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The Most Important Difference Between an Elite Athlete and a Middle-Aged Writer

4 minute read

It’s the year of the improbably-old-but-still-indomitable athlete, which basically means the rest of us have a new way to feel bad about ourselves.

First Lindsey Vonn, 32, breaks her arm in November–damaging a nerve and temporarily losing the use of her hand, which I’m pretty sure she needs for skiing–and comes back in January to score her 77th World Cup win. Then Serena Williams, 35, wins the Australian Open, after shoulder and knee injuries contributed to losing her No. 1 ranking last September. Roger Federer, also 35, also wins the Australian, his 18th Grand Slam, 11 months after knee surgery to treat an injury he sustained while drawing a bath for his daughters.

And then, of course: Tom Brady, 39, beats the 31-year-old Matt Ryan to win this year’s Super Bowl, also marking the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. By now half the world knows that Brady doesn’t consume processed foods, caffeine, dairy, gluten or any fruit aside from the occasional banana in a smoothie. Is that how he stays so unbeatable? Really, folks, who cares? I dare you to give up potato chips, coffee and mozzarella cheese and see where it gets you. It will not get you to the Super Bowl, I’ll tell you that much.

The main difference between Tom Brady and the rest of us, however, is not diet. It is that he is able to get injured and recover and win a record fifth Super Bowl as quarterback, while we (that would be the royal we) get injured and just feel older and more pathetic.

Over the past year, and with a little sadistic boost from Mother Nature, I developed a small tear in the labrum in my shoulder. The labrum is a piece of cartilage with a function that is important, but too boring to commit to memory if you are me. For a few months I employed the Van Ogtrop Approach to Physical Pain™, which was to complain to anyone who would listen while doing absolutely nothing about it. My husband is a former college athlete who happens to find physical therapy endlessly interesting, and he kept urging me to try it. Since we have been married for 25 years, I obviously ignored his suggestion.

But eventually even I became bored with my complaints, and so I got an MRI and dutifully marched to my nearest PT clinic. It was, if not fun, certainly interesting at first. Physical therapy at this place is like a cocktail party with no alcohol. All of my favorite people are there. There’s Frank, my former next-door neighbor. John, sporty friend of my husband. Claire, fellow mother of boys, who goes to my church.

Whenever I meet a new member of the physical-therapy staff, she asks, with genuine interest, how I tore my labrum. “Typing,” I say. “Carrying grocery bags from the car to the kitchen. Walking the dog,” I add, as her eyes start to glaze over. “Oh, and having a birthday each year for the last half-century. Hey, there’s my friend Sue! Any chance we can get a couple of martinis?”

I understand Federer’s needing surgery after he hurt his knee running a bath–that is just the kind of klutzy, boneheaded thing I would do. And when you see an elite athlete bounce back from injury, even a quasi-embarrassing, bathing-the-kids injury, it is meant to be inspiring. Triumph of the spirit and all that. Until you tear your labrum basically sitting at the computer in your office. Then the fact that Federer can win the Australian Open after the bathtub incident … well, it’s demoralizing. That Vonn can lose the use of her hand in November and win a World Cup event in January, while I can’t chop vegetables without cursing–and simultaneously frightening my fourth-grader while he tries to do math homework at the kitchen counter–just makes me depressed.

We used to worry that models like Gisele, a.k.a. Mrs. Tom Brady, were a bad influence on the rest of us; our bodies will never live up to their image. Now we’ve got athletes like Mr. Bündchen to make the merely mortal middle-aged among us feel like we will never win, even when our labra are working just fine. After all, Brady gets injured, and he celebrates another birthday every year. Yet he seems unstoppable. Given his serious diet, my guess is that after an injury, he goes to physical therapy for the therapy, not the party. Which (yawn) I suppose is an option for the rest of us too. But where’s the fun in that?

Van Ogtrop is the author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom

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