A Physician Who Saved More Than a Few Ski Racing Careers
On Dec. 3, 2016, during the Birds of Prey World Cup races in Beaver Creek, Colo., one very important doctor will be honored at the U.S. Ski Team alumni event. Original sculptures of Dr. Richard Steadman commissioned by “The Grateful Steady’s” – the athletes and fellows who are his biggest fans and beneficiaries – will then reside at the Steadman Philippon Research Institute and at USSA’s Center of Excellence in Park City. And this is why…
Dr. Steadman and the U.S. Ski Team go together like ligaments and cartilage, muscle and tendon, bones and breaks. As head U.S. alpine ski team physician from 1976 to 2012, Dr. Steadman not only extended the competitive lives of countless athletes and rendered the term “career-ending injury” into a healthy challenge, but also formalized the U.S. Ski Team physician pool and stewarded USSA’s sports science program to be the gold standard among Olympic sports.
The partnership reaches back to 1973, when Steadman first volunteered his services at the Heavenly Valley World Cup. At the time, the former football player for Texas A&M was part of the Tahoe Fracture and Orthopedic Clinic at Barton Memorial Hospital in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Since joining the practice three years earlier, fresh from his orthopedic residency, Steadman took a progressive and at the time controversial approach to physical therapy and rehabilitation. Rather than follow the standard course of immobilizing injured joints and limbs, Steadman’s protocol involved mobilization of the joint within a controlled range – thanks to removable adjustable braces instead of hard casts – immediately following surgery. This was based on studies that had shown the adverse effects of immobilization both on short-term recovery and long-term joint health, as well as his own intuition that movement actually promoted healing.
If Steadman was looking for orthopedic challenges and opportunities, he hit paydirt with the U.S. Ski Team athletes, who were both highly prone to leg injuries and highly motivated for quick and complete recoveries. John McMurtry first met Steadman in 1976, when, as a new coach with the national team, McMurtry was sent to pick up the newly named chief physician of the U.S. Ski Team at the Denver Airport and bring him to a dryland training camp in Aspen. “There in baggage claim was this tall, tan, athletic guy with a big smile. He was easy to pick out,” recalls McMurtry.
In Aspen, Steadman worked with Tage Pederson, the U.S. Ski Team trainer from 1968 to 1980, as well as then-head coach John Bowerman. (The latter had come with a trunk full of shoes with a swoop on the side and funky soles, that his father Bill had made at home in Oregon. The U.S. women’s ski team became early adopters of the now iconic Nike Waffle Trainers.) Together Pedersen and Steadman developed partner resistance exercises for early rehab, something unusual in the era of recovery through immobilization.
Back in South Lake Tahoe, Steadman incorporated these techniques into his treatment. After operating on his ski racer patients — many of whom lived far away from the remote clinic — he installed them in his home. There, his wife Gay, who was raising their own two children, cared for the athletes while they completed their prescribed rehab aimed at maximizing circulation and movement to promote healing. This meant seemingly endless miles on a stationary bike and knee bends, first with the uninjured leg and, as soon as possible, with the injured leg as well. After all day at the clinic and hospital, Steadman would return home and immediately tend to his skiers, pushing them through grueling resistance exercises, appraising their progress and adjusting their rehab accordingly. By utilizing a positive feedback loop with patients who were eager to work their hardest, he not only got athletes back to form in record time, but also instilled in them a sense of confidence and body awareness.
“He had a way of empowering patients to take control of their recovery and believe they would be better after their injuries,” says McMurtry, who would go on to work with Steadman both in South Lake Tahoe and later in Vail. “The culture he created was positive and proactive.” The “Steady” treatment, of unconditional physical and emotional care — regardless of age or team status —produced remarkable comebacks.
Phil Mahre shattered his ankle in 1979 and still won a silver medal 11 months later. Christin Cooper crushed her tibial plateau in 1983 only to win Olympic silver in 1984. Nearly all of the 1984 Olympic team was at some point touched and healed by Steadman. Countless untested rookies, whose dreams might have otherwise ended in a toboggan ride, went on to fulfill their athletic potential following his care. The international ski world too turned to Steadman’s magic, including Marc Girardelli who completely dislocated his knee (rupturing all four major ligaments and both medial and lateral meniscus cartilages) in 1984, and went on to win the World Cup slalom title the following year. Cindy Nelson, who underwent 11 Steadman surgeries in her long U.S. Ski Team tenure, called Dr. Steadman “the single most important influence in [her] ski racing career.”
