June 1, 2008 / 12:35 AM / 9 years ago

Canadian gold medal gymnast battles broken legs

OTTAWA (Reuters) - If Kyle Shewfelt thought winning Canada’s first artistic gymnastics gold in 2004 was tough, he now faces an even greater challenge -- to recover from two broken legs in time for the Beijing Games.

<p>Canada's Kyle Shewfelt waves at the end of his floor competition during the 39th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Aarhus, Denmark, October 20, 2006. REUTERS/Max Rossi</p>

Shewfelt slightly mistimed a landing at a practice session in Germany last August and the results were catastrophic. He splintered the tops of both shinbones, hyper-extended his knees and suffered ligament damage.

Surgery followed within days and he now has a metal plate and two screws in his left leg and a screw in the right. The pain is constant -- and time is running out.

“It will be a huge victory to be in Beijing after suffering the traumatic injury that I did,” he told Reuters from the western city of Calgary.

That said, he has no desire just to make up the numbers.

“I don’t want to come 50th, I want to challenge ... I want to feel like I‘m on fire and that I‘m unstoppable and that I‘m going to be able to hit my absolute best routine and that will equal another Olympic medal,” he said.

Shewfelt, who turned 26 this month, won his country’s first gymnastics gold four years ago when he beat Romania’s Marian Dragulescu to capture the men’s floor title in Athens.

Memories of standing on the podium help him through what he admits have been tough times.

“I‘m making progress every day. I‘m definitely applying myself ... some days I feel like I‘m 90 percent and some days I feel like I‘m 60. It’s a rollercoaster ride,” he said.

MISERABLE TIMES

For a man used to constant movement, life in the weeks after the surgery was miserable. Braces covered both knees and he could only move around in a wheelchair.

By late January he was back in the gym and slowly realizing how much work lay ahead, both on the floor and the high bar.

“It doesn’t feel amazing when you land on your knees, especially after having them cut open a few months ago. It’s almost like someone is scraping them with a cheese grater,” he wrote on his blog in February.

A few weeks ago Shewfelt -- who says he is “pretty happy” with his preparations -- wanted to take part in the Canadian national championships in early June. That may now not happen.

“I would hate something to go wrong just because I wasn’t quite fully prepared,” he said.

His last chance to make the Olympic team is a series of trials in July which will cut a pool of eight contenders to six. If all goes to plan, he will start taking more hard landings in the last six weeks before Beijing.

Until then he will continue building up his muscles, reminding himself of the need to be patient and -- as always -- trying to ignore the never-ending hurt in his legs.

“There is constant pain every day when I wake up ... When you experience something every day you learn to find ways to just put it out of your mind,” he said.

The plate causes so much grief that he will have it removed after the Games.

DRIVEN PERFECTIONIST

Shewfelt admits he is a driven perfectionist, which only increases the frustration. Twice a month he consults a psychologist to help keep his mind clear.

He said: ”This is very hard, especially in an Olympic year when there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of expectation from the outside.

“Basically (the psychologist) has constantly reminded me that I am making progress, I am doing the best I can do and I can only control that. I can’t control anything else.”

Shewfelt keeps a blog -- kyleshewfelt.blogspot.com -- where he details, sometimes with remarkable frankness, how he is doing.

“The reason I am so tired is because I have been working hard. So hard that when I am not in training I am in a constant state of pain and exhaustion,” he wrote on Monday.

After a recent dinner with his parents he had felt so weak he lay down on the floor in front of the kitchen refrigerator.

“I planted myself there and didn’t move. I couldn’t move. It was 7 p.m. and I was ready for bed,” he related.

Shewfelt, who says he is motivated by reading earlier posts and seeing how far he has come, dismisses the idea that rivals might read his more downbeat entries and take heart.

“I hope that they’re watching and seeing the progress I‘m making,” he said.

Ironically, Shewfelt is at a more advanced stage of preparation than before Athens when he was suffering from an ankle injury.

“The tendency is often to overtrain and be past your peak when you get to the Olympics,” said Penny Werthner, the Canadian team’s sports psychologist.

“Sometimes an athlete is injured before the Olympics and arrives better trained,” she told Reuters.

Shewfelt said: “I try to make the most of every day right now. I think that’s what the injury has done for me -- it’s made me appreciate this opportunity and appreciate my ability and also to understand that things can change in an instant.”

Editing by Dave Thompson

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