Images by Doug Daniels and courtesy of JayciePhelps.com
A Real-Life Recovery Story By Tom Keppeler, Knee1 Staff
Olympic gymnast Jaycie Phelps remembers always having a phantom ache in her knee while working out or competing. It was faint enough to block out at most times, but always there, plaguing her, swelling her left knee and making it ache. Like many high-level athletes, however, Phelps blocked it out, chalking it up to the aches and pains that go along with Olympic aspirations.
In 1995, however, the phantom showed its face. While competing in the World Team Trials in Austin, Texas, Phelps was performing a tumbling routine. When she landed, she knew that something was disastrously wrong with the knee. "I didn't land weird or anything," she said in a recent interview with Knee1. "I came down, and then, all of a sudden, I couldn't walk."
Phelps flew home to Cincinnati to have her knee examined by a doctor, who diagnosed her with a tear in her meniscus, the shock-absorbing pad of cartilage found in the knee. Because it was torn, the meniscus was not properly doing its job, which is to absorb the forces caused by running, jumping, tumbling and other exercises, and to prevent the bones that meet in the leg from rubbing against one another. A doctor removed the torn area and put her on an aggressive rehabilitation program to get her back into competition.
Three weeks later, however, Phelps was back on the mat, competing in the World Championships in Sabae, Japan. "It probably was not the smartest thing in the world to do," Phelps now reflects, "but the Olympics were the following year, and I had to stay active in competitions." Phelps did not feel much pain during the Championships, but says she does not know whether her knee was truly healed or if she was simply blocking the impulse.
The following year, Phelps competed in the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. She and the other members of the "Magnificent Seven" went on to win the gold at the Games, the first US women's gymnastic team to do so. Shortly thereafter, however, Phelps noticed a stabbing pain in the knee while on tour. Knowing that her knee was not healed, she flew back home to Cincinnati, this time seeking the consult of Dr. Frank Noyes, this month's Knee Care Hero. Noyes noted that Phelps' previous surgery had eliminated nearly all of her meniscus, causing bone to rub against bone. Essentially no cushion existed between her femur, or thighbone, and tibia, or shinbone.
Noyes tried a procedure popularized by Dr. Richard Steadman (a former Knee Care Hero) known as microfracture. In the procedure, small holes are drilled into the bone to encourage stem cells to leak into the knee joint. If all goes well, the stem cells "grow up" to become cartilage cells, or chondrocytes, that repair the torn meniscus.
Phelps could not afford to be out of training or competition for long, however, as hopes for competition in Sydney, Australia's 2000 Olympics grew. Her rigorous training regimen did not allow the microfracture to take hold. Phelps continued to experience excruciating pain, especially during practices. She returned to Noyes.
After another battery of tests on her injured knee, Noyes gave her two options: either have the knee replaced with prosthetic parts, or undergo a meniscus transplant, in which a cadaver's meniscus would be implanted in her leg. In 1997, at the time of the conversation, Noyes was one of only 50 doctors nationwide who performed the operation. Phelps opted for the transplant. Bad news hovered around either choice, Phelps says. The transplant only upped her odds for competing in Sydney to 50-50. "I'm hoping for the Olympics in 2000," Phelps told the Cincinnati Enquirer at the time of her surgery. "But we'll wait to see how the surgery goes."
Phelps took over a year off to recoup from the operation and regain her Olympic-level strength. She flew back to Arizona, her new home and training ground, and eventually started training at the SportsTech/Desert Devils facility. Noyes visited the site to inspect that the exercise facilities were not putting undue stress on her new meniscus. Her training regimen focused heavily on "backpeddling"—backwards running and walking to strengthen the backs of her legs, putting her knees at less risk for injury. "I don't think my legs have ever been that strong," she says.
Phelps planned to compete in three events in the U.S. Championships and move on to the national team trials to qualify for Sydney. While her left knee performed better than it ever had, Phelp's right knee became painful and achy. While at the championships, Phelps only competed in the first of two days. She planned to petition into the trials for the national team using her scores from just the first day. But the pain persisted, and soon Phelps found herself undergoing yet another MRI—this time, on the right knee.
Images confirmed she had torn the meniscus in her right knee. Instead of a relatively easily-fixed tear on the edge, however, Phelps had sustained a tear right in the center of the cartilage, which forced her to pull back her bid for Sydney. "It was disappointing, but I've been through the surgery before," Phelps says. She plans to have surgery on it in January or February.
In the meantime, Phelps has begun coaching gymnastics. While she began with level-10 and elite athletes, Phelps now also coaches quickly-rising pre-teen gymnasts with the Sportstech/Desert Devils program. Coming from such a history of knee troubles, Phelps says she pays great attention to the complaints of pain that some of the athletes utter. "Some kids try to get away with saying they're hurt so they can just rest for a while, and some really are hurt," Phelps says. "I'm really careful to recognize the difference."
Asked whether her high-level competition days are over, Phelps repeats that her Olympic days are over. "I had a little bit of gymnastics left in me. I was able to compete in two all around competitions (after the last surgery)," she says. "That's all I wanted to do." While her attitude may seem resigned, Phelps will be wheeled into surgery next month knowing that although both knees will soon bear the scars of operations, they will never outshine the gold medal.