Inevitably, other professional athletes discovered Steadman, starting with Steelers’ linebacker Crag Bingham, whose successful return to the NFL amazed his trainers and teammates. One of those had played college ball with Dan Marino, who in turn showed up in South Lake Tahoe. Very soon, the skier’s secret weapon became a treasure for the entire sports community.
Steadman’s office was a living laboratory, where new treatments and equipment were constantly being tested and conceived. It was also an ecosystem, where the next generation of orthopedic surgeons — fellows who spent a year under his tutelage — trained. Among them was Dr. Mininder Kocher, now a leading orthopedic surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital and associate director of Sports Medicine division there. “As a fellow, we learned so much from Steady. Not just how to do an operation technically, but who to do it on, when to do it, how to rehab it, and how to treat the patient.”
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”
– Arthur Schopenhauer
Indeed, Steadman’s real genius was not only in his innovative techniques, but as much in his personal manner, a sense of calm and optimism he instilled right after surgery, often before the anesthesia had worn off. “I would lean down and tell them how good the surgery was, to give them a good feeling about it,” he said of his ritual. “I think it made a difference.” As Christin Cooper put it, “He healed my spirit as well as my bones.” That solid assurance, especially for young athletes who were not superstars and who often felt scared, alone and abandoned by their team, was invaluable.
As the U.S. alpine team physician from 1976 through the next nine Winter Olympics, Dr. Steadman provided on-site care while also standing witness to impossible dreams achieved and full-circle comebacks. Standing with him in the starting area was its own victory, confirmation that you were back and ready to show the world. His patient-centered approach which extended to weekend warriors and World Champions alike, from first appointment through recovery, became legendary. It made for epically long waits, jam-packed hallways, and uncommonly devoted patients.
One of those patients was George Gillett, who met Steadman in the usual way, through an emergency knee surgery and an introduction from a skier. Cindy Nelson connected Gillett, at that time the owner of Vail, to Steadman, who detoured en route to the 1987 World Championships to repair Gillett’s knee. In turn, Gillett, whose vision was to bring world-class health care to the Vail Valley, set his sights on Steadman. In 1990, the doctor made the move, lured by the increased potential for research and expanded facilities that would broaden his ability to advance orthopedics. Famous skiers like Picabo Street, Tommy Moe, and Bode Miller continued to check into the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic (now the Steadman Clinic), as did big name athletes from virtually every other professional sport: Montana, Bryant, Navratilova, Nadal, Norman, Ronaldo – to name a few. With hotels in easy crutching distance, the days of caring for skiers in his home were over but the personalized attention was not.
The Steadman Foundation, started in 1988, is now the Steadman Philippon Research Institute (SPRI), invigorated with the talent of renowned hip surgeon Marc Philippon. SPRI works in concert with, and in the same building as, the Vail Valley Hospital and the Steadman Clinic, and has a reputation as the most comprehensive sports medicine research organization in the world. It features side-by-side proximity of top research facilities with top specialists in virtually every orthopedic area of specialty.
With such an engine, Steadman’s revelatory procedure of microfracture — a procedure born in the 80s with his skiers, whereby the body is stimulated to create its own hybrid cartilage — has been proven effective and is used to treat more than 500,000 patients a year. It has also been adapted to treat other joints such as the shoulder, hip and ankle. The objective, as ever, is egalitarian to weekend warriors and professional athletes: Get moving as soon as possible, get back to normal function or better as soon as possible, and keep your own parts for as long as possible. That last part, and the sheer number of aging ski racers who remain active on their original (battered) equipment, is stunning testimony to Steady’s magic.
Dr. Steadman retired in 2014, but his legacy remains active and strong. Each year, six more orthopedic fellows train at SPRI, participating in research and, of course, putting in some time with the US. Ski Team. “If you think about all the fellows that he trained, who took those skills and patient-centered approach with them to their practices all over the country and the world,” says Kocher, “and then follow the people that they trained, you get an appreciation of his medical legacy.”
McMurtry echoes that sentiment from the athletic perspective, and the impact every athlete’s injury and recovery had on those who followed. “One of the greatest contributions the U.S. Ski Team has made to mankind is Dr. Steadman,” notes McMurtry. “It really was the USST athletes who proved this advanced medicine to the world.”