Erik Ozollapa is a semi-professional ice hockey player born in Latvia, and hockey has brought him around the world. He started off playing in a Junior hockey league in Latvia, and then moved to Finland for high school. From there, he moved to the US where he attended university and played for another Junior hockey league. After two years of university, he decided to return to Europe to play for his hometown once again. Throughout his hockey career, he has played in Latvia, Germany, Switzerland, U.K., and Norway. He has just scored his 50th goal for his team, Norway’s Tonsberg Vikings.
Erik was injury-free for the majority of his life, without any obstacles preventing him from playing the game he loved. At the age of 28 however, he tore his ACL for the first time, and that’s when his recovery journey began.
FOLLOW HIM ON IG: @eozollapa
Q&A with Erik Ozollapa
1. Can you share your ACL story?
It was a typical game day - I did my pre-game routine and was excited for this game, especially since it was the final game of the season. Only 28 seconds into the game, I was re-directing the puck in front of the net as the opposing team’s defence-man was pushing me to side. All of a sudden, at the same moment I was making a stride, and he fell onto my knee I heard the loud “double-POP” and felt sharpest pain I have ever experienced. Right at that moment, I knew something was wrong. A minute or two later, however, the pain was gone. So I thought I was good. But then as I was getting up, trying to make a stride, I realized my leg was loose. I had no idea what was happening. I thought to myself “I’ll just use ice and will be good to go”. However after taking a bit of time to rest, tape and ice, I stepped back on the ice and I realized that my leg was not stable at all. That’s when I knew for sure that something was seriously wrong - I just didn’t know what it was exactly. I called the Orthopaedic doctor first thing the next morning and booked an MRI. Once I got results - I immediately went home to research what the HECK an ACL was. I thought it would mean taking a few weeks to rest, and then get back in game. But the way the doctor explained the situation to me, I understood that this was more than just a sprain that I could manage with just ice and rest.
I ended up having surgery using my hamstring graft - I understood that it would make the recovery easier. I was on crutches for 1 week, and after 90 days, I was able to run and jump. I returned to the ice after 4.5 months and played the first game 6 months post-op. It felt good. After all the hard work of physical therapy, I felt that I had returned faster, stronger, and better.
Two years later, on February 20, 2018, I spun on the ice, and fell on my leg - I felt the pain, but this time, did not hear a POP. I had a grade 2 tear in my MCL at the same time, and I was hoping that that was the only thing that would be wrong. But after going through another MRI, the doctor told me that I should seek a NEW JOB, as I am done. He told me that I had torn my ACL AGAIN. Hearing that from the doctor, I suddenly felt like my whole world just stopped. I got in touch with a top doctor in Norway who specialized in knee injuries for athletes (e.g. soccer players, skiers). He calmed me down and told me that I have 60% chance of returning, but that I need to keep in mind it would be twice as hard, and a hell of a ride.
For my second surgery, the surgeon suggested using the patellar tendon graft. The patellar tendon graft is often considered to be stronger, with less risk of re-tear. Going through this recovery (compared with the initial ACL surgery using the hamstring graft), I found the rehab and post surgery pain to be 2-3 times more painful than the first one. The doctor had warned me of his, and he was right. For the first 30 days, I was not allowed to put any pressure on my leg, and because of that, my leg became weak and stiff. It was a rough recovery, but I am so happy that I had some of the best people in Latvia supporting me through the journey. I am so thankful to EV Fizio Therapy and Conditioning, and my coaches Diana, Agate and Erik. They knew exactly how much to push me and monitored every single move I did. I was able to catch up and get to where I was before the surgery.
2. Can you share your experience dealing with the mental side of the injury?
After the first surgery, I was relatively positive overall. I did enough research to believe that I could make a full recovery in approximately 6 months and that was my focus. Of course I had my low times - there were times when it seemed that there was no progress or that I could not fully flex my leg. I felt powerless at times. But then I took a minute and I repeated to myself that others come back stronger from this, and so will I.
The inability to do the things that I loved was hard - seeing teammates skate and run while i was just sweating on bike and having painful stretches and procedures.
The mental side was very different the second time around. As mentioned, right after news - the world stopped, and I knew I had to do my best when the time came. There were sleepless nights where I had a million thoughts and questions running through my mind - “what now ?! What if?! and Why Me ?”.
I came to the conclusion that this world has a bigger mission for me than to give up. I had my ups and very low downs, but keeping the dream alive was the biggest thing that pushed me. I also learned much more about myself through books and spiritual leaders I met over the time. I thought - maybe with my injury and recovery, I can inspire and show others that even when you feel like your world is falling apart, anything is possible.
I knew that I could not be a failure if I wanted to help motivate and inspire others, especially when fans and teammates were following every step of my recovery. I still continue to receive support from the team, fans, friends, and family up to this date, and I feel that it is my duty not to fail, not only for myself, but also for the people who look up to me. I don’t want to let myself or anyone else down. I have received many messages and questions from fans and other athletes recovering, and I am happy that I have motivated quite a few people. I also have consulted over the phone/skype/messenger people from India, USA, Egypt, and Latvia who are recovering from the same injury. By giving advice based on my experience I realized, it helps encourage me as well, and it is incredibly rewarding. I hoped to inspire one person but now its more that 10 from what I know, and I realized that by helping others, it helps uplift me from my low moments as well, knowing that I am making a positive impact despite the negative situation.
3. What advice would you like to share with other athletes recovering from this injury?
An ACL tear happens with just one small wrong movement, but it sure changes your life in huge ways - I don’t believe you are ex-ACL patient - you are with it for rest of the life. So you have to deal with it. For athletes - I believe we have had quite a bit of tough situations in our life, where we see no way out, but we always find a way to achieve things that do not seem possible. We have won games that seem un-winable. We have achieved the records that seemed unachievable. But hey, we did it. We may have had the support of parents, siblings, or fans, but at the end of the day it was “us” that did it. As an athlete, we have the mentality of understanding that hard work and determination is the key to any result. Having an ACL injury is just another test for us, and it prepares us for bigger things. I promise that YOU will look at the life completely different from this experience, and that after surgery, you will come back much stronger than you thought. Remember, as athletes, it is definitely in us to recover from all of this. Believe in yourself.
4. What have you learned through this experience?
One thing that I have learned from this experience is that we can’t buy is TIME - and TIME runs out quickly. No matter what we do, we should never waste our time, especially when we have the ability to use the time wisely and fully, as there can come the day when we are limited, and no longer able to do the things we love.
Thank you Erik, for taking the time to share your experiences and advice, to inspire athletes across the globe recovering from ACL injuries.