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Patient Stories

Road to Olympics Runs Through Rehab

Derek’s Physical Therapy After Skating Injury

After six months of physical therapy, figure skater Derek Wagner, 18, triumphantly returned to the ice for an annual holiday show at his home ice rink in Chicago’s northern suburbs. While it wasn’t the Olympic ice he had dreamed about, simply getting in front of an audience again was a huge accomplishment following a devastating injury.

On the heels of an eighth place finish in the Junior Men’s Division at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Derek was invited to the Olympic Training Camp in Colorado Springs. But he never made it to camp. During a practice, Derek’s skate caught a ridge in the ice and he fell hard on his right knee, fracturing his patella.

“I knew almost immediately that this wasn’t a minor injury,” recalls Derek. “I couldn’t get back up.”

Derek underwent surgery to repair the knee, and then the hard work began — more than six months of physical therapy at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Health & Fitness Center. Getting Derek back into competition form has been an exciting challenge for physical therapist Howie Manuel, DPT, of Northwestern Medicine Rehabilitation Services.

“It’s important with all patients, but especially elite athletes, to develop a customized therapy plan unique to the patient’s goals,” says Manuel. “I have to be very creative with Derek. I obviously can’t do a Triple Lutz, so I can’t physically show him what I want him to do.”

Manuel watched videos of Derek’s performances to better understand the demands on his body. After being immobilized for nearly a month, the first goal was rebuilding flexibility, then strength, in not only the knee, but Derek’s whole body.

“Figure skating requires exceptional gross and fine motor skills,” says Manuel. “We worked on his legs, knees, back, core, neck — the whole person.”

Closely adhering to the restrictions ordered by Derek’s surgeon, Manuel increasingly made therapy more challenging to help ensure Derek had the power, speed, balance and coordination to make the leap from ground to ice.

“Regaining my confidence has actually been the toughest hurdle,” says Derek. “I was wary about putting weight on the leg. Howie motivated me to take one step at a time, first practicing my jumps in the pool, then on land, and finally completing a double jump on the ice.”

As Derek wrapped up his physical therapy, Manuel prepared an exercise plan to help him ramp up his training. Derek hopes to be back in top form for the next competition season.

“Getting back in front of an audience is thrilling. I love performing. It is a surreal moment when you finish a performance,” says Derek.

*This article originally appeared in the Daily Herald newspaper on January 18, 2018.