On the eve of Olympic triathlons, team therapists help athletes find balance of physical health and confidence in their bodies.
Chiropractor Alex Keith and massage therapist Kimberly Kirkland are with Team USA’s triathletes around the clock to provide daily injury care and expedite recovery in the days leading to the Olympic triathlon. During most of the year, Keith and Kirkland periodically treat elite triathletes including Sarah Groff, Laura Bennett, Gwen Jorgensen, Hunter Kemper and Manny Huerta, but the techniques they use change dramatically in the final days before the Olympic race. Instead of aggressively pursuing every ache and muscle knot, the athletes are in a period of “maintenance” and the staff is focused on keeping them confident that they are ready.
“With any soft tissue or mechanic work, I lighten up as you go [closer to the Olympics],” says Keith. “Less is more. Right now the hay is in the barn and we’re fine-tuning. I’ve been working with these athletes for 10-11 years now, so I have a pretty good idea for how their bodies should be functioning at this point. And if there are any problems, which there may or may not be right now, we have literally 10 days to get them under control. We’ll start off by watching them run, looking at their mechanics and the history of complaints, making sure their joints are mobilized. We’ll look at feet, knees, femur, tibias, hips, spine, shoulder, ribs, elbows and wrists, then we’ll go through muscle testing to make sure every muscle in their body is firing. You can pick up a weakness, and if a muscle blows out weak, you want to get that fixed because that equals loss of endurance and more fatigue.”
Kirkland also changes the way she addresses injuries in the final days before the Olympic triathlon. “At this stage, it’s mostly just flushing,” she says. “They are so calibrated to right where they need to be right now, the only thing I need to do is keep them at that point. Within the last two days things drastically change from attacking a problem to just keeping them relaxed. We’re still attacking problems for the men (on Aug. 3, four days prior to their race). There is a line at that two-day mark. I can cause the muscles to fatigue too quickly if I continue to massage normally. I wouldn’t even want to think about it.”
Not only are they physically at the breaking point, but the stress of this rare opportunity also has the American athletes in a state of heightened sensitivity. Kirkland and Keith are careful not to disrupt their confidence by planting the idea that something may be wrong physically, no matter how small. “It’s pea in the pod syndrome,” says Keith. “Your mind can dwell on stuff. We have to know what to say and what not to say. Everything at this point is magnified. Their nutrition, sleep, travel. When they have something going wrong, most athletes will dwell on it and it can affect game day. My job is to get in under control and have them know they can beat themselves into the ground as much as they can and it’s going to be okay. Obviously if they’re going to hurt themselves I have to take them out of competition. But [that’s not going to happen] tomorrow.”
Photos: Team USA Trains In Guildford
Kirkland agrees that every athlete is especially susceptible to mental disruption before the event. “Everything is at such a high caliber of raw nerves that any words you might use might be misconstrued,” explains Kirkland. “I would never say the word ‘strain’ right now, because their definition of the word puts them in fear. That’s the biggest thing, to not overreact with anything they have. If I feel something I’m not comfortable with, I’ll make sure I get Alex’s attention across the table without [the athlete] even knowing and I’ll just point to that area or make a gesture that we need to have a conversation about this. That way, [Keith] knows about it and we don’t say anything in the room about it. Everything stays calm.
“The best way to explain it is their intensity makes a big difference in what they need done. It’s more up to them what I need to do. I need to stay within their boundaries so they’re comfortable not being over worked or under worked. That mental balance is a big piece of it. If there is something I feel in their body, I always ask them ‘is this bothering you?’ at this point, where otherwise I would do what I know is best. At this point, it has a lot to do with what they feel is best. Paying particular attention to how their words are. Everything is much more gentle at this point.”
The work USAT’s medical staff does this week is just the finishing touch; much of the work takes place earlier in the year to ensure the athletes stay healthy during their intense training periods. Keith sees the athletes at WTS races throughout the season but isn’t with them every week, so he uses video chat to stay informed on the condition of the athletes and help keep them healthy. “If they do have issues on the road, we have Skype so I can get on there and look at the injury to give them things to do or send them to somebody we know can help them,” says Keith. “So we’re always on them. They always have access to answer their questions… For instance with Laura [Bennett], I’ve been with her 10 years now. She is in Australia half the year. I’ll talk to her every two weeks. She’s been with me so long she can almost go through a full exam on her own at this point.”
But now, a day before the women’s Olympic triathlon, the point of it is not to let the pressure of the moment affect things. “I feel that’s one thing I’m very good at,” says Kirkland. “I’m a calmer. I’m able to calm them down. Whether it’s my touch or the way I speak, they seem to appreciate that.” And it’s that reassurance that USAT’s medical staff provides in the week leading to the Olympic Games, in addition to the physical maintenance, that is helping America’s five Olympic triathletes arrive at the start line ready to race to their full potential.
For more from London, visit Triathlete.com/Olympics.