We don’t like to admit it, but blown ACLS, torn MCLS and other unpleasant knee injuries are pretty familiar in the ski world. Especially for athletes. Exposure of gnar, the clock sometimes catches up to you and it’s time to pay your dues in the form of surgery, months of recovery and social adaptation. Just because your friends done it, your moms done it and your dogs done it doesn’t mean going under the knife and the recovery that follows is an easy task for the body or the brain.
Who better than to tell us what it’s really like than the honest, bold and mega sweetheart Alex Armstrong. In the thick of her recovery, we’ll be checking in with her in this multipart article to see her progression as she undergoes surgery, recovers and eventually prepares for a season of getting after it.
MEET ALEX ARMSTRONG
Well earned, Alex Armstrong is one of Canada’s top up and coming freeskiers. Hailing from Ottawa she’s been busy laying down roots in the Bow Valley the last seven years in all of the ways. Her ski background wouldn’t be complete without the title of Odd-Job-Jill, you know the one dabbling in it all to make the ski dream come together. She boasts an extensive resume including but not limited to ski patrol, ski coach, boot fitter, pizza slinger, server, writer and spa athlete. Alex has pretty much done any and all of the quintessential ski bum jobs to make a buck and keep the dream alive. After eating shit spectacularly at The Lake Louise Big Mountain Competition a few years ago, she was picked up by sponsors such as The North Face, Blizzard/Tecnica, Smith Optics and Banff Soul. This season, in true dirtbag style, Alex was living in her truck and camper affectionately named Chill Murray (after Bill Murray of course) to enable her to chase the dream of being a semi-rad, semi-pro skier. In classic skier style, she has blown her knee and sidelined but finding purpose in her true calling as cat herder, knit boss and gym rat that never misses a leg day.
She’s a stoke engine when it comes to skiing, playing safe in the mountains and progression in her skills. Putting her ski racing background and obsession with badass lines to use as a talented freeskier she’s “living the dream and trying to ski as much as humanly possible.” But right now she’s in recovery mode, and that’s pretty cool too, we still think you’re gnarly Alex Armstrong!
The rest of this article is written by Alex in the form of recaps and journal entries.
ALEX ARMSTRONG: GOODBYE KNEE
My ego and pressure to perform really got the better of me. I had just stomped two decent sized cliffs earlier in my run and had watched my friend, Kate Targett lace a 360 off a hit we’d been sessioning all week. I wasn’t planning on 3-ing it but cameras were out, the crew was fired up and conditions were good aka send anything you know. I got bucked coming into the cliff and lost speed. My rotation was wonky and I ended up landing backward-ish. I was trying to ride it out but my tails dug into a mogul and I went ass over tea kettle as they say. My ski didn’t release and I felt the pop. As a now third time recipient of a new ACL, I knew in that moment she was a goner.
LET’S TALK ABOUT WHAT SURGERY IS REALLY LIKE
It’s so easy to gloss over or forget the pain you experienced after the fact. I felt it was important to tell my story from a more present lens rather than past tense account. This is a raw and real-time account of my first month after surgery.
March 1: I’m scared. I’m f’n scared. It hasn’t hit me at all that I’ve blown my ACL and I’m going in for surgery until just now. This whole month I’ve been so focused on the process of getting my knee surgery ready. Range of motion up, swelling down. And now it’s f’n happening. I feel like I’ve been making progress and it felt great. Even though I’ll have an ACL by the end of the day, I’ll be back at square one; immobile and in pain. I should be excited. I should be feeling hopeful. But this is the lowest low I’ve felt so far. After seeing my friends, struggle these past years post-surgery, I’m just filled with fear and for lack of a better word mistrust in this process. Is this going to fix me? Should I say f it and roll no ACL? That’s stupid obviously. I need an ACL. But I’m feeling a bit like Sisyphus. Every time you’re at the top, you have to start over and roll the rock back up from the bottom.
March 2: Surgery was one hell of a trip. I came in feeling way calmer than the day before. I was cracking some quality jokes right up until I was put out. However, it was a pretty rude awakening afterward. When I woke up the pain in my knee was 7/10. (I’m reserving 8 through 10 out 10 for childbirth). I was going in and out of consciousness and wanted to vomit. They gave me Percocet, Oxy, Naproxen, 5mg of Morphine but nothing was touching the pain. It wasn’t until I had 15mg in my system that I felt better and was able to enjoy my complimentary muffin and piece of cheese. Eventually, it was clear that my pain wasn’t going to be managed by 2 Percocet every 4 hours. I stayed the night. I went into 2 more pain crisis. In the morning, I found out that they had to repair two tears in my meniscus. I frayed my medial meniscus and had split my lateral meniscus in half. They also did something to the outside of my leg. I don’t really understand what it’s for (probably because I’m on all the drugs) but there’s an incision down the lateral side of my leg. It’s now 24 hours later and I’m still struggling with the pain. I’ve made 2 playlists and listened to a bunch of podcasts to distract myself. The best thing about the hospital is the free breakfast. They served eggos and bacon with fruit and porridge. I only ate the bacon and eggos. My diet starts tomorrow.
