Pickleball Recovery

“BACK” to Pickleball

Part 1: Getting injured while playing a sport you love is disheartening. Breaking your back while playing is disastrous. This is my come ‘back’ story and I’m sticking with it.

My name is Bill Steele, and I’m an average Senior, 72, originally from the PNW and now living the retirement dream in Gold Canyon Az. My wife Karol and I fell in love with Pickleball in 2016, actually addicted... we did the Level-Up & Never-Stop- Playing Camps, I did the PPR Course and we are members of USA Pickleball and PBCanada. We are both initial founders of the Peralta Trails PB Club.

My wife Karol, and I

For the last 7 years we have done our annual SunBird road-trip north to friends and relatives in the cooler north. Our 2023 trip was going great, PB in North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and our favorite Clubs in Fernie, Oliver and White Rock British Columbia. Karol and I were at the top of our games being 70+ and playing to a honest 3.5. I also boated a walleye, a small-mouth and piles of pike, so life was good.

While warming up for a Seniors fun round-robin in White Rock, BC - the lights went out as I fell directly on my tailbone and wham - a severe Compression Fracture on my L-3.

MRI that identifies the compression fracture in my lumbar spine

Welcome to a world of wondering if I would ever play again. Here is my story.

After a harrowing and painful trip back to AZ our plans for our Golden Years were completely on hold, could I make a come-‘back’? I was told with the severity of the injury I would do nothing for 8 weeks but take the ‘oxies’ and chill. So, what does a 72-year-old do for 4 months in AZ? I swam and walked. I chose not to take the prescriptions and committed to giving the bones a chance to heal. I also scoured the internet for stories of people making successful comebacks. The occasional Gummy sure helped with the pain. And my greatest thanks are to Karol, she is my Rock!

After 8 weeks I was told by a Neurosurgeon that my L-3 fracture had not improved and a Kyphoplasty was suggested. Not guaranteed, but there was new Hope! A Kyphoplasty is a surgical procedure used to treat compression fractures. A needle is inserted under X-ray to find the affected vertebra, where a balloon-like device is inflated to return the vertebrae to its normal height. The surgeon then injects bone cement there to prevent the bone from further collapsing. Here were some of my thoughts portrayed via messenger leading up to the procedure: “One of the additional therapies you may require is cloud removal. Been sore, depressed, tired and am losing my cool. K says my temper is short. The cloud better clear up soon! I am committed to getting my health and body better.”

On October 25, 2024, I underwent the Kyphoplasty procedure, and my recovery could now begin.

Sporting my back brace early in recovery

Part Two: The Pickleball Physio

November 5, 2023 I received the green light from the Core Institute that I could begin my recovery, seriously. I was told to “return to normal life” taking it slow with recovery. Swimming, Pickleball, and Physical Therapy all in moderation. If any pain increased, I was instructed to call them. During my internet surfing, a Physiotherapist, Landon Uetz the “Pickleball Physio” came up many times, so I connected with him. His website and FB page mentioned recovery and that’s what I needed. After our initial contact, Landon hit all the buttons and I committed to The Pickleball Physio’s approach to see if he could help put me back on the courts.

This Guy knew his stuff.

Landon was a licensed physical therapist and PPR certified. He had broken some bones playing college baseball, designed custom recovery programs and diet guides, and liked hunting and fishing! It took a few communications and Landon took the time to know me, my limitations, and how serious I was. It was going to be an 8-week program that generally is completed virtually. Under the circumstances that we lived within a short trip across the Arizona desert, I finagled a few in person sessions in return for coffee, cookies, and a pomelo. There was an initial Trust which I really felt good about. He vowed to help me achieve my health goals while returning to the court but could not guarantee improving my skill to a 5.0!

The Rehab Journey (According to the Pickleball Physio)

Bill reached out to me before his back surgery. He was in pain, frustrated, and bored with the lack of physical activity he was able to participate in. He wanted a plan in place so when surgery was done, he could hit the ground running to get back to his normal routine. I met Bill in his backyard oasis on the morning of November 5 where the goals were simple: get to know him and allow him to get to know me. I took him through a variety of tests to establish a baseline for his back and body, as well as his mindset moving forward with his recovery. This helped determine the starting point for rehab, allowed for reflection on progress, and helped identify small wins to celebrate along the way.

Backyard dinking net – Pickleball player’s dream

Bill experienced spine stiffness with low back range of motion in addition to feeling every bit of a recovering total left knee replacement while getting up and down off the floor. We ran through some baseline strength tests as well as applicable movements that will be required come time to return to plan. It was very normal at this stage of recovery to feel mild soreness and hesitancy. I then showed him a handful of exercises to complete daily (he was a good listener) to maximize the pain-free mobility through his spine and start building strength. We discussed the app where he would receive exercise variations/progressions/regressions from me up to 7 days a week. It was user friendly and allowed for constant communication on the changes his body was going through. Movements were accompanied by written descriptions, video demonstration, and a place to upload his own video to assess. This rehab format has been successful for those looking to take an active approach in their recovery tailored to their goals, schedule, and accessibility.

The connection and level of trust on Day 1 was the most important component of our visit. It set the stage for an ongoing partnership. He also made sure to remind me I forgot the Pomelo he set out by the door as a departure gift.

