Tawnee Prazak got her first taste of triathlon right after she graduated from San Diego State University in 2007. In her first season, she completed five sprint and Olympic triathlons as well as a few 5K and 10Ks.
She had been active all her life. Working 8-to-5 in the high-pressure deadline world of journalism was still pretty new to her. At the end of each day, she needed to workout the way some folks crave a stiff drink or Doritos. Tawnee loved how she felt after running on the trails, putting in 2,000 yards in the pool, biking with her boyfriend, and lifting weights at the gym.
In January 2008, she felt a sharp pain on the side of her knee – a classic sign of Iliotibial band syndrome. She received physical therapy to balance the muscles and alleviate the soreness. But it became evident that this was not the underlying problem. “My knee would pop and click every time it rotated on the bike,” she explained. Tawnee did what every responsible triathlete would do – she scheduled another bike re-fit at Trek Bicycle Superstore in La Mesa. Turned out, she was pretty dialed in. She tried new stability running shoes. She was still in denial.
She thought ‘No, this can’t be happening. I have all these races to do!’ Tawnee saw an orthopedic surgeon who ordered an MRI right away, thinking it was a routine torn meniscus. Her workouts began to diminish because she couldn’t push past the pain. Without her usual workouts, she felt tired and frustrated, especially waiting for test results, doctor’s appointments and a diagnosis.
In early June, she finally got an answer. “My doctor is as smart as they come and figured it out in about 30 seconds when he looked at the MRI,” she recounted. It turned out she had Plica Syndrome, which is leftover tissue that never dissolved from fetal development. Many people have it and never know it. But it can become a problem for athletes when the tissue becomes inflamed from activity or overuse. Her doctor told her, “If you ever want to reach your goals of an Ironman or running marathons for years to come, you’ve got to have this tissue removed.”
She needed to think about it. She spoke to her family and friends. And in true journalistic fashion, researched everything available on the Internet on Plica Syndrome.
A week later on Friday the 13th, she had arthroscopic surgery where the doctor scoped three different places of her knee, leaving minimal scarring. She hoped it would bring her good luck. After recovering for a few days, she returned to work. “The lack of endorphins and stimulation made me feel like I was going silently insane,” she admitted. “And then on top of it all, about three weeks after my knee surgery, my boyfriend and I broke up.”
Rehab became her sanctuary, even though she couldn’t do much at first. “Stuff that probably didn’t even burn a calorie,” she explained, “But it was the highlight of my day and they made me happy. In therapy, there’s always hope that you’re going to get better and get back on track.”
She started off with 1 lb. ankle weights and leg raises, clams, electrical stimulation and ice. Later on, she built up to walking with an exercise band around her quads and doing squats. Her physical therapist regularly massaged the areas of her surgical insertion to discourage the development of scar tissue. She wondered ‘Am I ever going to be able to bend over again without falling down?’ and ‘How is this ever going to loosen up again to bend normally?’ It seemed impossible. “They were simple movements that laid down the foundation for those muscles to move properly again,” she explained.
Six weeks after her surgery, against her P.T.’s better judgment, Tawnee tested her knee with a long hike. It was too much, too soon but she knew she was on her way. She began training in earnest in September. When she first started out on the bike, she only went 5 or 6 miles slowly. “I was so worried that I might re-injure it. It was hard to get past the fear,” she recalled. Her fitness level was shot. She worked her way up to 18 miles on the flats at 12-16 mph. She was able to jog a little bit. “I decided to enter the Catalina Triathlon sprint to whip myself into gear and to prove to myself that I was recovering,” she said, “I just wanted to do one race in ’08.”
In the Catalina Triathlon, she came in third place in her age group with a time of 1:14:38. She competed with her mom who placed second in her age group. The girls partied afterwards to celebrate their finish. In November, she placed 1st in her age group in the Dana Point Turkey Trot. And in December, she placed 1st in her age group in the XTERRA 15K Crystal Cove Trail Run. She finished the year strong.
Over the winter, Tawnee trained for her first half-Ironman race in Oceanside. She woke at 4:30 a.m. twice a week for her master’s swim workouts. She put in 15 hours a week of training. All her hard work paid off on April 4th. She made the podium, placing 4th in her age group with a time of 5:40:13.
Tawnee’s injury became a turning point in her career. She liked learning more about how the body works from the folks at physical therapy so much that she decided to quit her job and go to graduate school to pursue her new passion with a degree in kinesiology. She’s still exploring her career avenues in between hitting the books and training for her next triathlon.
Her final pep talk words, “I think with an injury, you just have to say ‘This will pass. I will get better, and I will be that much stronger when I do.’” Smart kid.
NOTE: If you have a good comeback story, please contact me at email@example.com. I’d like to interview you. I hope this will be the first of many Comeback Kid stories. Here’s why.