Skihabilitation: The snow doctor will see you now

When downhill fanatic Jonathan Thompson shattered his kneecap, his days on the piste appeared to be over. That was until he paid a visit to a revolutionary US clinic and learnt the secret art of 'skihabilitation'

It's about this time of year when what can only be described as "ski porn" starts landing on the doormat. Those beautifully shot brochures promising uncomplicated, one-week stands between man and piste. It's also the time you remember that sore back or dodgy knee. Do you risk shelling out for an expensive break only to spend it bedbound in your chalet nursing a creaking joint?

The answer lies at the top of a mountain in small-town Colorado. Welcome to Vail, population 5,000. Home to the largest single ski mountain in North America and quite possibly the world's most famous sports injury clinic. Professional and recreational athletes alike fly in from all over the world to be treated at the renowned Steadman-Hawkins Clinic. High in the Rockies, a diverse range of well-known sports stars have come to have their knees, and thus their careers, rebuilt, from tennis legend Martina Navratilova, to basketball star Kobe Bryant. European football supplies a steady flow of clients, with the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Alessandro Del Piero and, more recently, Michael Owen, a few of those the clinic has patched up.

As Vail's new winter season approaches, I have come in the hope of being given the all-clear to cross the salted street outside and get back on the piste after a particularly gruesome injury of my own. It was the day after a fall broke my kneecap into three pieces that I was told I might never ski again. But there, on a summer's morning in Guildford's Royal Surrey Hospital, as I waited for an operation to fish pieces of my shattered kneecap from somewhere near my groin and have metal pins put into my leg, I decided there and then that I would ski again.

In fact, I was going to ski this coming winter. So, after eight months of physiotherapy, here I am in Vail, ready for my check-up and with my salopettes, boots and skis waiting at the hotel.

The clinic opened in 1990, after Dr Richard Steadman, a gifted physician and adviser to the US ski team, moved his operations here. In the intervening years, it has become the leading centre in treating not just knees, but also hips and spines injured through sport.

Such is Steadman's reputation that some of America's finest surgeons and physiotherapists now work in this cutting-edge medical eyrie. Unsurprisingly, given its location, the majority of injuries treated occur from skiing and a growing number of patients are from overseas.

"We're seeing more people travelling greater distances," says Steve Stalzer, director of the neighbouring Howard Head Sports Centre, which provides physiotherapy for Steadman-Hawkins patients.

"A fair number come for the skiing but many will also have one of our doctors deal with a troublesome injury that has been bothering them for some time."

As for my own troublesome injury, Stalzer sits me beneath a framed shirt from yet another famous client, the striker Craig Bellamy. For the next hour, he puts my knee through its paces, testing strength, stability and mobility with complex tests. The bustling, open-plan exercise room is filled with patients, from office workers to Olympic athletes, all hopping, hobbling and stretching.

Skiing injuries, Stalzer tells me, are less common than they were 20 years ago, thanks largely to developments in boot and ski bindings technology. The clinic estimates there are roughly three injuries for every 1,000 skier days here, a figure down by two-thirds from the early 1980s. The most common skiing injuries are those to medial collateral ligaments and anterior cruciate ligaments.

After putting me through a final set of squats using my injured leg, Stalzer pronounces himself happy with my knee's strength, giving me a score of 18 from a possible 21. The secret to successful recuperation, he says, is to build and maintain the quadricep muscles to help hold the knee joint firmly in place. If I were a Premiership footballer, he tells me, I'd be ready to return to my club. From a man who's treated some of the game's most influential legs, I take it as a compliment.

As I head upstairs to the main clinic, Stalzer's words are reinforced at every turn. The walls are lined with pictures of famous faces as well as signed, framed shirts.

"To Dr Steadman," says one from Jamie Redknapp, "Thank you for giving me hope when I didn't believe I had any." Another message is from Rod Stewart: "To everyone in Vail, thanks for my new leg."

In recent years, the great Dr Steadman, now 68, has become something of an oracle for sports injury clinicians and, during my visit, he is away on business. But Steadman's right-hand man and fellow US-ski team adviser, Dr Bill Sterett, is here and fulsome in his praise for all that his older colleague has achieved.

"There isn't a great skier in the world that hasn't come to Vail," says Sterett, "and a good number have passed through this clinic."

Later, I excuse myself to get down to the serious business of putting my newly healed knee to the test. I decide to proceed cautiously and use a lightweight knee support to complement a series of simple stretches for use immediately before and after skiing. I needn't have worried as Stalzer's assessment is spot on and, by the end of the day, I am skiing freely and without pain in one of the most impressive resorts in North America.

Vail is a beautiful setting, with wide, forested trails and sweeping pistes. As such, it seems the perfect environment for those rebuilding their nerve after a serious knock. And once you're back in the swing of things, the legendary 'Back Bowls' are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Skiing across China Bowl later that week, under blue Colorado skies, I appreciate why Steadman chose to locate his operation here and not in a major city. In fact, Sterett says the mountains have a positive effect on those recuperating from injury.

"If you stay for two weeks, the altitude increases the body's ability to make red blood cells," he says. This, in turn, helps healing."

Invariably, explains Sterett, skiing injuries are often not as bad as they might first appear.

"With the right advice, some people could get back sooner rather than later, possibly fitter than before."

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE:

Jonathan Thompson travelled to Vail with Crystal Holidays (0870 160 6040; crystalski.co.uk). A week's holiday in the three-star East Vail Condos starts from £419 per person, including return flights from Gatwick. For more information on Vail Resorts: snow.com

FURTHER INFORMATION:

For more on the Steadman- Hawkins Clinic or to make an appointment: 001 970 476 1100; steadman-hawkins.com

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