5 Olympics, 2 Skis, 1 Dream

For most Americans, there is a period of time that will occur every fourth February that will be marked with heightened feelings of anticipation and excitement.  During this electrifying period of two weeks you are sure to find one common thread among most households—the Winter Olympic Games. The Olympics represent an American tradition that is sure to find families glued to their TV sets and supporters of all ages mesmerizing over their favorite athletes.

Watching the Games on TV, it is hard not to sense the sheer exhilaration and proud thrill that our athletes must feel. You are happy for them and yet scared at the same time. This notion could not be truer than for our downhill and Alpine skiers.  For even the most adventurous mindset has to wonder—how on earth are they able to do that?

For one young man, born in Boulder and raised in Crested Butte, CO just mere steps away from some of the best slopes in the world, he will tell you that you are able to do that with years and years of practice and some good genes.

Take it from Casey Puckett, five-time Olympic Alpine skier and winner of countless competitions stretching from Switzerland to Japan—and to say the least—he has some experience.  This 37-year old father of two has been skiing since he was three years old—entering his first race at six and his first competition by eight and along the way he was guided by his mom who herself was a ski racer and member of the University of Colorado ski team.

Casey’s career started with traditional Alpine skiing and for more than 16 years he competed against some of the best athletes in the world as an Olympic Alpine skier. He retired from Alpine skiing in 2002 and coached at the Aspen Valley Ski/Snowboard Association until 2006; during this time, in 2003, Casey came out of retirement to try his hand at freestyle (Ski Cross) skiing—a relatively new sport in the Olympic games. It is the Chinese downhill of modern skiing – it requires speed and agility like the traditional Alpine downhill, but it is performed over a course with obstacles and other skiers. The racers must maneuver in and out of traffic of fellow skiers while making it through the obstacles in order to come out ahead. Over the past few years, Casey Puckett has dominated the sport, emerging as the top US Ski Cross racer and one of the best in the world.  He won two gold medals at the Winter X Games and placed 5th at the 2009 Ski Cross World Championships in Inawashiro, Japan.

Ski Cross. It’s fun, it’s fast and it is also what caused Casey’s devastating injury in December of 2009 that almost crushed his dream of continuing on to his 5th Olympics. It was during a competition in France that Casey violently went down on the hill and suffered a grade 5 AC Joint Separation Shoulder Injury to his left shoulder—which means the shoulder separated from the clavicle (collarbone). This untimely event took place just mere weeks before the Vancouver Olympic Games.

CaseyPuckett-ski-photoNo stranger to shoulder injuries, Casey had previously injured his right shoulder during a crash in Switzerland in 2008 where he suffered a Grade 3 AC joint separation shoulder injury and a shoulder dislocation. Already a familiar face at The Steadman Clinic, this was the first chance Casey had to meet Dr. Peter Millett—a shoulder and knee specialist at the clinic. Dr Millett, a team physician for the U.S. Ski Team and one of the best shoulder specialists in the world, repaired the complex injuries to his right shoulder. With that injury behind him and his surgically repaired right shoulder operating as new, the blow to his left shoulder proved to be an entirely different situation. The injury was more severe and with the Olympics rapidly approaching, the time he had for recovery was a lot less.

Dr. Millett immediately performed surgery on Casey’s shoulder to stabilize his shoulder separation. He used a minimally invasive arthroscopic technique to minimize Casey’s downtime and to hasten a rapid recovery. The clavicle was stabilized and Casey was back in action. For most athletes missing a competition or two is a common experience when therapy and recovery are taking place; but when it is the Olympic Winter games staring you in the face, it is a different battle altogether.

For several weeks, Dr. Millett put this US Ski Cross racer on a strenuous and speedy recovery plan. With twice a day rehab sessions, acupuncture and episodes in a hyperbaric chamber, Casey heeded Dr. Millett’s advice and took it easy and tried to make his comeback risk-free. Casey skied the X-Games course less than 2 weeks after surgery, where he unfortunately came down hard on a landing and reinjured the same shoulder.  Luckily, Dr. Millett was able to conclude that the repair from Casey’s surgery was still intact and stable.

A few short weeks later, after more intense rehab and training, Casey was ready for the Olympics.  Though he did not finish on top like he hoped, it was a proud moment for this star athlete. This was his 5th Olympic games. When he finished it was very special because of all that he had been through and because he knew he had done his best. “My goal from the moment I injured my shoulder was first and foremost: to get back on the snow so that I could compete in what I knew would be my last Olympic opportunity. Dr. Millett was the right doctor for me because he truly gets what us athletes feel—that is to get us healthy and back as quickly as possible. I put a great deal of my confidence in him and he never let me down,” said Casey.

As with all athlete patients, Dr. Millett took the time to explain to Casey exactly what he needed to do in order to make a full comeback from his AC Joint Separation Shoulder Injury.  “Not only is he a great surgeon with outstanding technique, but he has a great relationship with his patients. He was honest with me and gave me the truth about what I could expect in my recovery.  But at the same time, he left it up to me and gave me the choice to do what I needed to do.  Looking back, I probably could have…should have…waited a couple of more weeks before going back to the snow, but with all athletes and competition—there is a drive and a small percentage of stubbornness. Dr. Millett took it all in stride and was there for me no matter what…without judgment and with only one concern—to get me healthy.”

Casey Puckett is now fully healed on the left shoulder that had caused him so much grief earlier this year.  Now that he is in the process of “officially” retiring an Olympic Alpine skier and Olympic US Ski Cross racer, he is upbeat and excited about what lies in his future.  He is looking at the opportunities that are coming his way and says, “Skiing has been my whole life.  I have a lot of expertise and a lot to share and offer current skiers. I’m fortunate to have Dr. Millett and The Steadman Clinic on my side as I enter this new chapter in my life for I’m sure this new chapter will involve a pair of skis.”

While clinical studies support the effectiveness of these procedures, individual results may vary. There are no guarantees of outcome. All surgeries involve the risk of major complications. Before you decide on surgery, discuss treatment options with your doctor. Understanding the risks of each treatment can help you make the best decision for your individual situation.  Always ask your doctor about all treatment options, as well as their risks and benefits. Only your doctor can determine the appropriate treatment for your situation. The clinical information and opinions, including any inaccuracies expressed in this material by patients or doctor are not necessarily those of Peter Millett, MD and should not be considered as substitute for medical advice provided by your doctor.