helping Canada to win a silver medal at the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow this past June, Moyse has re-united with Humphries in the Canada One sled after an absence of more than two years. Moyse is not only back on board, she's better than ever, having set new world standards for start times and pushing Humphries to a track record in winning the first World Cup race of the season last weekend in Calgary.

It appears Moyse has an insatiable desire to be at the Olympics.

'Imagine what is possible' 

The story of the amazing comeback is not new. There is a history to all of this.

Canadian rower Silken Laumann nearly had her leg severed in a training collision with a German boat less than 10 weeks prior to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.   

After five surgeries and a total of three weeks in hospital, Laumann miraculously won a bronze medal in single sculls in Spain.

"I dreamed about going to the Olympics from the time I was 11 and could not let go of the dream," she told me from her home in Victoria.

"The greatest asset athletes have is always their mind. Their ability to think beyond what is and imagine what is possible."

'Keep dedicated and keep believing' 

For Melissa Hollingsworth, the skeleton racer from Eckville, Alta., the comeback involves many factors. Having won the bronze at the 2006 Torino Olympics, she was favoured to capture gold at home in Vancouver four years later. But after setting a personal best in the start to her fourth and final run, she made mistakes and fell to a devastating fifth-place result.

Since then, she has struggled with concussions and their lingering symptoms, which have become all too common for many veteran members of Canada's skeleton team - and to which some experts attribute to the high volume of training runs put in preparing for the home Olympics.

Still, Hollingsworth is fighting through in order to have her chance at making amends in Sochi.

"There isn't an athlete in this world that hasn't gone through an injury or a disappointing experience," she said. "But what is special about the Olympics is that they only come around every four years. 

"I'm sure you could talk to many athletes that, when they have hit rock bottom, they want to quit. But they keep dedicated and keep believing and that's when the most amazing moments happen."

'You just have to try'

Calgary's Kyle Shewfelt, an Olympic gold medallist in gymnastics, embodies this notion of the great comeback. 

A year prior to the Beijing Games in 2008, Shewfelt broke both of his legs while training at the world championships in Germany. Somehow, in a punishing, physical, sport where strength and flexibility in the lower limbs is at a premium, he returned to compete in China. According to him, failure to do so was never an option.

"The Olympics are different because they are the event you lie in bed and dream about for your entire lifetime," Shewfelt emphasized. "As an athlete, you never want to look back on your career and wonder, 'What if?'

"'What if?' is haunting. No matter the timeline or the risk, you just have to try."

That's what makes each and every Olympic comeback story so magnetic and compelling. When we truly understand all the trials and tribulations involved in the journey to the greatest field of play, the actual arrival is that much sweeter and infinitely more dramatic to witness. 

Follow Scott Russell on Twitter @SportsWkndScott and @TheFieldofPlay
    
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