Just over a week after beginning rehab, Bill reported his current experience on November 16, 2023 as “throw a slider. He was sore all day, mostly lower crotch right and rear right hip. He said he did a bit too much and his wife was worried he was pushing too hard. Enter the Change-up. He felt he was “doing great on every exercise except bending the lower back forward – fighting against all the arthritis. It felt like 8 high level games of Pickleball.  He had been pushing himself to get past the pain and this was his first hesitation. He said he was realizing just how fast his “twilight was setting in.”

Bill was very good at communicating how he was feeling and after hearing about his pain I encouraged him to “listen to his body if it is talking to him.” I made modifications to his routine for the next few days on the app and assured him it was not going to affect the long-term goals he had in place. Sometimes he just needed the permission to take things slow. He was not going to regain the strength he lost over the last 4+ months in one day, and he didn’t need to feel guilty if it was necessary to slow down.

Trunk rotation working on spine stability

Bill realized very quickly that more goes into recovery than one would like to admit. In addition to managing his own experience, he was dealing with close family tragedy. These curveballs left him “trying to figure out which way was up, with increase in soreness in the body, heart, and mind.”

On November 25th (5 weeks post-op) Bill and I met once again in his backyard oasis discussing our Thanksgiving spreads, Bo Nix highlight reels at Oregon, and the progress of his back. Having a trusted guide to identify areas of progress that he was blinded to helped improve his mindset moving forward through recovery. Bill was able to move through motions with manageable symptoms that he hadn’t been able to do for months. The visit finished with a paddle in his hand, and we dinked for the first time since the accident.

He described this milestone as “great for the heart and soul” even though the morning after reminded him of the fun we had.

Bill continued to complete his morning routines that now included long walks and bike rides around the neighborhood and dinking with Karol and friends – she remained his speed bump during times when he pushed too fast. I remained the voice in his ear reminding him to listen to his body and let his back guide him, although an old friend called a knee replacement was also trying to guide. More time spent in his ice bath and regular position changes kept the pain at bay and allowed him to keep pushing forward. In his own words, at 6 weeks after the surgery, “I can feel more and more of the muscles and arthritis arguing. It’s working!” Here is a small snippet of his regular routine that was sent over to me for feedback:

Lateral lunge working on side-to-side movement

As he continued to approach his return to the court, he could begin to visualize components of the game and put the pieces together. This was what we have been working towards. He began to think about “hitting the ball longer and stepping into the ball”. This could be possible because his “legs were much stronger”. He also knew that his hips and low back must continue to get stronger to hold the ready position.

Workouts delivered online continued through December while he continued spending time on his backyard court with friends and family. Although the paddle in his hand felt great and he liked the way his hands felt, losing to former students in volleys didn’t feel so good! He struggled with the confidence/balance phobias of returning to regular play. Weekly exercise progressions have now included dynamic movements like lunge variations, working in various planes of motion, and continued general strengthening to support the demands of upcoming regular Pickleball. Who knew 72-years-young and a bionic knee could look so good completing pogo jumps! The rest of the month was dedicated to in his words, “The Pickleball Psycho and the God Send Karol”. I always appreciated Bill’s sense of humor throughout his journey, and perspective on life in general.

 

Part 3: I’m Back!

In an email Bill wrote to Landon on December 31, 2023:

“New Years is here, and I want to thank you for helping me into 2024 (in much better shape than 2023). I did not make my goal to be back on the PB courts by December 18, and amended to January 10, mainly because my wife and Physio Guy taught me Patience! But my Main goal was to have a choice of what I want my Final years to feel like, Body and Mind. I have so much to live for. It will be a fun 2024."

On 1/2/24:

“We played my first full court game, I played well, K is a trooper after playing this morning as well. I took a fall on a short hopper, did a great barrel roll and shot back to feet. The cement is Still Hard. Pooled it for 15 minutes, took a gummy, and I feel like a Million Bucks.”

Bill's return to the court early 2024

“I am regularly completing your daily mobility routine in the morning, along with resistance exercises to complete throughout the week to continue developing strength and supporting these Pickleball playing habits. I have been able to play 6+ games per day but incorporating 2-3 additional recovery days into my weekly schedule.”

On 1/25/24:

“Today I played 10 games with roughly 80% without a back brace. Good, steady, 3.5 play with some friends on a home court. Won 9 in a pretty nice setup, you will have to try it someday. Right knee is burning but I’m sitting smiling.”

“I am coming Back, but so is the stupid, competitive 72-year-old.”

 

Part 4: The Game of Life

Bill is a testament to facing adversity head-on with resilience, determination, and strength. I envy the effort and perseverance he exhibited throughout his journey. By taking control of the struggles, setbacks, and challenges, he is a shining example of how hard-work and the right support system can help conquer any of life’s difficulties. I truly was fortunate to get to be a small piece of his recovery and look forward to all his future accomplishments.

Don't ask Bill who came out victorious our first time together on the court

This is the reason I embarked on the journey of starting The Pickleball Physio. If this story resonates with you or someone you know, do not hesitate to reach out on social media (The Pickleball Physio) or my website – thepickleballphysio.com. Free 15-minute virtual consults are available to determine if we are a good fit. I know the positive impact the sport has on many, and the struggles that are faced while spending time away from it. Stop delaying your return to the court and reach out today!

Taken on 2/4/24 from left to right: Karol, Bill, Landon

The Pickleball games that took place on February 2, 2024 meant so much more than the dinks and volleys. Here’s to the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

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