perspectives - december 2018
Motocross racer refuses give up despite four ACL tears
Athlete: joanna miller
Joanna Miller, 24-years old, is determined, dedicated, and one of the top motocross riders in the world. She is a three time Polish Champion, and placed 5th in the 2017 European Championships. When she started in motocross in 2007 at the age of 13, she was the sole female motocross racer in Poland. At the time, she faced criticism as the only female in a male-dominated sport, but Joanna has continued to prove herself after coming back from multiple injuries and competing with the best of the best. Despite four ACL comebacks, she has not given up on her sport and hopes to compete in the 2019 Polish Championships.
By the age of 24, Joanna Miller had torn her ACL not once, or twice, but four times. She first tore her ACL in her left knee when she was 14 years old during a training session. Since she was so young at the time of injury, she was told to wait two years before she could be operated on. Dealing with an unstable knee over the next two years were not easy, and she sprained her knee multiple times while riding. Once she turned 16, she was told that she was old enough for surgery and finally had her ACL reconstruction performed. For this surgery, she used her hamstring tendon as the graft, and had her meniscus removed; likely since it was too frayed to repair. Seven months later, she was back on her bike; motivated and determined to race again.
In 2017, seven years after her making a comeback, she was competing in the Polish Championships when she crashed and tore her ACL again in the same knee. Determined to compete in the upcoming European Championships that she had been training so long for, she decided to hold off from having her knee operated on until after the race.
“It was difficult to stay positive and ride with pain”, she admits. Despite this, she still managed to place 5th in the European Championship race, and four months after this second injury, she finally had her second ACL reconstruction in her left knee. This time, the surgeon took the hamstring tendon from her right leg, to donate to her left knee. It was difficult having surgery on both legs at the same time, especially for someone as active and competitive as Joanne. But her motivation level did not diminish and she worked hard to get back on her bike as soon as possible.
Five months after the surgery, she was back on her bike. Since the winter seasons in Poland, where she is from, are very cold, she spent nearly two months training in Spain at the Mx Camp. During this time, she was also studying at University, and balancing the studies with intense training while living almost 3,000 km from home. It was exhausting, but she continued to persevere and work hard throughout the recovery period.
Eight months after her second surgery, the time had come for the final Motocross World Championship in Italy. She had been waiting a long time for this day to come, and still has vivid memories of this day.
“I was pretty happy to be there. I felt very well prepared for this season”, she recalls.
Things started off quite well at the World Championship race. In the first race, she was in 12th place out of 49 riders… until the final lap, when she crashed and tore her ACL in her right knee.
“It was like a bad dream. I worked pretty hard all winter. To tear my other ACL in the first race of the Championships was very unfortunate”
She could not believe this was happening again. She was in more disbelief when she found out that was not the only one to tear her ACL in that same race that day. Two other riders she was competing against had also torn their ACL in their right knees: Nicky Van Wordragen from Netherlands, and Sandra Karlsson from Sweden. Wordragen tore her ACL in the first lap, Karlsson tore her ACL in the middle of the race, and Miller tore her ACL in the last lap.
It was unbelievable.
Miller was crushed and in denial. She was concerned that her season had come to an end, and that it may even be the end of her career. She had feared that she would also lose the support of her sponsors. Countless thoughts flooded her mind and for a while, she did not know what to do.
One month after this third ACL injury, she decided go for another ACL reconstruction. Since she had already used both hamstring tendons from her left and right knees for her previous two ACL reconstructions, this time she used a hamstring tendon from a donor.
All three racers from the World Championships had their ACL reconstructions during the same month. “Nicky had her operation one week before me, and Sandra had her operation two weeks before me”, she mentioned. During the recovery, the three racers kept in touch; texting and communicating with one another every day since the surgery and motivating each other throughout the entire recovery period. Mentally, she found that this surgery was easier to go through than the previous two, not because she had been through it before, but because she had the support of the two other girls. Not only did the three of them share the same passion for motocross, but they could relate and understand each other as they recovered from the same injury at the same time.
“Thanks to Nicky and Sandra, I was positive during the recovery. I wish them all the best in the 2019 World Championships!”, she says.
The three of them treated the recovery almost like a race. “Race of the knee progress”, they called it. “One of us was cycling first, another one of us was the first to squat…” They understood that everyone’s recovery is different, and knew their limits. However, this competitive spirit continued throughout the months of recovery and they found that having one another to recover with helped with their mindset. After six months, all three of them were back on their bikes, training for the 2019 World Championships.
Miller was looking forward to having her life back on track with motocross. However on the first training session back, she had a terrible crash, and tore her ACL in her right knee… again.
She could not believe this.
“I was depressed and out of my mind. It was the most difficult time in my career”. This was the first time in her life that she considered walking away from the motocross world… and she came close to doing so.
One of her sponsors, continued to believe in her though. They told her that her bike could stay with her for the 2019 season, and so she decided to go through yet another ACL reconstruction. This was her fourth ACL reconstruction and she used the patellar tendon from the same knee for the graft. For this surgery, her anterolateral ligament (ALL) was also repaired.
It has now been over a month since her last ACL reconstruction and she has not yet given up.
“If it is possible, I want to compete in the Polish Championships in 2019.”
Q&A with Joanna Miller
How did you stay motivated during the recoveries?
"Motocross is the most important thing in my life, and the visions of racing again is what keeps me motivated. In my 24 years, I have had eight surgeries from motocross accidents - ACL injuries are just part of the injuries I have had to overcome throughout my life. Having others to talk to who understand the injury and are going through it with you, helps a lot. My friends and sister also helped to keep me motivated. All of these people cared about me, and it helped a lot during the low days. My physiotherapists at RehaFun were the best - I spent a lot of time there after each surgery, and it was like my second home. Their encouragement helped a lot and kept me motivated. My mentality is that if I’m going to do something, I give it 120%, or I don’t do it at all. This applies to every aspect of my life.
What would you like to tell other athletes recovering from ACL injuries?
"Focus on your recovery, and keep your head up! Make the best use of the recovery period, and use it as an opportunity to become better.”
Thank you Joanna for sharing your story to inspire athletes across the globe. We wish you all the best in your recovery!