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Making Myself Accountable: Series II

By Nikki Stone
Sports Motivation
Updated: September 10, 2008
A world champion with a problem Within a year of my Lillehammer disappointment, I was named world champion. Wanting to stay atop the aerial skiing world once again in 1996, I pushed myself harder and harder. But, there was a problem. The continuous impact of landing on packed snow from a height of 40 feet or more was damaging my spinal discs, in effect, compressing them like pancakes.

I started to feel pain in my lower back. The pain became worse. But I kept jumping.

Three-quarters of the way through the 1996 winter season, at a World Cup competition in Oberjockch, Germany, I felt a sharp pain after one of my first jumps and tumbled into a heap at the bottom of the slope. Lying there, I told myself the agony was nothing more than a muscle spasm that would soon subside.

The team's physical therapist rushed to check on me and to let me know the training period would end in five minutes. Dismissing the pain, I hauled myself back up to the top of the slope and headed down for one final training jump. I collapsed immediately upon impact and slid to the bottom of the hill. With tears in my eyes, I was carted off the hill in a sled.

Doctors told me I'd damaged the insides of two discs to such a degree that they were leaking fluid.

Hobbled and dejected, I visited doctor after doctor, ten in all. Their prognosis was the same. My career was over.

But my obsession to win the gold medal drove me to try anything that might provide relief. There were stabilization exercises to build her back muscles. Acupuncture. Physical therapy. Massage therapy. She even had one doctor numbed the nerves in my spinal cord so I wouldn't feel the pain. I had to be fully conscious during the one-hour procedure so the doctor would know he was numbing the right area. The pain was so intense I hyperventilated during the procedure.
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Sadly, though, nothing worked.

Nagano or bust In the meantime, the Olympic clock was ticking and the Nagano Games were only 17 months away. I could barely walk. I couldn't go out for dinner because sitting caused so much pain. So I whiled away her time lying on a mattress on my living room floor.

Then, I had an epiphany. Flipping through a sports magazine one day, I read about former heavyweight boxing champion Smokin' Joe Frazier. In the article, I learned that Frazier had fought with a broken wrist to win an Olympic Gold Medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Inspired by Frazier and an old poem I'd read about never quitting, I decided to give it one more try. I conducted research and found a Boston doctor by the name of Rainville, who practiced a counter-intuitive approach.

Dr. Rainville had once helped a skydiver who'd injured his back in a contest where the winner was determined by who could open their chute closest to the ground. I thought, wow, that jumper is crazier than I am. If Dr. Rainville can help him, maybe there's still a chance for me.

Rainville's strategy called for me to lift extremely heavy weights to strengthen my lower back. But it was risky. While the heavy weights would build muscles to help support my injured discs, the doctor warned me they might also damage the discs completely.

Positioned on an exercise machine, I grimly performed back extensions with a 25-pound barbell pressed to my chest. I worked out seven days a week, gradually feeling the strength flowing back to her atrophied muscles. Accountability was a key part of the regimen.
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