March 2 Update:Still in the hospital. I can barely make it 4 hours with 2 Percocet. The pain is so hard to predict. Sometimes the perks kick in right away and sometimes I don’t feel them for 2 hours. The nerve blocks they put in for surgery are definitely out. I can actually feel the incisions and the exact spot they pulled my quad tendon out from. On the plus side, friends brought me a change of underwear, a cat stuffed animal, treats and books.
March 3:Pain never killed anyone, but it feels like it could. Just cut my leg off PLEASE.
March 4:Yesterday was the worst pain wise. I was trying to wean off pain killers but anytime I would go to the washroom or simply move my leg it would spike to 8/10. Way more than originally when I was out of surgery. But by noon, things started to look up. I could go pee in my own and I slept through the night last night. I woke up with 2/10 pain. Sick! Got to see my knee this morning. Looks badass but my spa athlete career is officially over. Just carnage down there. Stoked to have come home today.
March 10: Time flies when you’re having fun. Just kidding. I don’t know why I haven’t written for 5 days. Probably just wanted to feel sorry for myself and/or not deal with what I’ve been feeling. But we’re back now. Tuning in. I’m 9 days post opt. A lot has changed since day 1-4. I’ve hit a lot of milestones:
- Walking downstairs
- Weening off narcotics completely with the help of edibles
- 30 degrees of flexion
- Removed bandages (it’s f’n gnar)
I’m sure there are tons of other things I’m forgetting but we’re progressing the progression. I was feeling frustrated for much of the time I’ve been back at Dave and Brenda’s. I’m comparing my current state to the last knee surgery I had when I was a spry 19. Or at least my memory of it. I remember it like a vacation. High AF on Percocet, watching every single Quentin Tarantino film and having my knee moved around by a CPM machine. Then fast track to 2 months later; I’m wearing heels at my prom. I was skipping over a lot I guess but this feels slow. Being dependant on others hurts my soul and makes me feel useless. But talking to mom helped. “You sucked for 3 weeks.” My mom’s words, not mine. Being the teenage brat that I was and too preoccupied with my boyfriend at the time and partying, clouded my memory I guess. Apparently, I was pretty immobile but wouldn’t use my crutches. I would just use furniture to get around which probably made me remember and feel at the time more independent. Youth is a special kind of stupid. Talking to her made me feel better. I felt super positive and coincidentally my swelling went down and I increased my range of motion. I know that this will happen with the passing of time and physio. But I can’t help but think that there’s something to reframing this whole thing in a positive light. It’s definitely hard but I’m trying. I feel so many feelings moment to moment that’s it hard to know how I even feel about surgery. Fake it til you make it I guess. If I just keep telling myself shit happens for a reason and I’ll be back skiing next year, it’s fine. The scary thing is I don’t even really know what skiing will look like for me next year. I could just be a groomer mama, backcountry mom or right back to sending. But I’ll make the most of whatever it is. Everything feels like it has a big fat question mark behind it. I guess when it comes down to it everything does but I’m used to being more in control. F me if I can’t take a joke right? My knee will get better. And lots of people are really behind me and I’m f’n grateful for that. I just have to keep my head in check and start making a list of shit to get done.
Also, I’ve been kissing my knee every night and morning. It makes me feel better. Not sure if it’s good vibes or personifying and disassociation from the injury. No running from this though. God, I’m funny LOL.
March 11:I slept on my side last night and it was AMAZING! Also woke up with way less swelling than before. It’s funny I knew I had surgery but actually taking the bandages off and seeing the carnage that is my knee made it really sink in. It’s strange but making that visual connection to the pain I’ve been experiencing helped justify it and made myself be kinder to myself. I saw Rebecca at Altitude today. She’s only seen 5 or 6 other IT band repositioned aka the massive f’n mystery incision down the lateral side of my leg. Apparently, they only do that on the fly in the operating room if the knee is super unstable. Hurt like a bitch but glad they did that now. Also, excited that I know what 5/5 incisions on my knee are now. Knowledge is power. Been eating really healthy as of late and hydrating but caved and smashed a bag of chips today. My diet starts tomorrow.
