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ACL injury lands snowboard pro in months of rehab

May 2nd, 2012 Posted in Sports

‘I always heard about blowing out your knee as being a career-ending thing, but so far it has been pretty mellow.’ —Cale Zima

Photo and story by Josh Ruggles

SALT LAKE CITY—The clanging of skateboards, wood and metal echoed as professional snowboarder Cale Zima sat on the front porch of his Salt Lake City home. After spending several days building a skateboard half pipe in his backyard, he was forced to sit and watch as roommates and friends skateboarded on the freshly built ramp. Back in January, after overshooting the landing of a street-jump gap in Michigan, Zima landed on flat ground; the impact tore his anterior cruciate ligament and put his career in jeopardy.

Zima has been a rising star in the snowboard community for the past five years. After a stand-out video segment in Absinthe FilmsReady, the 24-year-old was propelled to the forefront of the snowboard industry. Being well-known for his original style and feature selection, he has been featured in several top-rated snowboard films since 2008.

Although his injury occurred months ago, Zima is still on the long road to recovery. He has only recently begun walking without crutches and is now in physical therapy on a regular basis. With this being his first debilitating injury and one that put his professional career at risk, Zima does not take the healing process lightly.

“I want to make sure I am doing everything proper,” he said. “I feel like I have a lot riding on getting healthy.”

On the professional level of snowboarding, Zima is at risk of serious injury every day he goes to work. With the difficulty level of professional snowboarding progressing at an unprecedented rate, being in harm’s way has become one of the trade-offs for having what many see as a dream job.

According to a study done by the University of Sport & Physical Education, injuries among competitive snowboarders at the national elite level tend to be back and knee related. Making up 38 percent of professional riders’ injuries, they are the majority, while wrist injuries make up 9 percent.

George Shirley, owner and physical therapist at Fast Track Physical Therapy and sports medicine, said the reason is straightforward. “For amateur level riders, wrist and some lower back are most common. On the professional level, they are more exposed because of the rotational component,” Shirley said. “We see the more traumatic back injuries and knee injuries with more experienced riders.”

Like many riders in the small industry, Zima is not on the competition circuit of snowboarding; he focuses on being filmed for snowboard videos, in which riders are filmed doing various tricks on an assortment of obstacles.

“I was a worried about telling my sponsors about getting hurt. It basically means I wont really have a video part, which is what they rely on,” Zima said. “They were all really supportive. My team managers for all my sponsors are not just managers, they are really good friends.”

While professional snowboarders rely on their bodies to keep competitive and in essence, continue to be paid for something they love, injuries can be a daunting situation. Especially in an industry with thousands of young snowboarders who would be glad to take Zima’s place among the industry elite.

“It was a huge relief to know they had my back, they just told me, ‘Just get it better and make sure you do everything right and be good for next year,’” Zima said.

According to the National Ski Area Association, the rate of ski and snowboarding injuries has increased over the last 10 years, but that does not mean that professional snowboarders are putting themselves in situations that are too risky, says Chris Owen, editor-in-chief of Snowboard magazine and long-time industry photographer.

“These guys know what they are doing and know what they are capable of,” Owen said. “The inherent risk is much higher these days, but the skill level is just as high, so it kind of balances out.”

With an average recovery time of six to nine months for ACL surgery, Zima expects to be able to skateboard on his ramp around August and will be ready for the upcoming snow season, so long as his recovery process goes as planned.

“I feel pretty lucky. I always heard about blowing out your knee as being a career-ending thing, but so far it has been pretty mellow,” Zima said. “It could have ended up a lot worse.”


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