Craig the Lionhearted

No longer able to put his best foot forward after a devastating injury, Craig Lyon learned to put his second-best foot out there.

By Shelly Wilson

Shelly Wilson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 10.6, September 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1006/comebacklion.htm

When Augustana College’s Viking track team produced a set of inspirational T-shirts reading, “The Goal is the Journey,” little did coaches realize how literally to-heart one of their top athletes would have to take that message. But when an injury nearly ended Craig Lyon’s career, his goal quickly went from winning at the highest levels of competition to simply getting back to competing at all.
In 1998, Lyon became the Division III national indoor high-jump champion, following a stellar high school career where he set his school’s record with a jump of 7’3”. “My goal was to be a professional high-jumper and tour Europe,” Lyon says. “And I was planning on jumping at the Olympic trials in July. But that was kind of thwarted.”
On February 26, 1999, during a jump at a meet at Illinois Wesleyan University, Lyon’s shoe gave out, and his left foot “exploded,” according to onlookers. Although doctors eventually told him his high-jumping career was over, Lyon recovered use of his left foot and trained to jump from his right foot in time for his senior season.
For his relentless fortitude in recovering from a potentially career-ending injury, Craig Lyon has been chosen as Training & Conditioning’s Male College Comeback Athlete of 2000. Also honored are Augustana College’s Assistant Athletic Trainer Denise Yoder, MS, ATC; Head Track and Field Coach Paul Olsen; John Lacart, MD, Lyon’s Orthopedic Surgeon at Dreyer Medical Clinic in Aurora, Ill.; and Armen Kelikian, MD, Orthopedic Surgeon at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago.
Those who witnessed the injury are unlikely to see anything quite like it again. According to Lyon, during his approach, he came through the “J” and when he planted his left foot, his shoe began tearing from the corner where the eyelet holes begin, down to the front of the shoe. As he pushed off his planted foot into the jump, his foot began slipping out of the shoe, but it was slipping at a faster rate than the shoe was tearing, causing it to get caught in the shoe despite the continuing forward force. Under the strain in that split second, his foot gave way, resulting in a fracture of the talus, broken metatarsals, and torn ligaments in what would later be diagnosed as a Lisfranc’s fracture dislocation.
“I just scooted to the end of that mat and stuck my foot over the edge,” Lyon says. “I heard my brother yell the “F” word and saw everyone wheel around. When I looked at my foot, I could see the edge of my cuneiform bones.”
“One look at it and you knew it was severe,” adds Olsen. “All five toes turned right angle to the rest of his foot. He just sat in the pit and held his foot, gritted his teeth, and breathed hard. I’m sure it hurt like crazy, but he also knew that a lot of dreams faded in that moment.”
The dislocation was reduced immediately and Lyon was quickly taken to a cold whirlpool where Wesleyan athletic trainers immersed his foot. He was then transported to the hospital, but being a Friday night, orthopedics wasn’t open, so Lyon was fitted with a soft cast and instructed to visit his orthopedist on the following Monday. When Lyon finally saw Dr. Lacart on Monday, he was advised against surgery and was, instead, put in a cast in the hope that the broken bones would heal on their own and normal function would return. “At that point, there was no mention of whether track would be in my future or not, so I remained optimistic about making a full return,” Lyon explains.
Determined to compete the following season, Lyon’s first concern was maintaining his overall fitness—though his foot was immobile. This, he believed, would give him an advantage once rehab and track training began. Keeping with his normal off-season workout schedule of four days on, one day off, Lyon enhanced his regular weight-training routine by adding daily sets of leg extensions and leg curls to work his quads and hamstrings. “I simply slid the pads high enough onto my shins so that my foot injury would not bother me while I exercised,” Lyon recalls. “I would also bound up every staircase I came to one-legged, do one-legged squats, bleacher bounds, and any other thing I could imagine involving only one leg.”
In June, the permanent cast was changed for a walking boot and Lyon started on a basic ankle rehab protocol with the Augustana athletic trainers. At this point, his foot was so sensitive to the touch that early rehab had to begin very slowly with range-of-motion and calf-stretching exercises. Towel scrunches and toe pick-ups worked ankle strength and, as Lyon’s range of motion and strength improved, he progressed to working with elastic rehab bands and performing two-legged calf raises.
By early July, Lyon had proceeded to work on Baps boards and the trampoline to more fully work ROM and strength. But despite his advancement through rehab, he still could not walk without pain, which left little hope of beginning jumping training. Another visit to Dr. Lacart to discuss his concerns led to a referral to Dr. Kelikian, a foot and ankle specialist. In Chicago, a standing x-ray identified Lyon’s February injury as a Lisfranc’s fracture dislocation—which meant surgery would be needed to remedy the pain.
