The Comeback Kid: #4 in a Series


Last year, professional triathlete Joanna Zeiger won the Ironman 70.3 World Championships, Eagleman Ironman 70.3, Vineman 70.3, and 5430 Long Course Triathlon. In 2001, she was plagued by what was nearly a career-ending injury.

It happened 15 miles into a 20-mile training run. “It felt like someone shot me in the back. It was this really painful, sudden onset that stopped me in my tracks. I had to walk back to my car,” she recounted, “Little did I know that it would be the beginning of a three-year odyssey to get this thing resolved.”

She had a hypermobile sacroiliac, a joint dysfunction caused by a hip rotation that, in turn, created a functional leg-length discrepancy. One leg was longer than the other. “It was probably like that forever. I started out as a swimmer and could see that my tan lines were uneven, but it didn’t really affect me then because swimming was non-weight bearing,” Joanna explained, “I had a crazy running style, but no one wanted to change it because I was doing well.” Eventually the leg-length discrepancy and muscle imbalances wreaked havoc on her back.

Though her injury was diagnosed correctly right away, she never imagined how long it would take to resolve it. She followed a number of exercise programs to strengthen her muscle imbalances. She took time off from running. She tried orthotics and heel lifts. She had her bike re-fitted and experimented with many different seat positions. She saw a number of different doctors, physical therapists, and chiropractors. But she was still in severe pain 24 hours a day – from her back to her glutes.

“One of the things that kept me going was Lance Armstrong. I thought if he can come back from cancer, I can come back from a simple back injury,” she recalled, “I really believed in myself and thought I had some good years of racing left.”

She continued to compete, but every race was crapshoot. “When I got to the starting line, I never knew what to expect. It was pretty stressful,” she explained, “If I had a good day, I did well. If not, I’d have to drop out because the pain was so overwhelming. I DNF’d a lot of races, including Kona.”

Quitting, of course, did not come easily to her. Joanna qualified for the '88 and '92 U.S. Olympic Trials in swimming as well as the 2000 Trials in the marathon. In 2000, she placed 4th in the Sydney Olympics and 5th at the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championships only five weeks later. She even earned a PhD in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. Quitting just wasn’t her style.

The unconditional support of her husband, Mark Shenk, and her family, kept Joanna going. They said, “Hey, whatever it takes, we’ll do it.”

“My real breaking point came at the 2004 Olympic Trials in Honolulu. I was unable to finish the race. Sheila Taormina, a friend who competed with me in the 2000 Olympics said, ‘I had no idea your back pain was so bad. My physical therapist Amie is here with me. Why don’t you talk to her?’” Amie Moriarty met Joanna the next day and gave her a cursory examination. “She said something no one else had said, ‘I can cure you.’ That was music to my ears,” Joanna recounted.

Her new physical therapist had a different take on the injury. Amie said, “I really think the problem may be coming from the bike. So why don’t you take some time off the bike, back off the running and swim?” Joanna had never taken a lot of time off the bike. After a week, she already started to feel some relief from the pain.

Joanna flew to Clermont, Florida to receive treatment at the National Training Center for six weeks. She met with Amie, her physical therapist, every day. And she met Chuck Wolfe, her strength and conditioning coach every day. “The combination of getting great physical therapy and great strength training on a daily basis made all the difference,” she recounted, “I was finally able to beat the back injury.”

The crux of her training was working on functional exercises that emphasized working different planes of motion such as side-to-side. “They really worked the muscles in ways I never had before,” she admitted.

Just one month after her intensive therapy and strength training began, she raced the Alcatraz Triathlon and placed third. “It was the first pain-free race I had in years. I felt really good and it was exciting,” Joanna recalled.

Things continued to spiral upward after she left the National Training Center. She placed second at Ironman Canada. “It was a PR. I was so emotional after that race because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to do an Ironman again,” she explained, “And I placed second at a World Cup six weeks later. “

Today, she works to keep injuries at bay by being especially vigilant about strength training to compensate for the joint hypermobility that is present in her shoulders and knees, too. “Because I have that propensity to be overly flexible, I have to stay on top of the strength training all the time. I go to the gym year round, 2-3 times per week,” she said, “It’s something that’s always in the back of my mind that I need to take care of – so I continue to get a lot of massage, bodywork, and chiropractic care.”

When she looks back on all the things she tried before, “It was like putting a band-aid on the problem instead of solving the problem,” she explained, “It’s a much harder road to go down. It’s much easier to say ‘Here’s some orthotics and see you later’ than to ask ‘Why is there a problem?’ I know some people totally need orthotics, but I think most people use them as a crutch.”

“I never felt right on the bike until I got things resolved. I’m very fortunate now to be working with Guru,” she said, “They make bikes for me that fit like a glove.”

What is Joanna’s advice for people recovering from injuries? “Don’t quit until you are satisfied. I can’t even tell you how many practitioners I saw until I found the ones who worked for me. I think people quit too soon and they just get frustrated,” she elaborated, “It is hard work coming back from an injury. I think every athlete goes through it at some point. It’s rough. It’s brutal. It’s depressing. But you have to dedicate yourself to it to make it go away. If you really want it, you can get through it.”

NOTE: If you have a good comeback story, please contact me at sixtwothreetries@gmail.com. I’d like to interview you. I hope this will be the first of many Comeback Kid stories. Here’s why.