Normally this time of year I would write a blog post wrapping up my season. Normally I would look back and highlight some of the high points, mention some of the low points and talk about some of the learning points on which I look to build moving forward. Due to the nature of this season, or lack thereof, this season review post will be a bit different. Heading into this season, I was excited at the opportunity ahead, feeling I was capable of hitting new marks as a biathlete on the World Cup. That ambition quickly dwindled as I got sick the day after arriving in Europe and was then plagued with sickness for the next seven weeks. After missing all but one race of the first trimester of the season, I was struggling to find my health, but also my motivation to get back to the level I hoped for at the beginning of the season. After my health started to decline rapidly after Christmas, Jillian and I made the decision to head home early from our honeymoon in Italy to get proper medical care back in the U.S. A few days later I was informed that I had an abscess inside my tonsil and that a tonsillectomy was my best option for recovery.
At the time, I was hopeful that I would recover quickly from the surgery, allowing me a chance to still race before the season was over. As optimistic as I was, I struggled to find energy post surgery, minimizing my ability and desire to return to training. It seemed every time I tried to get back into a training regiment, I would only last a couple days before getting exhausted and have to take a few days off. After struggling to get in a groove, I came to the realization that after almost three courses of antibiotics, 7+ weeks of illness and a surgery my body needed more time to recover and coming back this season was not in my cards. After accepting the fate that my race season was over, I decided it would be best to take some true time off, and took a break from training completely for three weeks. As much as I wanted to continue to enjoy the awesome skiing that was available, I knew that my main objective was to get healthy for my next step.
Last summer, I started having more troubles with my left knee. In 2010 I had surgery to remove a loose piece of cartilage in my knee and do a procedure called micro fracture to repair the spot where the piece had broken off. This past summer I started having more troubles with my knee and my team doctors recommended an MRI to see what was going on. The MRI revealed that I had wore down the spot that had been repaired in 2010 and that is what was causing my problems. They put me in contact with a cartilage regeneration and transplant specialist from HSS in New York City and said I was a candidate for a procedure called Osteochondral Allograft. This is a procedure that takes a piece of cartilage from a cadaver and is then used to repair the damaged spot. After taking some time to think about it, I decided that I would get surgery after this season to help preserve my knee for years to come. After the whole tonsillar abscess debacle and my season being cut short, I decided to push up my surgery date as soon as possible. So in mid-March I underwent my second surgery of 2019 and am now recovering. The doctor said the surgery went well and I am now doing extensive rehab in pursuit of getting back to training again soon. The recovery period will be about six weeks in a brace without bending my knee while walking and then another four to five weeks of restricted exercise while introducing myself to things like biking and non-impact sports. Full recovery will take about 5 months, meaning I may not be able to skate ski until about August due to the lateral movement.
This past season I had to face a lot of things that I wasn't anticipating to face at the beginning of the season. Trying to regain health was only one of my battles as I struggled to find peace internally at times. For the entire month of December I was stuck in quarantine to avoid getting anyone else sick. Sometimes solitude is a wonderful thing, but for where I was at it was a struggle, constantly drowning in unwanted thoughts. In the past I have welcomed times of solitude as I feel I am able to connect with God in those time and build upon my relationship with him. However this past December I felt alone in my room, wondering what happen to that intimacy I once knew. Every night I would go to be hoping the next morning I would wake up healthy, both physically and mentally, and move on from my current struggles.
I can say there was never a morning this past season when I woke up and felt like all my problems had left me. There was never a defining moment or spiritual encounter with the almighty where I felt like I was changed, but it was a slow transition where my eyes were opened. In fact, as the season continued, I would say my health didn't improve for quite some time, but slowly my perspective did change. Even though my health didn't improve much, and even declined again at times, I started to find peace in whatever circumstance I found myself.
The other day as I was hobbling around the house with my peg leg, I had the quick thought of getting back to training. In response to that thought God spoke to me, “Paul, do you wish to fast forward through this?” I sat there, thinking about my current state, not being able to really do any sort of physical activity, but house bound with rehab exercises and lying around with my leg elevated. As I took a moment to think about the question, I just smiled and said, “No way!” There have been many times this season when I would have contemplated a fast forward, whether that be fast forward to being healthy again, fast forward to getting home, fast forward through the pain, the struggle, through the rehab or to warm sunny days. But one has to question why do we want to fast forward? Is it because we are uncomfortable, looking to escape the pain? Do we think that if we can just get to a certain point then we might be happy? Looking back now, I am so glad I didn’t skip over any of those times because in each one of them there was something special that I experienced or learned.
One thing that I am so thankful for this past winter is revisiting some of the reasons why I love not just biathlon, but the season of winter and skiing. Many times during the race season I don’t get to just get out and enjoy skiing. What I mean by that is a majority of the season is structured, training in the morning or early afternoon at the race venue, then recovery in the afternoon and a light jog before dinner. If you’re not preparing for a race, you are recovery from one which leaves little time for just going out and skiing. This may sound silly to some, but it’s just the nature of a competitive biathlon season. However this year, when I was able to return to skiing, it was with little structure, allowing me to just enjoy skiing. There were days when I could just go out and ski, stopping when I wanted, or continuing if I felt good. It was during these skis that reminded me why I love skiing. It was the silence of the woods with light snow falling. The crunch of my poles baskets on the cold snow. The cold air nipping at my nose and tingling my lungs. The beautiful colors of a sunset blanketing the mountains with colors of pink, orange and red. The fresh powder that blankets the earth after a night of snow fall.
So to finish this post I want to go back a year, to when my teammates Jake, Max and I had just finished up our month and a half long racing tour of Norway. Our trip dubbed the name Project Norway, and for the entire duration of the trip we kept saying, "Project Norway Starts NOW!" At first, it was just a joke because we didn't know when the true start to our trip was, whether it was after our last race in Italy, or our drive to Prague or our flight to Norway. By the second week of the trip, we continued the saying and did so through the remainder of the trip. What started as a joke turned into something more, because every morning we woke up we realized it was another opportunity to improve as biathletes. I posted a blog after the trip saying that Project Norway continues to start now, and I am here a year later saying the same thing. This past season was one of learning and growth, but that doesn't mean the season ahead is any less of an opportunity. And Project Norway doesn't have to just be for biathlon, it can go for anything. When I was struggling mentally in December, I was hoping for a new tomorrow, and it never came, or at least I thought it didn't. But the reality is that every day is a new opportunity, and it may be the first step on our way to a better tomorrow.