Down for the count. Life came to a halt for Jeff when he collapsed in the boxing ring, clutching his back. As a lifelong athlete, he had experienced pain before. “At 23 years old, Jeff had already undergone serious spinal surgery to address ruptured disks,” explains Whitney Rippelmeyer-Tucker, co-founder of Studio 26. “[Surgery for] two ruptured disks that were pushing fluid into Jeff’s spine had left his back full of scar tissue, [making him] susceptible to reinjury. There was very little likelihood he would be a serious athlete again.”
Although competing was his ultimate goal, Jeff was willing to settle for simply training in the boxing ring; nonetheless, his spirit deflated when doctors confirmed his career in boxing was over.
Technical decision. At the behest of Simon, his boxing coach, Jeff decided to hire a personal trainer. “Simon was the only [person] I trusted; I came to Whitney because I trusted Simon,” he says.
When Jeff first came to the studio, he was “in chronic pain,” remembers Rippelmeyer-Tucker. “On a perceived pain scale of 1–10, he reported that he was a 7 or 8.” She noticed that simple tasks, such as bending to tie his shoes, were extremely difficult and painful. She reasoned that his lack of mobility corresponded to tightness in his glutes, chest, calves and upper back.
Immediately the two went to work on loosening up these areas using foam rollers, Pinky balls (a child’s toy that is now widely used as a massage tool), t spheres® and more. “The most effective of these exercises was to place a small, dense Pinky ball into Jeff’s glute, posterior to the great trocanter,” Ripplemeyer-Tucker says. “With the ball in place, Jeff simply abducted and adducted his thigh while the hip was in flexion.”
Fighting spirit. Although the physical approach seemed to be working, Jeff remained somewhat standoffish. His mental state when he arrived at the first few sessions was one of two extremes: exhausted or manic. “He was either tired from work or wanting to rush through everything and demanding to know the expected outcome of every exercise,” says Rippel-meyer-Tucker. She recognized that to be successful she needed to engage his mind. “Jeff was very fearful that any movement might injure his back. We agreed to stay in constant communication, and I often asked how the exercise [made him feel].”
Rippelmeyer-Tucker approached each session in a reward-oriented manner to appeal to Jeff’s competitive sensibilities. She focused on breath, awareness of alignment, and balance and proprioception, hoping to engage him mentally as well as physically. “Once he realized that he could approach our work with the same focus and determination as he approached boxing, things began to really shift.”
Bob and weave. “As Jeff was feeling better and gaining confidence, we received the exciting news that there was a potential amateur fight in which he could participate, with all proceeds benefiting cancer [research],” Rippelmeyer-Tucker says.
Simon, Jeff and Rippelmeyer-Tucker immediately shifted gears and prepared for competition. They continued to work on mobility techniques, while focusing on standing balance, stability and spinal rotation—skills necessary for competition and safety. “We started to work on Jeff’s balancing on one foot at a time, which happens in quick succession in boxing,” she says. “A key exercise was placing one of Jeff’s feet on a half foam roller, with the second toe aligned with the roller’s spine. He practiced standing and shallow, single-leg squats. Later, we worked on rotating his spine around the axis of his standing leg.”
Fight night. Eventually the time came for Jeff’s fight, and “he stunned everyone,” recalls Rippelmeyer-Tucker. “He had the only knockout of the evening.”
“Hands down, the most rewarding individual experience of my life postsurgery was competing again in an amateur fight,” Jeff recalls. “Words cannot fully illuminate the pleasure that came out of competing at that level once more.”
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