If one of his athletes was forced to endure a serious injury, U.S. Nordic Combined Head Coach Dave Jarrett would probably prefer that it happen to Johnny Spillane.
Earlier this week, Spillane—the 29-year-old triple Olympic silver medalist—was diagnosed with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, which will likely require at least four months of recovery. But according to Jarrett, after several injuries over the past few years, Spillane is “a pro at rehab.”
“He didn’t have any meniscus damage, which will significantly decrease the recovery time,” Jarrett said. “We have a pretty good idea of how we can maintain fitness while he’s recovering, and hit the ground running.”
According to Jarrett, Spillane’s injury occurred when he was cliff-jumping from Pulpit Rock in Lake Placid, just outside town, a few weeks ago. Spillane didn’t hit bottom, but he landed at an awkward angle, and the jump was high enough that the impact of the water completely tore the two ligaments.
It was immediately clear to Spillane’s doctors that his MCL was completely ruptured, but swelling made it difficult to ascertain the extent of the damage to his ACL until he underwent surgery early this week.
“Sure enough, it was totally torn,” Jarrett said.
After a graft from his hamstring to fix the injury on Tuesday morning, Spillane is now recovering with his in-laws in Salt Lake City, and will return home to Steamboat Springs next week.
Spillane was planning on racing a full World Cup season beginning in December, but his goal now is to be recovered in time for competitions in January. The World Ski Championships in Norway don’t begin until late February, so his participation in events there should be unaffected.
According to Jarrett, Spillane will probably use an upper-body ergometer to maintain fitness until his knee is strong enough to use a stationary bicycle. After suffering a number of shoulder injuries in the past few years, Spillane’s upper body is “not the strongest,” Jarrett said—so the ergometer might not be such a bad thing in the meantime.
Road biking and double poling will hopefully come later in the fall, Jarrett said, and some skate skiing when the snow starts.
Key to Spillane’s recovery will be preserving the symmetry between his two knees, which is critical for ski jumping.
“You don’t want to have an imbalance when you’re jumping—you need to make sure that the takeoff is balanced all the time,” Jarrett said. “He’s going to have to take some time to get some jumps, so that he trusts his knee is going to hold. That’s going to be the hardest thing.”
There’s one silver lining in Spillane’s mishap, Jarrett said, and that’s that it will open up another spot for younger athletes in the December World Cups—a stated goal of the Americans. With Spillane injured, and Todd Lodwick preferring to begin his season on the domestic circuit, the nordic combined team will be able to start three developing athletes in the December competitions.
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Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.