March 13: Got my range of motion to 80 degrees. Pretty good for 12 days out. The physio seems to think it’s going to take likely a year to be back on skis. I hate timeline and protocol thinking. If I hit the right milestones, I should be able to ski. So many put limitations on others, that I’m going to avoid putting limitations on myself. I’m going to just put my head down, keep a positive mind frame, do the physio and listen to my body. I believe deep deep down that I’ll be able to ski by December next year. I know that’s an expectation and with expectations comes disappointment. But I truly believe I can do this and my knee can do this. The progress I’ve made the past few days since I’ve gotten the pain under control has been awesome. I feel like ff’nWolverine. The girls are filming Intersection in Whistler right now. It’s got me thinking about things I’m missing out on. I get little pangs of sadness but I’ve just had to remind myself to focus on recovery and myself is what matters. I have another round of physio on Monday. My goal is to bike. Obviously, I’m not going to overdo it. But hoping I get my range of motion there.
March 14: First-day post physio no pain in the AM. Stoked on that. After physio, the lateral part of my knee hurt 3/10. Definitely, need to ease on the physio. I feel like I can ignore pain to the point where I can’t feel it until it’s bad. Maybe I’m too singularly focused. Either way, I’m hoping I wake up tomorrow with no pain. If I do, I’ll scale it back to one physio session. Patience is not my strong suit but I’m going to have to make friends with it. I’ve also heard about 2 retears this week. Got to chill and taper. Not like last time when I tore my ACL 2 years in a row and had to take 2 back to back seasons off. I also did the Out of Bounds Podcast today. That was fun! At least I’m still being apart of the community and getting that media for the sponsors. It’s so hard to care when you’re not skiing. I think subconsciously I’m trying to disconnect from the ski world because it hurts but still gotta do it. Part of the deal.
March 18:Still bored but I just meditated and it gives me a better outlook. I always thought it wouldn’t make much of a difference but somehow it does. I physio-ed today. So f’n close to biking it hurts. I also woke up before noon today which has been a struggle lately. I have so much pent up energy that it’s hard to fall asleep. Normally, I just run myself until I’m tired but until I can bike I have no chance of that. After physio, I was super tired. I just laid on the front patio catching rays and reading. A real lounge lizard. The other crazy thing is I weighed myself and I’m down 8 pounds. Day of surgery I was 133lbs and now I’m 125lbs. Most people would be psyched but I’m pretty sure that’s just because my right quad has atrophied that significantly. Also, I’m getting soft in the middle. F’n chips. Why are you so delicious?
March 21:I’ve been feeling so restless lately. The slow progress is eating at me. We’re at the 3-week mark and still can’t bike. Although I’ve heard a few of the other Doctors at the hospital sat in at my surgery since I did a real number on my knee. There has been progress on my range of motion but it’s slow. I’ve mainly been tanning though. It’s summer out. 17 degrees Celsius today. Best season to miss. If I had missed last year, I would have been more bummed. Summer can’t come quick enough. I just feel like I want to wake up next December put back together.
March 22: MOTHER F’N BIKED TODAY! I’ve been a little whiny bitch lately due to the lack of being able to move. It takes a bit of coasting the knee back and forth to get the leg to go all the way around. But this is sweet to have accomplished before my follow up on Monday. So proud of my little knee! I feel like I’m going to be the most stoked when it’s all back together because this has been the toughest one so far.
March 27:Took a bit of a hiatus from journaling. I was feeling uninspired. Nothing was changing and it was tedious writing the same shit day in and day out. Over the past 5 days, I’ve seen a lot of improvement. I can bike for 10 solid minutes. I can do physio exercises, no breaks. I’m barely walking with a limp and the swelling has gone down significantly. Dr. Heard said I was ahead of what was projected which is always nice to hear. He wants the progress to slow since it will stretch out the ligaments and leave me with a loose knee. I mean I’ve cut physio to once a day but I really can’t slow too much more. Physio also takes a solid hour to do these days. I finally feel like my knee is back together. Before it felt like something was wrong in there. It wasn’t pain just a dull ache that lets you know something is profoundly wrong. I felt the ACL brace a little misstep today and it was such a good feeling. I know there’s a lot of healing to do in there but this f’n ACL is my favorite so far. It’s going to be bomber. Found a road bike for sale today. Probably going to buy it. Summer of spandex here we go!
MORE ACL SKIERS RECOVERY JOURNALS COMING
As Alex recovers from her ACL repair, she’ll be keeping us up to date with her progress. Stay tuned for more real talk from the months to come.
Want to see Alex in ski mode? Check out Backcountry Moms and this Revelstoke trip for features from this lady when she was rocking two ACLS.