There are common threads that run through the heart of champions. They share the ability to listen to their instincts and train from within. They see opportunity even in the presence of the greatest of obstacles. And they continue to look for ways to excel and improve at every stage of their life. The following are three incredible stories of elite athletes who rose from the depths of career-ending injuries back to the podium, in record time.
What makes their comebacks even more interesting is the brand new training strategy they used to do it.
Training Outside the Box
"The way you step up your game in light of the competition is to never try to do what everybody else is doing. Instead, you become more of yourself." —Oprah Winfrey
Two-time U.S. 5,000 meter champion, Lauren Fleshman, started evolving her training regimen after a series of injuries nearly ended her career. "I broke my left foot four times, and realized I had to get smart and do something different or I would never compete again," Fleshman recalls. "I had to face the fact that I had limitations and that I couldn't train like everyone else with high mileage weeks."
Her process of experimentation led her to discover the ElliptiGO, a low-impact device designed specifically to emulate running outdoors. "I initially incorporated the ElliptiGO into my training to recover from an injury. Once I was healed, I began to rely on it to compensate for the mileage difference between my competitor's weekly mileage and mine," explains Fleshman. "Instead of going out and putting the additional volume on my legs and joints, I rode the ElliptiGO for the equivalent amount of time that I would have been running. That way I could put in fewer running miles to reduce the likelihood of injury, but keep my fitness level on par with my competitors."
By letting go of the constraints of traditional training, Fleshman took a big risk. However, her strategy paid off at this year's IAAF World Championships, where she tied the best finish ever by an American woman in the 5,000 meters. "It's been my best year ever and I've been able to stay healthy enough to train for my debut marathon in New York City." Fleshman finished 16th in the 2011 NYC Marathon. Her return to running shows that she is a leader in the sport and one to watch heading into the Olympics.
Finding a Silver Lining in Every Obstacle
Top U.S. Mountain Running champion Simon Gutierrez's thriving running career came to a screeching halt when an ordinary knee surgery went terribly wrong last year. After seeking several opinions, it was determined he had necrosis and the bone in his thigh was slowly dying. "I was mad at first, especially when I was told I'd never run again, but I'm an optimist so I started to put the pieces together and focus on healing," Gutierrez explains.
Simon surrounded himself with a team of orthopedic specialists in Vail, Colorado, and after several months of rehabilitative work, Simon's leg was healthy enough to begin exercising again. "That's when I started using the elliptical machine because it allowed me to perform weight-bearing activity without any impact on my knee," says Gutierrez. "Six weeks later I learned about the ElliptiGO and went for a ride. I couldn't believe it—I could push myself but had no pain at all. It was a truly magical moment because I felt like I was running, something I never imagined I'd do again."
Eventually Simon was able to progress from walking to jogging. "I'd ride the ElliptiGO almost daily to develop cardiovascular and muscular strength, and sprinkle in a little running," says Gutierrez. I started thinking 'If I can just run an eight-minute mile, I'll be happy.'"
Fortunately, his leg continued to heal and his running career started to come back to him. When he tested his speed and found he could run a sub-six-minute pace without much effort, he was in shock. "It was a miracle," explains Gutierrez. "I thought I've found a secret formula back to running again. If I could do this, maybe I could race again." And that is exactly what he did. Only 18 months after his catastrophic surgery, he returned to the racing circuit and astounded everyone with a fifth-place finish at the Mount Washington Road Race followed by a third-place finish at the Pikes Peak Ascent where he bested his previous time by more than three minutes. He's adapted his training so that he's running less and using the ElliptiGO to maintain peak cardiovascular fitness. His story illustrates how a seemingly insurmountable obstacle can lead to discovering a new path forward towards accomplishing a goal.