Thea Fenwick is a 17-year old freestyle skier from Yorkshire, England and started skiing at the age of 2. There were not many mountains in England to train on. Therefore, since the age of 12, she went to live abroad in Italy, USA, and Austria, which offered her incredible opportunities to meet, train, and compete with the best of the best.
Skiing is an incredibly expensive sport, and her family struggled to help with the costs. However she is grateful that she was provided financial support from companies including HEAD, and Sports Aid, a charity that provides funding to athletes. Her goal is to compete at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, after recovering from her ACL injury. Passionate about fitness, she continues to work and train in the gym on a daily basis as her knee recovers.
follow her on instagram: @thea_the_skier
Q&A with Thea Fenwick
1) Can you share your ACL story?
Almost exactly a year ago, I landed a jump awkwardly while ski training. I'm a freestyle skier and a member of the Great Britain Development Squad. I had just started my first full season of competing at an international level and was hopeful of competing in the Junior World Championships soon. Freestyle skiing involves a lot of spinning jumps that make ACL injuries very common among skiers. I know freestyle skiers who have had multiple ACL surgeries during their career.
But I had never been injured before. On the day of my injury, I was working on 720s (two full rotations) which I'm very comfortable with, but as I landed, I twisted my knee and fell. I managed to get up and ski down to the lift but I was in a lot of pain.
I rested my knee for a few days, then began training again. I did not know exactly what was wrong with it, but I was struggling to ski at my normal level. Eventually I came home for Christmas and went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with an MCL sprain. So after rest and physio, I went back to Europe for training and competitions. I competed in the Europa Cup and won several medals, but my knee still did not feel right. At the end of winter I came back to the UK and eventually got an appointment with an Orthopaedic surgeon who examined my knee for a matter of seconds and immediately diagnosed an ACL tear. I was literally stunned because by this time I had been skiing on my injured knee for 6 months. The MRI scan confirmed that not only was the ACL torn but it had been so long since the injury, that it had completely disintegrated - I had no ACL at all. I also had osteochondral fractures, which are dents in the end of the bone caused by impact.
I immediately started 3 months of intensive prehab. With the help of the Great Britain physiotherapist, Tom Heeley, at Function Jigsaw. I worked as hard as I could to build up my quad strength in preparation for the operation. I was in the gym almost everyday. I also continued skiing, and got on the podium at the English Championships.
I was lucky that UK's top knee surgeon offered to perform my operation on the NHS (National Health Service - which means that I did not have to pay for my operation or follow-up treatments). In August, exactly 4 months ago, I went to London for surgery.
After the surgery, the surgeon informed me that they had done the ACL reconstruction with a hamstring graft, a meniscus repair and also an extra lateral tenodesis (tightening a tendon to give the joint more stability in future).
The first few days were harder than I had expected. I was exhausted but struggling to get comfortable enough to sleep. I didn't use a knee brace at all - just a walking frame then crutches. I had a few problems with inflammation and getting back on my feet felt like a slow process. The first couple of weeks were spent constantly icing and trying to improve my extension. Since I had meniscus surgery as well, I was not allowed to bend my knee past 90 degrees for the first 6 weeks. Avoiding over bending was pretty difficult. It took several weeks and a lot of work to achieve full extension again in my knee.
To fill my time away from skiing, I started an apprenticeship in Fitness and Personal Training which has allowed me to get in the gym everyday. But I knew that it would take more than that to return to skiing so I have a lot of support with rehab. Every week, I have physio treatments at my local hospital. Once a month, I go to the Institute for Sport & Exercise in London for rehab. I also visit the Team GB physio occasionally.
It usually takes 6-9 months to return to skiing after ACL surgery so it will be a few months before I get back on snow and even longer before I can do freestyle again.
It has now been a year since my injury and I feel like the hardest part is behind me.
It's very tough seeing my teammates and competitors going off to the mountains without me because I know I'm falling behind, but ACL injuries are such a common part of this sport and there's a lot of understanding and support. I just have to focus on my recovery.
2) What was the first thing that went through your mind when you heard the pop?
Unlike most ACL injuries, it wasn't immediately obvious to me or my coach that I had a serious injury. I was in a lot of pain but falling over is a very common part of freestyle skiing so you just try to get up and carry on. In hindsight, I should have listened more to my body and seen a doctor immediately which might have speeded up my surgery and recovery. But having never had a serious injury before I just tried to put on a brave face and push through the pain.
3) What was were your initial thoughts when you were told you had a torn ACL?
I was extremely shocked by the diagnosis because it had been 6 months since my injury. The orthopaedic team were surprised that I had been able to carry on skiing and competing with the injury. When the shock wore off, I was devastated to have such a long period of treatment and rehab ahead of me. The actual time from my injury to returning to full strength is going to be around 2 years! I'm also unsure if I will be able to recover to my previous level. I really hope this isn't a career ending injury for me.
4) How do you stay motivated during the recovery?
To keep up my momentum I work with a personal trainer every week which keeps me motivated. My rehab currently involves a huge number of squats and lunges, as well as cycling, balance and flexibility work.
Recently I started on skiing specific rehab, so I'm learning to jump, land and spin again which is scary and amazing. I’m also very lucky to have great sponsors who are sticking by me through this period. I’m very grateful for their funding and support. I am also very grateful for my National Governing Board, Snowsport England, who have continued to believe in me and support me through this journey.
As well as rehab, I am focusing on developing new skills and qualifications. I have recently trained as a skiing judge and I have judged my first competition which was exciting. I'm also working towards becoming a qualified personal trainer. When I get back on skis I would like to get a ski coaching qualification.
I'm also doing things that I couldn't do if I was away training like learning to drive, getting a job and going to gigs. As an athlete, I've spent a lot of time living away from home and training abroad since I was 12, so this injury has given me a bit of time to be a normal teenager.
5) Do you think this injury has changed you in any way?
The injury has forced me to be more patient which doesn't come naturally. I've had periods of feeling angry and frustrated. Everyone wants you to look to the future but there have been days when I've felt bitter about being injured. I'm learning to channel that frustration into determination to achieve my goals. I've also learned discipline - training as a freestyle skier is not as structured as some sports so having a disciplined approach to fitness will help me in future. When I return to skiing I think I will have psychological hurdles to overcome. Fear of reinjury could hold me back but I’m aiming to be as strong and fit as possible so I can have confidence and hopefully resume my career as a competitive skier.
Thank you Thea for sharing your story and experience with athletes across the globe recovering from injury!
SPECIAL THANKS TO KEY PLAYERS IN THEA’s RECOVERY:
professor haddad - university college hospital, SURGEON
james - james cook hospital, physiotherapist
Tom Heeley- Function Jigsaw, gb physiotherapist