Out of Oslo: Green’s Harrowing Journey Home with a Herniated Disc, Disappointment of Missing World Champs

Chelsea LittleFebruary 29, 2012
Brendan Green racing in a domestic sprint race earlier this winter. Photo courtesy of Glen Crawford.

After notching his first World Cup top-tens two weeks ago in Oslo, biathlete Brendan was having the best season of his life and hoping that he’d peak for World Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany, which start on Thursday.

But when his Canadian team kicks things off with a mixed relay, it will be without their best male athlete, because Green will be watching from home in Canmore.

While taking a corner in his warmup for the final mass start in Oslo, Green irritated a back problem that he’d been dealing with off and on since the summer. He ended up herniating a disc and was more or less unable to walk, making his trip back to Canmore to recuperate a harrowing one.

Besides the pain, which is still a serious problem for the World Cup’s 32nd-ranked biathlete, he’s dealing with frustration that his season has been cut short, and fears that the injury could continue to affect his career in the future. He’s out for the duration of the season and it’s still unclear how his doctors will try to fix up his back.

Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay, however, wasn’t worried about the long haul, and was confident that he’d have Green back in action soon.

“He is an incredibly resilient athlete,” Lindsay told FasterSkier. “His capacity for focusing on the positive has been developed over years of training and competition. The significant discomfort he is in now will only serve to make him stronger. His results this season have guaranteed him funding to ensure that he can recover, train as directed, and return to racing when he is ready.”

FasterSkier talked to Green from Canmore, Alberta, to hear about his injury and how he’s dealing with it.

FasterSkier: How’s your recovery going right now?

Brendan Green: Well, I’m doing a lot of physiotherapy.

After I got home I was able to get an MRI within a day or two, which confirmed that I had herniated the disc worse, and now it’s pressing on the S1 nerve. So our team doctor arranged for a nerve block, which is basically doing a cortisone shot to the nerve, which I was able to get a day or so later. I had high hopes that it would help the pain a lot, but it didn’t really do a ton.

Then my doctor consulted with a neurosurgeon who was willing to do surgery, but he wants to wait until six weeks post-injury and then reevaluate and reassess things. So now I’m just doing a lot of physio and trying to centralize the disc that way. But I’m feeling a lot of pain and I’m on medications and stuff like that, and haven’t made too much progress. I guess we’ll see.

FS: What’s the long-term prognosis? If you do have to have surgery, how long would you be out for after that?

BG: That would kind of bring me back to square one again. But the recovery from that sounds decently quick – I’d be out for a few weeks for sure, and then starting back with very easy and gentle training and rehab and that sort of thing. It’s hard to say when I’d be back 100 % again in that scenario. I was hoping by May I’d be able to start up at 100 % but again, I’ve made a little bit of progress, but really not what I had hoped.

FS: Are you having a lot of pain, just, all the time?

BG: Yeah. When I finished the race in Oslo, after I took off my skis, I could barely walk. I made it back to the hotel, and we just had a massage therapist with us so he did some kind of gentle pressure point release, and that wasn’t working. I was able to see the German team doctor, and he gave me a couple shots to my lower back and glutes, muscle relaxants and pain killers and that sort of thing, and that also did nothing.

I was having pain in the joint around the place in my back where the herniation was, and then I was getting this wicked, wicked burning sensation down my lower back and glutes and into my legs. That was the worst part – sitting or standing was almost unbearable. I started to get a little worried after the treatment the German doctor gave me didn’t work.

We had to fly out the next morning; our shuttle left the hotel at 4:45 a.m. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be able to fly, just with the pain I was in, so we were up late trying to figure out what to do. We said, ‘well, we’ll give it a try and see what state things are in at four in the morning.’ I really didn’t sleep that night, and at 4 a.m. I rolled out of bed and put on my clothes and standing up for a few minutes was just unbearable. So then the coaches came, and I was like, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’

We managed to get our team doctor on skype and he encouraged me to get home, and got me started on this drug that is more for the nerve pain, so I decided to try flying.I knew I was upgraded to first class from Frankfurt to Calgary, so I knew I could lay horizontal for that portion, but I didn’t know how I was going to get from Oslo to Frankfurt.

I took the bus to the airport, laying down in the back row, and I was able to get an aisle seat next to my coach. I thought maybe just being beside someone who could help me, maybe I could do it. In the airport, going from gate to gate I could walk for maybe a minute or two and then I’d just have to lie down in the airport. Then the pain would go away for a little bit, get up, walk again, and then lay down. That kind of thing.

I got on the plane and two minutes in, before we even finished boarding, I thought I was going to have to get off just because the pain was so bad. But it turned out that it wasn’t a very busy flight and the guy across from me had a row all to himself so I was able to switch with him, and then I was able to lay down.

