Every single day matters in the life of an elite gymnast recovering from a major injury. Every day they are not able to practice, every time they sit on the sideline watching their teammates compete, strips away a part of their identity developed through a lifetime of long days, nights and weekends working in the gym.
That is why fellow gymnast and St. Vincent Charity Medical Center’s Dr. Michael Canales has become the expert for the gymnastics community in treating and healing foot and ankle injuries. As a member of the 1996 Ohio State Men’s Gymnastics National Championship Team, Dr. Canales shares these young athletes’ drive to compete. He recognizes the short window open for gymnasts at the elite and collegiate levels. He understands their urgency to get back in the gym.
“This is not just a hobby for these young men and women. This is part of their identity. In a four-year college career, they can’t afford to miss an entire season sitting, being sidelined with an injury,” Dr. Canales said. “Having a keen knowledge of the sport and understanding the terminology allows me to fast track these athletes in a safe manner.”
Will Jeffries was a member of the men’s gymnastics team at The Ohio State University when he suffered a midfoot fracture in an exhibition competition before the start of his senior year. He was delivered the devastating news by the first doctor who examined him that this was a career-ending injury. Surgery was not an option. Will went home in shock and disappointment, knowing this was not just the end of his gymnastics career, but an injury he would fight the rest of his life. Not wanting to give up, Will turned to Dr. Canales, who remains entrenched in Ohio State’s gymnastics program.
“I sent a message to Dr. Canales. He called me about 30 seconds later and got me in right away,” Will said. “Dr. Canales said ‘we are going to fix you.’ He pulled a complete 180 on the situation. I was even more shocked when he went so far to say I was going to compete that year—my senior year. “
For the type of injury Will had, normal rehab time is 9 to 12 months—if surgery is an option at all. With constant communication with Dr. Canales and the help of his team trainer, Will was able to rehab in less than 3 ½ months, competing in the Big 10 Championships and then on to the NCAA Championships. The big test for the strength of his foot was when he successfully “stuck the dismount” on the rings at the NCAA’s, ending his college career on high note.
As a junior at Kent State University, Whitnee Johnson, too, found Dr. Canales provided hope to returning to gymnastics even after other specialists gave her less than a 50 percent chance of recovery from repair of her posterior tibial tendon. Whitnee found confidence in Dr. Canales because of his understanding of both the sport and her competitive drive to compete her senior year at Kent State.
“I was so relieved to find somebody who understood gymnastics and knew what I needed to get done,” Whitnee said. “After surgery, I would call him and ask him if I was far enough along in rehab to try specific gymnastics skills. Other doctors would have probably just told me ‘no’ because they wouldn’t have understood the skill or landing I was talking about. He knew exactly what I was talking about and was able to guide me to get me back faster.”
With Dr. Canales’ guidance, Whitnee was able to rehab in time to compete in her senior year. In fact, her very first competition back happened to be in her hometown in Missouri with a crowd of family and friends there to support her. “It meant so much for me to be back, but even more that I was able to return with so many people that I loved there to support me.”
Dr. Canales believes the key to getting these gymnasts, or any athlete, back into training quickly is the mentality to balance pushing them through rehab, while at the same time, making sure they do it safely. They also need immediate communication with and access to their doctor if a problem or injury occurs. Either by phone, text or same-day appointments, Dr. Canales works to ensure these athletes get immediate answers or treatment for their concerns.
“When you are an athlete, days matter,” Dr. Canales said. “They don’t have weeks to wait for an appointment. That delay might mean the difference between competing that season or not. Immediate access is critical to fast tracking their recovery and getting them back in the gym.”
Dr. Canales finds personal reward and a sense of accomplishment by helping these elite gymnasts get back into competition. It keeps him connected with the gymnastics family and, in a way, makes him feel he is still part of the team.
“I always wanted to be the guy that gets the ball at the end of the game and wins it all,” Dr. Canales said. “To be the surgeon that enables these young gymnasts to come back and compete in the sport they love, makes me feel like I just scored that game-winning basket.”