March 15, 2009 in Sports

Patching the stars

Vail clinic gives athletes an opportunity to return to high levels
Pat Graham Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Dr. Richard Steadman’s office in Vail, Colo., offers a mountain view behind sports memorabilia from famous patients.
(Full-size photo)

VAIL, Colo. – The Shark has been through here. So have Picabo and Kobe.

Now, A-Rod has taken a turn.

The Steadman Hawkins Clinic is where high-profile athletes go when their bodies need fixing and their careers are in the balance. Alex Rodriguez is the latest superstar to come to this ritzy ski resort town.

The surgeon for the New York Yankees third baseman is Dr. Marc Philippon. He is part of a crew of nine physicians, each a leader in an orthopedic field. Having an all-star group on hand has been the idea since the clinic’s founder, Dr. Richard Steadman, began courting surgeons nearly two decades ago, among them Dr. Richard Hawkins.

The clinic has saved the careers of hundreds of professional athletes since it opened in 1990 and has more memorabilia hanging on the office walls than a hall of fame.

Often, this is a place of last resort for athletes.

“I probably wouldn’t be in the Hall” without the clinic, recently elected Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson said. “I’m indebted.”

Rodriguez may turn out to be as well. The slugger was in the clinic’s care this week after arthroscopic surgery for torn cartilage in his right hip.

Philippon also has operated on the likes of Greg Norman, Priest Holmes and Mario Lemieux. There’s a framed jersey from Marian Gaborik waiting to be placed on a wall, a show of gratitude from the Minnesota Wild forward.

Only problem, his walls are already covered.

“If we can make a little impact on their life to help them chase their dream, that’s great satisfaction,” Philippon said.

The list of clinic patients is dazzling. There are Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Dan Marino, Joe Montana, John Elway), international soccer stars (Alessandro Del Piero, Ronaldo), Olympic medal winners in skiing (Bode Miller, Phil and Steve Mahre, Julia Mancuso, Picabo Street) and tennis stars (Martina Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport).

Monica Seles went there soon after being stabbed by an obsessed fan during a match in 1993. Bryant was in the area for an operation when was accused of raping a local woman, a case that was eventually dismissed.

Even an occasional pop star has come in, like U2 drummer Larry Mullen and singer Rod Stewart.

Their cases all fit with the clinic’s goal – keeping active people active.

“People don’t need to travel all the way to Vail to be told, ‘If you sit on a couch, your knee won’t hurt,’ ” said Dr. William Sterett, a shoulder and knee specialist at the clinic as well as a physician for the U.S. women’s ski team. “It’s about getting people back to what they love.”

This is an ideal location to mend, the hospital rooms offering spectacular views of the slopes. Though not quite Club Med, the clinic does come with amenities, such as cutting-edge equipment, a supreme rehab center and, of course, the surgeons.

As Rodriguez has probably learned, these doctors are relentless in rehab. They don’t pamper patients as much as push – hard.

“They’re wonderful in your hour of need,” said Norman, who’s had work done on his shoulder, knee and hip. “That word has gotten around quickly.”

Has it ever. Much of that is because of the surgeon they call “Steady.”

Steadman is the pioneer of microfracture surgery, a technique used to repair cartilage by poking tiny holes near the defective area. When Steadman began honing the procedure in the late ’80s, it was radical.

In Woodson’s case, he needed radical. He thought his career was over four years into the league. A Pittsburgh Steeler at the time, Woodson had the operation and was back for the next season. He played 13 more seasons, nine at a Pro Bowl level.

“You start going through who they’ve done surgeries on and it’s like a who’s who,” said Woodson, now an analyst with the NFL Network. “After they’ve been through the surgeries, they’ve come back and played at a high level.”

Steadman had a thriving practice in Lake Tahoe, Calif., and was content to spend his days there, fixing athletes while serving as the doctor for the U.S. women’s ski team.

Then George Gillett Jr. showed up.

Gillett, then owner of Vail resorts, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a tumble down the slopes. He needed a doctor. His good friend Cindy Nelson, an Olympic bronze medalist in the downhill, recommended Steadman.

Nelson knew him quite well, enduring 11 operations on knees and ankles to keep her ski career going. Steadman “always put me back together,” Nelson said.

Gillett flew out to have his knee fixed and the two began discussing the possibility of a clinic. Not just any facility, a world-class one with top surgeons that was also a research center.

That was the appealing part to Steadman, especially with his microfracture procedure coming under scrutiny. He wanted to catalog all operations, so surgeons would have a robust bank of data to back up their methods.

They struck a deal.

Every procedure done at the clinic since has been tracked by their research foundation, which calls patients 10 years after surgery, just to gather more information.

“This is way beyond my dreams,” said Gillett, who owns the Montreal Canadiens along with being co-owner of the English Premier League team Liverpool. “I don’t think you could’ve envisioned this.”

© Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email