On the flight from Frankfurt to Calgary I was able to lay horizontal in first class, which was still pretty uncomfortable, but made it I guess a little more bearable.

So yeah, quite a lot of pain. The drug that I got started on in Oslo for the nerve pain, called Lyrica, eventually kicked in a few days later, so that made it more tolerable. I tried to kind of wean off the drug so I could get a better idea of what the physio was doing, but as soon as I came off the drug I was laid out again. I was in a lot of pain. So now the last couple of days I’ve started back on the drug so that I don’t have to lay down all day, and so I can sleep a little more hopefully.

FS: And did you ever figure out what it was that re-herniated the disc?

BG: The initial injury was at the end of July, when we were doing max squats in the gym. I was in the middle of a squat and I felt something go in my back. The recovery from that was actually pretty good – by fall I was back to training at almost 100 %, obviously with a few tweaks to the program. I felt pretty good and felt for sure that I’d be good to go for the season.

And then in Sweden after World Cup 1, during the last race I had kind of a slip, so that was pretty bad. I thought I was going to have to fly home, but that settled down within a few days so I could finish that tour. Over Christmas I hit phsyio pretty hard again and got things to the point where it was under control. And things were going pretty well in the last two World Cups. The back was a little irritable, but nothing too out of the ordinary.

Then the day of the mass start in Oslo, I woke up in the morning and the back felt a little bit off.  I wasn’t too concerned because I would expect a little bit of pain after a few races. And yeah, I was just doing my warmup before the race, totally skiing easy, and just came around a turn out of the range and something went again. It was just instant pain. It was just a little thing – I didn’t fall or do anything spastic like that. It’s kind of weird.

FS: Are you thinking of that as something you’re just going to have to keep dealing with, worrying about stuff like this happening?

BG: Well, yeah, for sure. So I guess surgery is one option, where maybe they could repair things a little better or a little quicker, but I’m definitely scared that I’ll go through rehab and everything and maybe get to the point where I was earlier in the winter, thinking I’m okay, and I’d hate to have something happen mid-summer again, where I’m out for another two months. But surgery isn’t a guaranteed fix either.

So the cycle is definitely scaring me. At this point I’m a little worried. If I get rehabbed and I think I’m better and then something happens again, that would be really hard for me to handle.

FS: Was it encouraging that you had such good results this winter when you were periodically dealing with this? Do you think that if you hadn’t had this going on, you would have done even better?

BG: It’s so hard to say. But I guess it’s definitely a confidence booster that I could still compete at a high level despite a bit of pain. I guess that was good, kind of reassuring. If I could have been performing better, it’s hard to say. There were definitely a few races that were kind of painful, but who knows, really.

FS: You’re obviously super bummed not to be going to World Championships, but how do you think the guys will do without you? Do you think they’ll be able to rally a little bit?

BG: Yeah, I think so. I’m pretty sure the team will do fine. The guys are coming off pretty strong results. Obviously with JP [Le Guellec] he can be in the top ten on a good day. Scott Perras had season-best results in Oslo, and I think Nathan [Smith] is pretty confident right now after the IBU Cups here in Canmore. And Marco [Bedard] had som good races there as well. So yeah, I think the team will do just fine. I’m bummed that I can’t be there, but I’m pretty confident that they’ll hold their own.

FS: It seems like it’s just been a really great year for Canadian biathlon at all the different levels of competition. What do you think the reason is for that?

BG: I guess maybe all the results are motivating people at all the different levels. For myself on the World Cup, when my teammates are doing well it gets a good vibe going and that sort of thing. And I guess maybe those results inspire the younger guys, and the guys on the B team have been doing well. And I’m sure that inspires the juniors a bit, and gives them the confidence that they can do well.

But yeah, it’s been an awesome season, and hopefully they can keep that rolling at World Championships and for the rest of the season as well.

FS: What about Kurtis Wenzel winning World Juniors? That seemed crazy!

BG: Yeah, that was awesome! I had to reload the results page a couple times to make sure I was seeing things right. He trains in Canmore as well and I see him out there all the time, working away, and I know he’s been training hard. I haven’t been following the domestic results too closely, but I know he’s been having a decent season… to see him as World Champion again, I was surprised, but it’s a great result for him and shows that his hard work has paid off over the last couple of years.

FS: Do you think he’ll join you guys on the senior team?

BG: For sure, I expect to see him moving up the ranks pretty quickly. If he keeps up results like that I have no doubt he’ll be starting on the World Cup at some point in the near future.

FS: Hopefully along with you.

BG: Yeah.

Chelsea Little

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