My Recent Water Skiing Injury

by David A. Chappell

I recently fell victim to a torn pectoral muscle tendon while water skiing. I’m going in for surgery on Thursday of this week to try and get it reattached. More on that below, but first, here is how it happened….

For most of my life, one of my favorite activities has been water skiing. I grew up on Webster Lake, which is otherwise known as Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. I still keep a boat there at my parents house, which is only 45 minutes from where I live, and I try to get there as much as I can during the summer to ski.

Skiing on a slalom ski is not just about going around a set of buoys like you see in the competitions on TV. Freestyle skiing around an imaginary set of buoys that are at a distance of your choosing can also be an extremely rewarding experience. The act of “cutting” back and forth across the wake requires combination of strength, skill, grace, and style that can give you an extreme adrenaline rush. Each time out you are looking to achieve your personal best, whether its in “kicking up a spray” that is the biggest and best you have ever done, or in executing a perfect turn that leads into laying down as close to the water as possible with all of your might pulling against the rope as you cut across for another turn. When the best run of the summer happens, you know it, and its so fulfilling that you don’t care that there is no one else around to see it.

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The picture above was taken of me recently in early August of 2005. That morning I achieved that personal best slalom run of the whole summer. This actual shot is not the best in terms of kicking up a spray, but this turn is just about to lead into a kickass cut across the wake. When your doing this, the boat is boat is traveling at 30mph, and you’re cutting across diagonally/horizontally against that force, which means you’re probably going about 50mph. This whips you out further to the other side, and the idea is to dig in with your back foot as hard as you can and execute a quick and powerful turn before you lose too much forward momentum, so that your return to the other side of the wake picks up even more speed. If you really get it right, you can execute that turn with only one hand holding onto the rope, since during that moment in time all of the force is going against the turn and not against the rope. At the outcome of that that turn you sometimes get a little slack in the rope which you need to grab with both hands and pull in towards your chest (as shown in the photo) to lessen the snapping effect as the rope suddenly gets tight again to whip you back across to the other side.

I got asked by several people (landlubbers) what was I doing water skiing at 6:00 am before work on a Tuesday morning, when the weather was rainy - For an avid slalom skier, the best time of the day to ski is early in the morning, just after sunrise. Any other time of day just after a rainstorm, which tends to smooth out the surface of the water, is also good. Being the first one out there ensures that you don’t have to worry about waves from other boats, which can disrupt your forward motion and your maneuvers. Equally as important is how smooth the surface of the water is. On smooth water the ski cuts through the surface like a sharp blade with no resistance except for what you are controlling with the angle of the edge of the ski with the help of the rear keel. Even the slightest disruption in the surface of the water can lesson your experience. As the sun begins to warm the air mass, the resulting breezes can cause the surface of the water to get covered with ripples. These ripples, however small they may be, can cause the surface of the ski to “slap”over them which creates more resistance and gives what feels like a harder surface. The ideal time to get out there is somewhere between 6:00 – 6:30 am. If there is a light fog rising off the surfaced of the water, then that creates a surreal effect as an added bonus. If there is too much fog, then you can’t see enough to be safe, so you have to wait for the fog to lift. However it is usually the wind that blows the fog away, which causes the ripples so you have to time it just right. There is a very small window of opportunity for the perfect conditions, so you stand there on the shore with the anticipation of a child who is waiting for the ice cream truck to arrive. I presume this is kind of like a surfer who stands on the beach during a storm, or just after it, waiting for the perfect waves.

Anyhow, the title of this is about an injury. The fateful morning of August 30th was just such a perfect one for skiing. There was no fog that morning, so we didn’t have to wait for the wind to pick up, and it had just stopped raining long enough for us to get out there. As I was leaning hard into a left hand turn, my foot suddenly slipped out of the read binder of the ski. This caused my whole body to suddenly shoot straight out horizontally while I was still holding onto the rope tightly with only my left hand. To add insult to injury, I then slapped down on the surface of the water in that position. In local Webster, Massachusetts terminology that would be considered a “wicked wipeout”. When you hit the water at that speed, it feels like a hard surface. This motion caused my left shoulder to joint to hyper-extend, and the tendon on my left pectoral muscle snapped.

I found a good article http://www.physsportsmed.com/issues/1997/08aug/selesnick.htm that describes the problem in more detail, and also the procedure for correcting it. If you want to get a better understanding of what’s broken, try this simple test – place your finger under your armpit and clench you arm down against the side of your body. You should feel something like a small cable that goes across the front of your armpit. This is what connects your major pectoral muscle to the top of your arm bone, and provides the sole anchor point for its function. In my case that cable-like tendon is just not there where it should be. After 2 MRIs that were examined by 2 orthopedic surgeons who collaborated on the diagnosis, it was determined inconclusive as to whether an operation would be successful or not. If the tendon is detached at the bone, then it should be able to be reattached using the procedure that is described in the referenced article. If it is detached at the muscle side, there is little that can be done to reattach it. Its kind of like trying to sew a piece of rope onto a piece of steak. There’s really not enough substance to hold the sutures. Normally the tendon has long fibers that grow deep into the muscle tissue. Once those are torn, then there’s not much that can be done. Unfortunately they have to open me up to find out whether its fixable. I’m crossing my fingers and being optimistic. Even if it can’t be fixed there are other muscles in that region that can control the arm movement just fine. I’ll just never regain the strength necessary to do the kind of water skiing that I am accustomed to.

Recovery time depends on whether or not the surgeon is able to make a repair. If he can’t reattach anything, then it will be just a week or two while the incision from the exploratory surgery heals. If he is able to reattach it then it could be 4 – 8 weeks with my arm in a sling. Either way the recovery period is going to include lots of physical therapy.

He said I should still be able to do the SOA Architect Forum across Europe in September/October depending on how well I feel, and whether he feels I’m capable of hauling luggage around airports for 3 weeks with one arm in a sling. Unfortunately he won’t know until after the operation is performed.

Dave