With Jess Cunningham
Jess Cunningham is an Australian Sports and Exercise Physiotherapist with extensive experience working in elite and professional sport in Australia and overseas. Her clients include Winter Olympians and X Games champions from Australia, New Zealand and the USA, Olympic sailors, professional footballers, and recreational and aspiring athletes.
In her first book “POP - When Sport Brings Us To Our Knees”, she shares the stories and reflections of Australian athletes who suffered ACL Knee injuries and their recovery journeys, in the hope to act as both a conversation starter and valuable resource to anyone who is going through the recovery process.
We caught up with Jess to learn about the background of POP and some of the lessons shared by the athletes, from their own unique injury experiences, to help others in the process understand what to expect in their recovery journeys.
Background to "POP - When Sport Brings Us To Our Knees"
When you work as a winter sports physio, dealing with ACL injuries is a likely occurrence. The brutal mix of high speed, difficult tricks, and soaring amplitudes alongside undesirable and unpredictable weather conditions make the potential for a serious knee injury unsurprising.
I worked for over a decade following the winter seasons with national teams and athletes from Australia, New Zealand, and the US, so as you can imagine, I’ve encountered plenty of ACL injuries. Of these, however, there are two particular athlete experiences that stand out in my mind, which challenged me professionally and personally like nothing before.
I was physiotherapist for Anna Segal and Russ Henshaw, two Australian slope-style skiers, in the build-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Anna and Russ both successfully competed at this Winter Olympics in the ski slope-style event - on arguably the biggest slope-style course ever made for competition at that point - with just one intact ACL between them.
This lone functioning ACL belonged to Anna’s left knee, which she had been rehabbing heavily for the year preceding the Games after sustaining significant cartilage damage in a ski crash. Just three weeks before departing for Sochi and five weeks before the start of competition Anna blew out her ‘good’ right ACL (for the second time!).
Russ had sustained a re-rupture to his right knee at the 2013 X games, so had already been skiing for the year leading up to Sochi without his right ACL. He’d decided to go down the non-surgical route given the limited timeframe before the Olympics, alongside the fact he’d held up with no instability issues and had a Norwegian slope-style skiing friend who was competing successfully without an ACL. It was a successful choice so far with his return to skiing see him achieve podium positions without his ACL. However, just three weeks out from competing at Sochi, while at the 2014 X Games, Russ came up short on a jump, rupturing his left ACL.
Usually, these injuries would have meant the end of both Anna and Russ’ Olympic dreams, and that is certainly what I had experienced up until that point. For both, however, this was not the case. Despite their difficult ACL situations, they both still managed to retain their mental composure and (with different preparation strategies) compete successfully on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
Despite everything, both Anna and Russ made it through to the slope-style finals. Anna placed fourth overall, narrowly missing out on a podium finish; Russ left nothing behind and attempted a triple cork on his final jump which he unfortunately didn’t land, leaving him to place eight overall. Amazingly, neither experienced any major knee instability episodes during the competition (both had competed with heavy strapping underneath custom knee braces).
Upon return to Australia both athletes decided to get ACL reconstruction surgery. While choosing to retire from competitive skiing, Anna transitioned to the world of back country skiing and continues to ski professionally making a living with ski movie parts and photo shoots. Russ completed another Olympic cycle, competing at his second games in PyeongChang, before retiring to raise a family and ski for fun.
Sports Injuries: What to Expect in your Recovery Journey
Ever since that experience of Sochi with Anna and Russ, I have found that sharing the lived injury experiences of athletes with other clients and athletes has resulted in better engagement and rehab ‘buy-in’ then when I share the latest research and statistics (no matter how dramatic or compelling I might think the findings!).
I still find myself coming back to Anna and Russ’ stories often when discussing the different options for best management among my ACL injured athletes and clients. While these stories weren’t the textbook case, or suitable for all, with the growing research in the space they raise interesting discussions around the way we deal with different ACL injuries.
After starting a family myself (and being faced with my own time on the sidelines of the professional sporting world!) I compiled Russ and Anna’s ACL stories along with 11 other elite Australian athletes into a book. The final result being ‘POP – When sport brings us to our knees’ - which shares the stories and reflections of these Australian athletes and their injury journeys, in the hope to act as both a conversation starter and valuable resource to anyone who has injured their own ACL or is going through the rehabilitation process.
Lessons from Athletes with Sports Injuries for the Recovery Process
Jess shared with us some of the honest and inspiring snippets of advice given by the POP athletes for approaching the recovery journey:
Lydia Lassila – Olympic Skier
"Set yourself small goals each day and celebrate the little wins you have along the way. As you start to feel stronger your confidence will come back. Trust the process and visualise playing your sport every day to replace the training you can’t do. Everything will be ok."
Adam Gotsis – American Football Player (NFL)
"Make sure you have a good support system around you and set your intentions towards rehab and returning to play. Keep that as the focus when attacking rehab and know that it is a process that does take time but stay positive and trust the people around you."
Kim Green – International Netball Player
"Aside from the obvious setback I think my ACL injury was the best thing that happened to me. It really gave me a reboot. I played better netball. “Don’t Compare” would be my advice to others."
Nathan Walker – Ice Hockey Player (NHL)
"Trust the Process. It’s a very difficult time but you will be stronger mentally from it all. If you have questions/ concerns about anything, try to reach out to anyone you know who has had an ACL repaired. Talk to them and see how they coped with the everyday challenges in the early days."
Anna Segal - Olympic Skier
"I had no idea what to expect or whether I was on the right path. Everyones recovery journey is different and having such a wide range of examples from top athletes would have made me less anxious and worried about my own journey."
Eliza Solly – International Sailor
"Be patient and celebrate the small wins. Think of your rehab as a series of progression points rather than focus on a timeline. Everyone’s experience is different. If you rehab properly, you will come out of it stronger, both physically and mentally."
Well done Jess for putting together this incredible resource for athletes! If you’d like to read these powerful stories in full, POP is now available through all major booksellers worldwide, or at www.jesscunningham.com.au with 10% of all proceeds donated to Sporting Change Foundation – helping aspiring Indigenous Australian athletes realise their full potential following sports injury. And if you’d like to follow more from Jess you can find her Instagram page here.
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