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The strange satisfaction of a sports injury

For an aging athlete, getting hurt — but not too hurt — is a reminder of the glory days.

By Jim Sullivan

It happened on a February morning in Boston, when I was golfing a few miles outside the city. We’d had a snow storm and arctic temperatures the week before, but now it was an unseasonable 60 degrees — and, well, I’m a golf addict. When I asked the course pro for his take on conditions, he paused, then answered, “variable.”

He was right about that. On the 6th hole, I walked down a steep embankment, stepped onto invisible black ice, and took a wild, side-spinning spill. My partner was sure I had broken my leg; I ended up with a sprained left ankle and bruised left shoulder. To come: Pain, icing, ibuprofen, and a limp I’m only now shedding. And also, a curious feeling of satisfaction. It hurt, but it felt kind of…good.

This was the first sports-related injury I’ve had in two decades — since breaking my elbow playing softball in the ’90s. Never mind that I got hurt by slipping on ice, not launching a wedge toward the flag. I took perverse pride in playing through the pain. (I bogeyed the hole and finished the front nine with a respectable 44.) And my limp became the amateur athlete’s version of a red badge of courage. A 62-year-old’s reminder of youth and vigor. And risk.

“Yeah,” you’re saying, “but it’s golf!” I hear you, but stay with me. There are roughly 23.8 million golfers in the U.S., according to the National Golf Foundation. Of those, 51 percent are older than 40, and 20.5 percent are older than 60. Nearly 2 million golfers are still playing over 70. Some of these people are bound to get hurt.

And doctors report that it’s not just aging golfers that they see in the exam room. In a culture obsessed with sports and fitness — when 45-year-olds crow about Tough Mudders, 56-year-olds swim across the Atlantic, and 41-year-old superhuman Tom Brady stands as a symbol of longevity — it stands to reason that older athletes aren’t giving up, and often, are paying the price.

“We’re living longer and a lot of us are staying active,” says Scott Murberry, M.D., who practices sports medicine at St. John’s Medical Center for Health and Sports Medicine in Jacksonville, Florida. “While it’s fantastic for your health, injuries can occur.”

“I came down on my foot and sprained my ankle good…I remember thinking, ‘Damn! It was worth it.’”

Billy Cowan, 65

One big risk factor, Murberry says, is an overly optimistic attitude. Many of his patients seem stuck on reliving their high school glory days, he says. They “can remember that go-get- ’em mentality without realizing the body has more wear and tear — that muscles and tendons don’t respond as smoothly as they did when they were younger.”

He recalls one patient in his mid-60s, a military man and former high school football star, who came in with rotator cuff tendonitis and a partial tear in his shoulder.

“He was trying to pump these heavy weights,” Murberry says, “thinking, ‘By golly, I showed these 20-year-old guys in the gym the old guy can still do it.’”

I have friends, too, whose competitive spirit overcame any age-related wisdom. Take Billy Cowan, 65, a retired teacher in Maine. He quit playing competitive basketball in his 30s. Bad knees. But when he was in his mid-40s, a friend talked him into playing against a bunch of 20-somethings.

“I didn’t want the kids thinking I was an old man,” he recalls. “And I was a decent basketball player at one time.”

Thus came the moment he refers to as The Play. Cowan drove to the basket, leapt in the air, shifted the ball from right hand to left, did a half-twist and laid the ball in the bucket, besting the kid. Pretty balletic for a big guy. Except…“I came down on my foot and sprained my ankle good,” he says. As he hobbled off to the bleachers, “I remember thinking, ‘Damn! It was worth it.’”

Another friend, Bruce Fournier, 62, a retired tech executive who lives outside Portland, Ore., used to frequent his local skate park in the early morning hours — “you know, before the kids come out, because it’s so embarrassing” — until the morning he reached the top of the half-pipe, lost control on the turnaround, and landed on his hip.

“What I did was stupid,” Fournier says now. “Fifty-year-old-plus guys probably shouldn’t be on half-pipes.” He hasn’t hit the skate park since, he says, but “I did go out and buy hip pads like football players wear. So if I was to go back…”

It’s easy to think of this as a male phenomenon: a last gasp of machismo. But women athletes are susceptible, too, says Amy Baltzell, Ed.D., an Olympic rower and the coordinator of sports psychology specialization at Boston University’s Wheelock College.

“There are loads of women who do this,” Baltzell told me. “No one is out to hurt themselves on purpose. But many will continue to push their bodies too hard with the desire to optimize performance. Of course, they hope their bodies will hold up. And of course, often the body cannot tolerate the ongoing demand.”

“It’s like after you give birth: It’s really bad, and then an hour later, I can’t wait to do it again.”

Teddi-Jann Covell, 61

But the brain is another matter. After Teddi-Jann Covell, a 1970s college ice hockey player and retired air traffic controller, took a nasty spill at 61 on a ski slope — ending up with two broken ribs and a concussion — she briefly considered quitting skiing for good.

The injury, after all, was avoidable. “I was hot-dogging it,” she recalls. “I was like Lindsey Vonn with zero talent and I got hammered.”

But the feeling of euphoria was hard to give up.

“You think, ‘The pain, it wasn’t that bad. Shake it off. It’s part of the adrenaline rush of sport,’” Covell says. “It’s like after you give birth: It’s really bad, and then an hour later, I can’t wait to do it again.” 

When does an aging athlete decide to actually stop playing? Maybe when the injury goes beyond the sprain or the mundane. Steve Durant, Ed.D., a sports psychology specialist at a Boston teaching hospital, understands that feeling on a personal level. Durant played rugby from age 18 to 59 — right up until the day he lost his focus on the field, got hit with a stray thumb, and lost his eye.

“All gratitude here. I had a blast. My time was up,” he says. “Athletes die two deaths. I died my rugby death, but it enhanced my other life and I believe it will help me face that [other] death down the road.”

Had my own injury been worse, Durant told me, I might have given up the golf course, too. “It’s the fact that it was a near miss, that the bomb didn’t land on you,” that’s giving me something close to pleasure, he says. “I don’t think it’s the injury; it’s the overcoming of the injury.”

He’s right. When I think back on that day, I don’t focus on the pain. I think about the bogey and par afterward, the proof that I could play hurt and still play well. At age 62, I’m too young to pack it in.

But I will stick to frost-free months.

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Jim Sullivan is a writer based in Boston.

Illustration by David Galletly

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