Flying back to the top | SteamboatToday.com

Flying back to the top

Johnny Spillane looking to regain 2003 form

Luke Graham

— Johnny Spillane wasn’t sure what the problem was.

It was the moment after the 2007 Nordic World Championships in Sapporo, Japan, and Spillane could barely tolerate the pain in his right shoulder.

Normally a dominant sprint skier, Spillane knew something wasn’t right when he attempted to plant his pole and thrust himself forward.

The vicious pain focused on his shoulder and spread like a cracked windshield with each subsequent plant of his pole.

“If we knew (what it was), we would have pulled the plug earlier,” Spillane said Wednesday at the base of Howelsen Hill, prepping for the 2008 season. “But we didn’t go to the hospital. We just tried to deal with it.”

That toughness is a testament to Spillane’s pain tolerance and desire to compete.

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Spillane, who had surgery on the same shoulder in 2006, had broken his coracoid process.

The coracoid process – where a number of muscles in the arm and shoulder meet – helps hold the shoulder intact.

A broken coracoid is very painful, and means a significant amount of damage has taken place.

The injury was from Spillane’s first surgery on his shoulder. Spillane had sutures inserted to help hold his shoulder and collarbone in place.

The sutures essentially rubbed back and forth before sawing the coracoid process in half.

He originally injured the shoulder during a dryland training session in February, on the eve of the World Championships in Japan, and eventually had to stop his World Cup season a week early because of the pain.

Doctor Michael Metcalf operated on Spillane on April 2 at The Orthopedic Surgery Hospital in Salt Lake City.

Metcalf repaired the broken coracoid process, reattaching it to Spillane’s shoulder blade, while sewing a cadaver graft into the ligaments to provide stability to the collarbone and shoulder.

But through the injury, Spillane – who also had surgery in 2005 to repair a torn disc in his back – kept plugging away. He immediately started rehabbing.

He got on his bike and raced in Utah. He ran constantly. Then he got on his bike and rode some more.

The shoulder “hasn’t been a big help,” Spillane conceded. “But looking long-term, it hasn’t hurt.”

Through the injury, Spillane estimates he’s probably in the best shape of his life heading into the season. He started roller skiing and jumping again at the beginning of August.

Although he admits he was rusty, it was just nice to be back on skis.

He went to a camp in Europe in the middle of August and faced his first real test on a jump. After returning to the States on Sept. 3, Spillane couldn’t help but be happy about his progress.

“In Europe, I jumped really, really well,” Spillane said. “I started feeling better and better.”

Now, with the first World Cup of the season less than two months away, Spillane thinks this might be the year he re-finds the form that made him America’s first World Champion in Nordic combined skiing, after he won a 7 1/2-kilometer sprint race in 2003.

“I want to reestablish myself as one of the best guys in the world,” Spillane said. “It’s taken a lot of work, and it’s one thing to do it in practice and another to do it in competition. : I want to be top five overall. To do that, you’re there in every single competition.”

Getting back to the top means Spillane has to find the consistency that’s eluded him for the last couple of years. A large part of finding consistency means staying healthy.

“It’s just been annoying,” Spillane said. “Every spring, it feels like I’m starting over with surgeries. I need to stay injury-free. To put in a full season would be nice.”

Getting on top again would mean a good shot at another medal at the World Championships next year.

It would also put him in position to be a favorite for a medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

“I want to ski through the next Olympics and get that Olympic medal,” Spillane said. “That would be pretty awesome. I think more of how to get it than what it would be like to get it.”

But before Spillane looks toward the future, he’s transfixed on the now.

That remains getting the shoulder to 100 percent, getting the jumps in and getting back to the top of the Nordic skiing scene.

“I really just want to start off the season strong,” Spillane said. “It’s got to be strong and it’s got to start on the snow jumping.”