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When the body breaks down

Career-threatening surgery makes an athlete reflect

Posted: Tuesday September 26, 2006 8:52AM; Updated: Tuesday September 26, 2006 11:08AM
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Justin Gimelstob avoided surgery for his bad back for 11 years. But then his career -- and health -- fell into jeopardy.
Justin Gimelstob avoided surgery for his bad back for 11 years. But then his career -- and health -- fell into jeopardy.
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Playing sports for a living is an incredible privilege. It's more than just a cliché that professional athletes lead charmed lives, and there are generally only two reasons for us to concede that our careers are over.

One is being unable to compete at the highest level of our respective sports. The other is when our bodies start to break down, making it impossible or dangerous to continue. Unfortunately, I'm dealing with the latter.

During my mixed-doubles quarterfinal match toward the end of this year's U.S. Open, I herniated two discs in my back. I've had back issues for most of my 11-year career, but I've been lucky enough not to need surgery, opting instead for more than 15 cortisone shots to reduce inflammation and get me back on court as quickly as possible.

But as in any sport, tennis puts an incredible amount of stress on the body. After patching up the problem for so long, my luck ran out. So there I was, three days after the U.S. Open, in a New Jersey hospital bed instead of in Beijing, where I was supposed to be opening a swing of Asian tournaments that kicked off with the China Open.

I was getting prepped for surgery to remove two large disc fragments that were cutting off the nerves in my right leg. I had hoped to avoid surgery, because I had always been warned it was a death sentence for your career. Only one player, French legend Henri Leconte, made a successful return to professional tennis after back surgery, and he had more talent in his pinky finger than I do in my entire 6-foot-5 body.

As it turned out, surgery was not only necessary, it was an emergency. I was quickly losing feeling in my right leg. The nerve damage became a concern not just for my career but for any type of movement, walking or otherwise. I ended up being rushed into surgery days ahead of schedule, and the doctors successfully removed the disc fragments.

When I awoke, the nurse came up to me and asked if I remembered the frantic gibberish I was yelling at her like a madman in the recovery room. I laughed and told her I had no idea, but that I was sorry, knowing that in the past I've had some adverse reactions to anesthesia.

I told the nurse, "The last thing I remember before going in was asking Dr. Dwyer to do a great job, that I had a lot riding on this and that if he messed it up, my Dad might kill him!"

She said I was hysterical and that I kept yelling at her, "Tell me when I can play again! TELL ME, I NEED TO KNOW!"

It got me thinking. Before the surgery, I was terrified of the possibility that I might never walk again. But on a subconscious level, when I was groggy and just coming to, it became clear to me that my main concern was the prospect of my career being over. That's probably not a healthy first thought or concern, or even a normal one -- but neither is doing what one has to do to be a professional athlete.

I'm a professional tennis player, and I know I can and will lead a very enjoyable and fulfilling life when my career is over, whether that's in three months or three years. But I love playing tennis, and I'll do anything I possibly can to get back on that court. The feeling I get from competing and entertaining at a professional level isn't something I can find easily in life.

It's been a little less than two weeks since my surgery, and even though it was considered a success, I still have some lingering nerve damage in my right leg. My surgeon believes I will be able to play professionally again one day, but it's not clear when. That depends on how my spine stabilizes and how quickly the nerves in my leg regenerate.

It's a humbling experience to go from the peak of fitness, competing in the greatest tennis event in America, to getting winded while walking through a mall two weeks later. (It's even more amazing that my legs could look skinnier than they usually do.)

I'm all too aware of the challenges I have in front of me, but I'm hopeful this experience will help me appreciate even more how lucky I am to be a professional tennis player. I can't even begin to express how much this game has given me, physically, emotionally and personally. I hope my body enables me to play many more years so I can continue to challenge myself through this incredible sport.

Thanks to everyone for the amazing outpouring of well wishes. It means a lot to me that people enjoy watching me flail around the court enough to take the time to send their support. Rest assured, I will be busting my butt to get back on tour ASAP.

Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com. He recently competed in his 12th U.S. Open.