Almost nine weeks have passed since “the incident, ” and I’m finally ready to tell my story.
On Friday, May 21, my 27-year-old nephew Ricky called and invited me to watch him, and seven of his buddies wrestle the next day in a local tournament for charity. The Bald and Fat Classic provides a chance for old grapplers to get on the mat and compete again. The age divisions were: "Past my prime," “Dead”, and “Fully Decomposed.” The organizers of this tournament surely have a sense of humor about old guys rolling around in singlets with big bellies, bald heads, and hairy backs.
I impulsively decided that I wouldn’t go as a spectator but as a participant. The event was being held in Kenilworth. This is important to the story because my nephew, a fellow Bogota, New Jersey native, now living in Virginia, thought he was going to Kinnelon, which is why he didn’t think to call me months prior when he signed up. He thought it would be too far for me to drive. The day before the tournament he realized it was is Kenilworth and that we live just a couple towns away.
As a personal trainer, fitness coach and Functional Aging Specialist, I knew that to compete in this grueling sport, you must train for it. My head, however, was over-matched by my heart. My passion for the sport and my belief that I would be in better shape than anyone I would go up against, even at age 54, led to my decision. I had just set a personal record in my deadlift, pulling twice my bodyweight and I was feeling great about my strength.
I weighed in at 180 pounds and entered the “Fully Decomposed” division, which was for those aged 45 and up. I drew the line at wearing a singlet and opted for Under Armour compression shorts and shirt. I was pumped up but nervous. I last wrestled in my early 40’s and was hoping I wouldn’t meet any former NCAA champions. You never know who is going to be across the circle from you.
My beautiful and supportive wife Kim came to cheer me on. She never questioned my decision to wrestle and was excited to see me in action. I had warmed up pretty well and was ready to rumble. I tied up with my opponent, who was neither bald nor fat. I was feeling him out and trying to gauge how strong he was, but before I could find out, he shot in with an ankle pick and put me to my back. Getting pinned in 35 seconds was not my idea of a good time.
I was down but not out, and I had another match coming. My next opponent had already beaten the guy who just pinned me. As we sat in the bleachers, Kim was giving me a shoulder massage and a pep talk and asked, "What are you going to do differently this time?" I said, "I'm not going to tie up, and I'm going to get the first shot."
I got in on a nicely executed single leg, hoisting his right leg up in the air and grabbing hold. To win the points for the take down, I still needed to get him down to the mat. As he tried to hop out of bounds, I dug my heels in with as much force as I could muster in an attempt to pull him back in and take him to the ground. My left hamstring, however, was not prepared for the applied force, and I felt it pop. This is what it looked like:
I could barely get to my feet as I told the ref that I couldn’t continue and apologized to my opponent while hobbling off the mat. The first thing I thought of was that I wasn’t going to be able to work on Monday. Kim and Ricky were there to console me, but the physical pain I was feeling was excruciating. There were no athletic trainers available, but Kim was able to find some ice as I sat against the wall unable to move for about 30 minutes. I eventually got to my feet and limped in pain out to our car.
Kim wanted to take me to the emergency room, but I insisted on just going home. This was mistake #2 (#1 was wrestling without preparation) I really should listen to my wife.
I reclined either in bed or on the couch with my leg elevated and ice on my hamstring. My entire posterior thigh was now a large patch of black and blue. I medicated on Advil around the clock. By Sunday night, I was feeling incrementally better.....by extremely small increments, or at least I thought I was. Maybe I was trying to convince myself that getting back to work on Monday was somehow possible.
I came to my senses and decided to give it one more day. Kim valiantly coached all of the sessions on Monday and Tuesday. I decided that I would be able to go in on Wednesday, but not in the early morning. The pain and stiffness were the greatest in the early hours, so I limped into the gym for the late morning group. One hour was enough as I barely made it through.
A week went by with me training only one or two sessions per day and spending the rest of my time at home in my familiar place - bed and couch. Planning our gym's August reopening kept me sane as I was able to get a lot of work done with all of this time on my hands.
My hamstring was finally starting to feel a lot better, but my lower leg began to hurt tremendously - It had swelled up bigger than my right leg. I told myself that it was probably from altering my gait and this too would pass. A client told me of his bout with blood clots and urged me to get it checked out. Another client, whose husband is a Doctor of Sports Medicine and happened to be home on his day off, scheduled me to go directly to their house so he could take a look. Thank you, Joe, Ann, and Dr. Mike!
The Doctor poked and prodded and told me that I did indeed have a torn hamstring, confirming what I already knew. The pain in my lower leg, however, could be a blood clot. He said if it continued to hurt like this that I should go to the emergency room and get screened for a possible clot.
Saturday came, two weeks since the incident, and after 2 hours of training in the morning, and with the pain not subsiding at all, I drove myself to the Emergency room at tiny Union Hospital, just 7 minutes from the gym. In my mind, going to this small hospital would enable me to get in and out quickly and rule out a blood clot, but the Doppler test showed extensive clotting - I was going to have to be admitted. I received a shot of Lovenox, a blood thinner, in the abdomen and they scrounged up some food for me to eat.
Since this hospital was so small, I would have to be transported to Overlook Hospital anyway, which is the larger affiliate and the place I was avoiding in the first place. I waited in that bed for 5 hours until my transportation was available.
I enjoyed a thrilling ride in the ambulance up to Overlook Hospital. The driver zipped in and out of traffic up the Parkway, then Routes 78 and 24, avoiding most, but not all of the jarring potholes. The view that I was enjoying reminded me of sitting in the rear-facing seat of my family’s Buick station wagon when I was a little kid - I’m glad my father didn’t drive like this.
I was ushered (rolled) into the hospital and right up to my semi-private room, sweet digs with an adjustable bed, television, and a roommate. As it turned out, the bed was uncomfortable and mysteriously moved on its own, the television only had 12 channels (no ESPN!), and the roommate snored like a hibernating bear.
I was sitting in a hospital bed with a torn hamstring, extensive clotting in my leg, and with no knowledge of how long I would be in for. I wasn’t happy about my situation, but I reminded myself that I was lucky to have caught the clot before anything worse happened. Shortly after I got settled in my bed, Kim showed up with Nick, 17 and Caroline, 15, plus supplies. That made me happy.
When it was time for me to go to sleep, the snoring from the bear in the next bed was getting louder. I had to download a “nature sound” app to my phone, plug my headphones in, and fall asleep to the sounds of the rain forest. My slumber didn’t last long, as it was once again time for the nurse to take my vitals.
Later that morning I received the good word that I would be released in the afternoon. They were sending me home with oral meds and I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to give myself injections. I was thrilled to be going home to my family, a home-cooked meal, and to my own bed.
I continue to rehab my hamstring, slowly getting back to deadlifts, kettlebell swings, squats, and lunges. I will be on blood thinners for the next few months at least until a new Doppler test shows better results. The support and well wishes from clients and friends have been amazing, and for that I am grateful.
I learned my lesson - pursuing what you love takes training, whether it’s wrestling, hiking, tennis, basketball, skiing, golfing, or any other sport. Even a professional strength coach can get overzealous and get injured. I am determined to get back to next year’s Bald and Fat Classic and revisit those Glory Days once again! Training has already begun.