Five Rings, One Dream
On the biggest stages, the line between dreams coming true and what could have been shrinks to a single step.
One slow step means a silver medal, one wrong step means sitting injured on the sidelines instead of setting records. For Canadian pole vaulter Alysha Newman, that step came on May 25 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon.
During warm ups she heard a pop in her left knee. It doesn’t take four years of medical school to know knees aren’t supposed to do that. Defiantly, she continued to compete. But by the end of the day the pain and swelling made it clear that whatever that pop meant, it wasn’t good.
“I cried that night, I cried the next morning,” Newman said, sitting just steps away from the commotion of Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square. “I’m such a competitor. It took a couple days for me to realize that I was going to be out week to week depending on the injury.”
An MRI shortly after the Prefontaine Classic revealed a five millimeter tear in her patellar tendon. If that sounds uncomfortable and painful, it should.
The patellar tendon attaches the bottom of the kneecap to the top of the shinbone and works with the muscles in the front of your thigh to straighten your leg.
In partial tears like the one Newman suffered, the tendon isn’t cut completely in two. Instead it’s come apart in places without coming apart altogether -- like a rope that has been stretched so far that some of the fibers fray and separate, but the rope itself remains in one piece.
Less severe than a complete tear isn’t to be confused with not serious. Recovery remains a complicated process, with timelines and success rates that vary widely from person to person and hinge on how often they’re using that part of their body.
For Newman, that leg is what she uses to take off every time she vaults.
“We tried it on the Monday after ten days of not doing anything, no rehab, no treatment, and it just wasn’t enough for me to sustain jumping off the ground.”
Her doctors suggested that she take the season off, Newman had other ideas.
“I told them absolutely not,” she says with a stubborn and effortless smile. “This has been my best season so far and I want to keep it going. I felt like I had just started.”
Determined. Reckless. Inspiring. Take your pick, they’re all right in their own way. Instead of writing off the year Newman and Canadian doctor Anthony Miniaci, who practices in both Cleveland and Toronto, opted for a treatment called PRP -- platelet-rich plasma injections.
In PRP, a series of injections are prepared using the patient’s own blood. After being drawn and spun in a centrifuge to separate it into different components, the blood is then re-injected into the injury to help accelerate the healing process.
It isn’t a new procedure to the sporting world. Elite athletes such as Maria Sharapova and Kobe Bryant have famously undergone the treatment as a means of avoiding more invasive operations.
But something doesn’t have to be uncharted territory for going through it to be unnerving -- even for someone who spends their life catapulting themselves over bars several meters in the air.
“My coach was in the room with me holding my hand when I was getting my PRP, the needles were huge,” she said. “I was scared.”
Those last three words are simple and striking. Not just because of their honesty, but because despite the doubts and fears that accompany both needles and your body telling you it can’t do what you need it to, Newman refuses to let this be anything more than a setback.
She’s ramped up her treatment to two times a day. Her workout routine, including cardio, is built entirely on exercises that won’t affect her injured leg and has a heavy focus on upper body work -- so much so that she jokes she’ll look like Popeye by the end of it.
It’s telling that in the midst of an injury and all the uncertainty that comes with it, Newman is able to laugh and compare herself to a cartoon sailor.
“It’s almost like an intermission,” she says without hesitation. “It’s frustrating, of course. This is what I do, if I can’t vault it’s not who I am. But you just have to stay positive and you have to keep pushing and to me, everything always happens for a reason.”
No shortage of athletes have said some variation of the words ‘everything happens for a
reason’, but one look at the assuredness in her eyes as she speaks them is all it takes to know she’s never meant anything more.
At 24 years old, Newman has already lived a lifetime’s worth of moments -- a Commonwealth Games gold medal, a Canadian pole vault record with a clearance of 4.75 meters, an Olympic appearance in Rio de Janeiro. But if she’s right, if this setback is just a setup for something better, there’s little doubt in her mind as to what she wants that next chapter to look like.
Since she was a little girl she’s said she wants to compete in five Olympics -- one for each
Olympic ring -- and as she’s grown, that goal has grown with her.
“Dream come true?” She asks, her eyes lighting up. “A gold medal from the Olympics, a world record, I believe in my technique. I believe in my abilities. I believe in myself as a person. I want to do the impossible and make it possible.”