An Olympian against the odds

Winter 2014

When the International Olympic Committee announced that slopestyle skiing would make its debut as an official sport at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Canadian freestyle skier Kaya Turski – the number one ski slopestyle competitor in the world – received a dream opportunity to represent her country on the inaugural Canadian team.

But last August, less than six months away from the Winter Games, Turski sustained a debilitating knee injury. While training to master a new move called a “switch 720,” which involves taking off from a backwards position and completing two 360-degree rotations in the air, Turski was caught by surprise by the landing. The force of gravity coupled with the torque from her mid-air spins proved too much for her legs to bear. Turski instantly knew that the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee had torn apart. “I just knew it right away,” she says. “I blew it.”

Under normal circumstances, recovery from an ACL injury stretches from seven to 10 months or longer. Making matters more complicated, Turski had sustained this injury before. This meant that the normal means of repairing the ACL – using a graft from her own hamstring tissue and running it through tiny holes drilled in her bones – could not be performed again. She didn’t have any tissue left to donate for a second surgery and a synthetic ACL was too narrow to fill the holes where the first graft had been.

It was on recommendation from a fellow athlete that Turski turned to LHSC’s Dr. Bob Litchfield, Orthopaedic Surgeon and Medical Director of the Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic. Dr. Litchfield has treated several Olympians, including skiers Jan Hudek, Erik Guy and Larisa Yurkiw.

Working on Turski’s injury would be complicated.

“When you are revising a surgery, it’s always a challenge because you have to work around what’s already been done. There are only so many holes you can drill,” says Dr. Litchfield. “Because of previously drilled holes, a synthetic ACL [for Turski] would have rattled around in the joints like a mop in a bucket without donor tissue to protect it.”

Together, doctor and patient devised a course of treatment to provide Turski with a functioning knee that would last not only through the Olympics, but for the rest of her life.
In late August, Dr. Litchfield performed an innovative surgery on Turski – replacing her torn ligament with a synthetic ACL wrapped in tissue from an outside donor. The synthetic ACL, which is made from industrial strength polyester, provided instant strength while the donor tissue allowed the ligament to fit snuggly.

While Turski could bear weight on her knee immediately after surgery, she still had a lot of work to do. Rehabilitation included 15-20 hours in the gym each week, followed by training on the trampoline before she could touch snow.

By December, only a few short months after surgery, she was on the slopes again and full of enthusiasm.

On January 17, Turski competed in the Grand Prix in Utah, and even though she had little time to train on the course, she placed on the podium, proving that she was back in competitive form.

Then, on January 25, only one week after competing in Utah, she captured her fifth Winter X Games gold medal. When asked how her knee was fairing, Turski said that she was “feeling really good.”

When Turski competed on Feb.11 in Sochi, Dr. Litchfield was not far away – as the Chief Orthopaedic Surgeon for the Canadian Alpine Ski Team. He was one of three Fowler Kennedy Sport Medicine Clinic representatives who volunteered their time to be part of an official Canadian medical team, which provides athletes with care for any injuries, whether minor or serious.

At the end of the day, Turski’s success at the Olympics would have nothing to do with medal standings – but simply in the ability to compete in the sport that she loves. Though she was disappointed not to take the podium, Turski still had a lot to celebrate. “I’ve worked so hard, I poured my heart and soul into the last six months,” she said. “I think I did an incredible thing just dropping in. I’m proud to say I’m an Olympian now.”

Dr. Litchfield says it is important to take care of Canadian athletes, no matter their standing, because they represent our country. “We have great respect for what they do and if you can make their recovery from injury that much easier, that’s the least we can offer.”

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Kaya Turski takes flight in training
Kaya Turski performs tricks in training
Doctor Bob Litchfield stands with a model of a knee that has received a synthetic ligament, similar to Turski's
Kaya Turski with her 2014 Winter X Games gold medal
Kaya Turski (centre) takes the podium as the gold medal winner at the 2014 Winter X Games
Doctor Litchfield poses with the Olympic rings in Sochi, Russia
Dr. Litchfield (left) with Dara Howell, Canadian Olympic freestyle skiing gold medalist
Dr.Litchfield (right) with Jan Hudec, Canadian Olympic alpine skiing bronze medalist