On July 8, Lyon underwent surgery to realign the metatarsal and cuneiform bones, which involved fusing them together with bone from his heel and holding the site together with screws. But getting placed in a second cast wasn’t the only setback Lyon would face on that visit. “Craig called me from Chicago the day after his surgery,” Olsen recalls, “and said, ‘The doctor said I’ll never jump at this level again.’ My response was, ‘On that foot.’”
Olsen believed that Lyon had the ability to retrain to jump from his other foot, and Lyon quickly took up the challenge. Now, with dual goals of rehabbing the injured foot and training to switch his plant to his right foot before track season, Lyon and Yoder began his rehab for a second time—though facing a tighter schedule than before. Lyon resumed his strength training and cardiovascular work as he had previously, and in September, he traded his hard cast for another walking boot.
Lyon’s rehab was criteria-based and constantly evolving. “We made it up as we went along,” Yoder says, “taking little bits from everywhere and adapting it to his needs. We considered what we’d normally do for plantar fascia, what we’d do for a broken foot, and what we’d do for an ankle, then we threw it in a pot, swirled it together, and pulled out things that would work best for him.”
Twice a day, Lyon went to the training room. Beginning once again with towel crunches and picking up different-sized marbles with his toes, Lyon moved on to elastic-band toe curls—progressing through bands of various resistance.
Then, once they got the go-ahead from Dr. Lacart, he was started on proprioception drills. Lyon began doing single-leg stands on each leg for 20-second intervals and working up to intervals of one minute or more. When he was able to stand for over a minute, they moved on to eyes-closed and built on time, followed by catching balls while standing one-legged for increasing periods of time. Then Yoder moved Lyon to the mini-trampoline and began the single-leg progressions again.
Next, they introduced styrofoam tubing exercises. “He stood on those, positioned so they rode under his arches, and started with double-leg stands and then advanced to single-leg,” says Yoder. “Then we had him stand on the cylinders long-ways, like a tightrope walker. Then we started throwing stuff at him again, first with his eyes open, then closed.”
With a green light from Dr. Lacart, Yoder progressed Lyon to more sport-specific exercises. “He started out with simple stuff,” Yoder says, “like two-footed jumping, single-leg jumping, and jumping rope. No great heights or anything—just hops. Then, we increased the difficulty by jumping from greater heights, jumping over objects, and bounding. The exercises would change every day depending on how things felt to him.”
“There were a lot of times when I was disheartened,” Lyon admits. “But jumping is what I love to do, and I wasn’t going to just give up because I’d had some bad luck.”
“Craig was very motivated, and that gave us a challenge to make sure he had plenty to do and that he wasn’t getting bored,” says Yoder. “He was a little overzealous at times and little nagging injuries ended up affecting him, like patellar tendinitis, the sore foot, and sore shins. So another challenge was reining him back and saying, ‘Yeah, you’re making good progress, you’ve got good range of motion, but you’ve got to back off.”
It was in late October when a critical turning point finally took place, Olsen recalls. “I was at cross country practice when Craig came running across the field and yelled, ‘Coach, I can run!’ He was so excited that he had to run across the grass to show me.”
Since Lyon’s restored ability to run had been the criterion to determine when he could begin jump-training again, he and Olsen got training underway.
“In the beginning,” says Olsen, “we would only jump once a week in very short, 10-minute sessions. We wanted to make sure we weren’t creating too much stress, because although he didn’t now have stress on the left foot as his plant foot, he still was applying stress to the left foot running the curve.”
Compared to switching feet, Lyon says rehab was a breeze. “Training to jump from my right foot was the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I had jumped so many thousands of times off my left foot that I didn’t have to think about it. Everything was natural. But then to switch and come from the other side, everything is opposite. So every little step and thing I’d never had to think about before, I now had to break down and analyze.”
“Switching feet is much more, or just as, difficult as learning to write with your other hand,” Olsen says. “There are not only gross motor skills, but fine motor skills that have to be developed.”
By December, Lyon had progressed to one 15-minute jump practice every four or five days. “In a healthy situation, your goal is to keep the athlete fresh and jump once a week at a low bar just so he can feel the rhythm of the approach,” explains Olsen. “In Craig’s situation, we weren’t trying to let him feel and remind him of the rhythm of the approach; he was learning the rhythm of the approach.”
By the time track season began, Lyon’s hard work had paid off. During the indoor season in January, Lyon was reaching heights of 6’4” off his right foot, and on April 15, 2000, he soared 6’8-1/4” to secure first place at that day’s annual Viking Olympics invitational.
He then turned his focus to planning his own wedding, held this past July, and attending Rush University Medical College in the fall. Although he may not be competing at the moment, Lyon still maintains high-jump aspirations. “This summer, I’m coaching a couple of kids in the high jump,” says Lyon. “And I’m still training and jumping, myself, because I want to break the seven-foot barrier on both feet. That’s very rare.”
And so the journey continues.