I went skiing for the first time two weeks ago. Skiing is a very odd sport. You stand on or near the top of a mountain on a pair of skis, originally made from wood -- now constructed of a wood or metal core wrapped in a carbon fiber composite -- that are made to decrease friction while increasing grip on the edges to make sharp turns and/or provide a means to stop. Humans are the only species in the world that subject themselves to horror and death just for, in this case, an expensive thrill to get their hearts pumping for a couple minutes.
When I was younger, I would ice skate every Friday in the winter after school. I was a decent skater. I took lessons, but never really applied myself to master the proper technique. It was fun and I got to hang out with my friends and that’s really all that mattered. Becoming a professional in hockey or any other sport was never something I really strived for (I wish I did now because the life of a professional athlete is a lot easier than an engineer making sure structures properly protect the marines they are built for, or to make sure the electronics in a GPS satellite do not break). But let’s face it; I’m a 5’ 4.5”, 175 pound Jewish guy. Quite diminutive in comparison to the best athletes in the world.
When I first got to Boston University I noticed that I had at least one credit a semester to use on physical education classes. Low and behold there was a skating class and a beginner’s hockey class. I started with the skating class where I finished learning how to skate. The class helped perfect the abilities I already had while teaching me how to turn around and skate backwards in one motion (an ability I use all the time now that I mainly play defense). Skating became easier once the necessity to worry about the puck and other skaters became more important than focusing on skating technique.
The physics of an ice skate are actually quite simple. The blade is sharpened so that the edges touch the ice while the inside is up off the ice. The blade is also curved from the front to the back so that the center of the blade is the only part touching the ice as well. This allows for many different configurations to properly control the blade on the ice. To turn, the outside edge on the inside foot and the inside edge on the outside foot are the only parts of the blade touching the ice. To spin in one spot, a figure skater must balance their foot on the center of the blade so that the minimum amount of blade is touching the ice. My skating teacher demonstrated a hockey stop in three steps: She would turn her hips and skates so that she was facing perpendicularly to her motion, glide along for a few seconds in this position, then bend her knees so that the blade’s edge would contact the ice and stop her movement. Gliding perpendicularly was a skill I’ve never mastered. It takes an incredibly accurate amount of balance to pull off.
A ski is shaped differently to perform exactly the same as an ice skate. While an ice skate’s blade is sharpened to a concave curve to provide the edges, the ski is cut with a camber to do the same task. The front and back of a ski is wider than where the boot sits. There is also a camber when viewed from the side. The tips are lower than the center to provide a greater normal force from the snow to keep the skier above the snow rather than sink into the snow at the center.
My very first attempt to ski down the bunny hill was met with many falls and skis flying off. The rental shop keeps the DIN setting on beginner’s skis loose so the skis break loose easily and the newbie skier does not hurt himself, saving everyone money. My friend and instructor decided it was better to raise the DIN setting and tighten my boot on the ski. It made a huge difference. I had better control and soon I was breaking away from turning while in the pizza or snowplow configuration, moving towards a more natural turn in the French fry or straight ski configuration. My skating instincts were kicking in and as my friend kept saying, “I was trusting my edges.” Each run increasingly tested my abilities and soon I was making easy wide turns to control my speed down the mountain and performing hockey stops to completely stop my motion when needed.
It was fun and scary. Each subsequent run felt scarier and steeper than the last, and I was wishing I went back to the slope that I had just skied down. Yet my friend wanted to push me because he noticed how fast I was picking up the techniques and he knew that a skier only gets better when he challenges himself.
In high school, I became an avid ultimate Frisbee player. Each summer, I would play every Saturday afternoon as a member of the ultimate Frisbee club team. The “pull” is like a kickoff in football where the team that just scored throws the Frisbee down the field to the opposing team to start the new sequence of play. One day I pulled the Frisbee and hyper-extended my shoulder. It felt almost like the ball part of the ball and socket joint was leaving the socket. Nothing actually happened, but as I would soon learn, I started to damage my shoulder joint more and more.
The joint soon became weak and damaged enough that I experienced subluxation of the joint. A subluxation is not a full dislocation, but the ball would slide out of the joint and stay in that position until it was placed back inside. The person who put the ball pack into place was me. I used the Lethal Weapon technique. The technique is demonstrated when Mel Gibson resets his joint by slamming his shoulder into a wall after putting it out of the socket to escape from a straight jacket. I learned that the Lethal Weapon technique is very dangerous. The subject could cause nerve damage and may cause the arm to be amputated, so I learned to twist my arm away from my body until the ball slides back in.
The reason for my injuries is due to my genetics. Loose ligaments are something that runs on my mother’s side of the family. My uncle wildly flails his thumb around to make a weird single handed clapping sound. I can bend my hand forward and press my thumb up against my forearm. My mother stopped skiing because of the weak ligaments in her knee.
The ligament is the thread-like material that holds two sides of a joint together. Every time the injury occurs, some cartilage breaks free and scar tissue builds up. The build up of scar tissue and misplaced cartilage causes the joint to become increasingly unstable. No longer do I lift weights at the gym above my shoulders due to the unstable position and threat of injury.
