Injuries are a fact of life for professional athletes and even us weekend warriors – but when those injuries come just weeks before the biggest event of your life, it can be devastating.
I’m thinking of Abby Wambach today, the U.S. soccer player who was slated to be one of the stars of the Beijing Olympics but sustained a fracture to her tibia and fibula during the team’s Olympic tune-up match against Brazil on Wednesday. It’s painful to watch an athlete in prime condition go down – the crowd at the U.S. track Olympic Trials gasped loudly in shock when Olympic sprint favorite Tyson Gay toppled out of the 200-meter quarterfinals with what turned out to be a mild hamstring strain. Gay’s fortunate that qualified in the 100-meter event earlier in the Trials before sustaining his injury, or he would be out of Beijing as well due to the unforgiving nature of the qualify-or-stay-home nature of the track Trials. Paul Hamm is even more fortunate than Gay – his sport, gymnastics, allows for an athlete who can’t compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials to get a medical exemption as long as the athlete can demonstrate the fitness to compete by the time the Games arrive. (In Hamm’s case, the moment of truth is tomorrow, when he’ll participate in an intrasquad meet in front of the Olympic selection committee.) The same could be said for figure skater Michelle Kwan, who got a medical exemption to compete at the 2006 Olympics, which would have been her third Games. Sadly, she reinjured herself during her first practice session in Turin and had to withdraw.
On the list of athletes dealing with injuries as these Olympics approach, you have to feel for Yao Ming, whose body has been both a blessing (try guarding against that height in the paint) and a nemesis (three different foot and leg fractures in the last three seasons). He played in Thursday’s Stankovic Cup match against a team from Serbia and by all accounts looked healthy and ready to go. If there’s just one athlete for whom I wish perfect health for the next month and a half, it’s Yao, the athlete who has done more to raise the profile of his country and its athletes than any other. If anyone deserves to participate in the Beijing Olympics, it’s the big man from Shanghai.
The good news is that injuries heal and the sporting world goes on, and many of these athletes go on to have their finest hours after recovering from injury. Gay is still in it for two events in Beijing. Hamm appears to be ready to go for tomorrow – and for August. Kwan left a storied competitive career and two Olympic medals to start the next chapter of her life, college at the University of Denver and an appointment as a special U.S. envoy for public diplomacy (a posting that took her to China in January 2007, and got her on the cover of Sports Illustrated China to boot). For Wambach, this chapter will be a tough one to swallow – but in London, she’ll only be 32, and as this older-than-32-year-old can attest, there are plenty of athletes out there who reach their prime and stay there longer than ever, so there will be another day for her to shine with U.S. soccer. Our thoughts go out to her for her recovery.