The injury resurfaced in college while throwing a baseball around with my friends. Soon it would happen while performing simple every day tasks, like closing the trunk of my car or turning over the wrong way when I slept. (Waking up due to a shoulder subluxation is a very traumatic experience on the body. I would rush to reset the shoulder and usually felt nauseous afterwards.)
The injury became so bad that a trip to the doctor was needed. He recommended physical therapy to strengthen the rotator cuff, the group of muscles that turn the shoulder in all its directions. He hoped strengthening the muscles would help support the shoulder. I spent a few months at physical therapy, but it just was not doing the trick. Another trip to the doctor was met with the conclusion that the only option was to fix it with surgery.
I had the surgery on my right shoulder in the summer of 2007, just after I graduated from BU. I spent a month in a sling and another month at physical therapy. I was supposed to spend more time at physical therapy, but decided that I could do the exercises on my own due to my experience lifting weights. I have since experienced no problems with the right shoulder, but the left shoulder is now experiencing the same injuries the right shoulder used to experience.
Luckily, the left shoulder has never been injured while sleeping, but I have injured it stretching in my desk chair at work. Not as bad as sleeping, but just as worrisome. The injury has progressed to the level the right shoulder had seen and surgery is planned for the beginning of this August.
Back on the slopes, falling was a common occurrence for me. Luckily, I was wearing a helmet and falling on my side. The bruises were adding up, but that kind of soreness and pain does not bother me.
Every ride down was met with more success and less falling. I was becoming more and more tired. However, my legs were not weak. I play hockey at least once a week and bike a lot in the summer time. The fatigue was due to the altitude. The highest point of the mountain was at an elevation of about 10,000 feet while the lowest points of the slopes were at an elevation of about 7,000 feet at the lowest points. Not something a body that is tuned to sea level is used to.
Less oxygen does weird things to a body. For reference, a pilot of an airplane is required to have supplemental oxygen at an altitude of 12,500 feet. Passengers are required to have supplemental oxygen at 15,000 feet. The worst that can happen between those altitudes without oxygen is that the passenger will fall asleep. No real harm can happen. The pilot needs the oxygen to prevent hypoxia, a lack of oxygen. Symptoms of hypoxia include muscle fatigue, tiredness, and tunnel vision. Not something a pilot wants to experience (or his or her passengers).
The second-to-last run was my best. I was making sharp wide turns controlling my speed very effectively. I made it down the mountain while only falling once. The fall wasn’t even too dramatic; I kind of just fell onto my side due to slight fatigue. My friend reminded me to keep strong because accidents could happen when you get complacent. I took his advice seriously and stayed strong the rest of the way down.
The group decided that we would make one more ride down and take a break at the lodge. On the chair lift I told my friends that it was going to be my last run of the day as I nodded in and out of sleep.
I got to the beginning of the slope that I had just had great success on the ride before. I started down and was performing great again. I then caught an edge and started to fall. Toppling over onto my side I felt the common sensation of my arm slipping out of the joint. I ended up on my stomach and immediately tried to reset my shoulder. The common technique I now use was not working so I switched to the secondary technique I learned on my own. I let my arm go limp and relaxed my body. Eventually, with some slight movements, the ball slipped back into the joint.
All the while, my other friend had caught up to me and helped me with my skis and poles. He stood by my side while a ski instructor stopped to ask if we needed help. I said I did and she called the ski patrol. The rest of the trip was going to be made strapped to the ski patrol sled. Experience has taught me that it is a bad idea to try and push the shoulder after it has been injured. Years ago I would have manned-up and continue down on my own. I knew being helped down was the right decision even if it was embarrassing and not my first choice.
On the way down my other friends caught up to the ski patrolman and skied by my side until the snow mobile carried me the rest of the way to the clinic. At the clinic, the nurse asked if I needed anything. I said I did not because I fixed my shoulder on my own and I’m used to the injury. I signed the release and soon was helping the ski patrolman fill out his paperwork.
He asked my skill level assuming I was an intermediate skier due to the course I was skiing. My friend David who had helped the ski patrolman put me in the sled and stayed by my side after I fell exuberantly explained that it was my first time. The look on the patrolman’s face was of utter shock. David explained that he had never seen anyone pick up skiing so quickly and was, like the rest of my friends, excited by my newfound skills.
The rest of the weekend was spent as any normal weekend except for the few times that my friends asked if I would ski again and the mention of how good I was for a first timer. My answer is yes, I will definitely ski again, after my surgery this summer. Unfortunately, the weekend was also filled with constant thoughts that I should have sucked it up and rode the rest of the way down on my own. I probably could have done it, but the decision I made was the right one no matter how embarrassed I was.
Those thoughts have since passed and I am left thinking about how great my friends Luke, David, Sonny, Erin, Becky, and Catherine are. And a congratulations to Sonny for winning the bet (no one knows who with) that I would injure my shoulder.
Image courtesy of the author