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2008 Olympics Countdown: ‘Anatomy project’ Tollefson running toward Beijing

By Jay Weiner | Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008
Carrie Tollefson, perhaps the state’s greatest female track athlete, ran herself ragged in pursuit of the ’04 Athens games.

Carrie Tollefson
Photo by Victah Sailer
In 2006, Carrie Tollefson competed in the USA 4K Cross Country Championship.
Beijing Olympics

It is the spring of 2007, and Carrie Tollefson, perhaps, the greatest female track athlete in the history of Minnesota, is in pain. It is as if a fist is lodged behind her belly button and it’s slowly pounding towards her spine.

Her feet hurt. Her hips hurt. Her knees hurt. Going to the bathroom hurts.

She’d been to one Olympics, in Athens in 2004, didn’t do as well in the 1,500 meters as she would have liked, so she focused like a laser beam on the much-anticipated Beijing Games in 2008.

She’d turned 30, her high school exploits at tiny Dawson-Boyd, in southwestern Minnesota, a distant memory. She’d become a full-fledged runner, on and off the track.

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She was named among the best-looking women athletes in the world by Sports Illustrated’s website.

A Christian with a modest personality, she was still flattered by the designation because the sports site pictured her competing, while so many of the other jock beauties were dolled up. “I’m sweaty,” she said. “It looks like I have spit on my face. I like it.”

She signed a new deal with Adidas to help pay her bills. Her TV career as a commentator and advertising spokesperson was blossoming.

But it was April 2007, with the Beijing Olympics just 16 months away, and the pain that dogged her leading up to and during the Athens Games, had returned, worse than ever, deeper in her gut.

She couldn’t recover from workouts. She was forced to take off days in a regimen that demands 90 miles of running per week, plus other strength exercises, massage, physical therapy and mental preparation.

She stood at the precipice of saying, “Enough,” to a lifestyle, to a passion, to a resume′ of state high school titles, NCAA championships and U.S. national crowns. Of saying goodbye to her identity.

But when a machine breaks, a machine gets fixed. When an athlete’s stomach muscles have partially ripped from her pelvis, when the muscles that run down the insides of her thighs are so tight they, too, are yanking at her pelvis … something’s got to give.

The MRIs were clear. Tollefson’s midsection was a mess. But it wasn’t time to call it quits. Not yet.

Philadelphia surgeon to the rescue
While Dr. William Meyers made his mark first as a liver surgeon, in recent years he’s become the repairman of choice for America’s top athletes. He puts their rectus abdominis and psoas muscles back in place. He keeps their pelvic joints and their trio of adductors connected and in place.

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It’s a dirty job — filled with scar tissue and fluid — but somebody’s got to do it.

Meyers, chairman of surgery at Drexel University’s College of Medicine, is a major-league fixer. NFL players like Donovan McNabb. Rodeo bull riders. Baseball stars like Nomar Garciaparra. Pro wrestlers. They come to him because Meyers helped develop the surgery that sounds more like what’s performed at your local service station.

“Pelvic floor repairs with adductor releases” is the technical term.

Do not call what Tollefson had a “sports hernia.” Meyers will get mad at you. He will wave a medical journal article that he’s written in your face. Over a latte near his office in downtown Philadelphia last month, he preferred to call her condition “athletic pubalgia.”

“It’s not a very catchy term, I know,” he said.

But it’s what Tollefson and other athletes suffer from because of years of pounding and wear-and-tear. It’s pain that emanates from the pubic bones and joints, and it’s an instability that causes other muscles to compensate and then … . an athlete simply can’t perform to her abilities.

With Tollefson’s permission, Meyers explained what he saw, laparoscopically, when he operated on her. He saw inflamed bones, “osteitis.”

He saw that some of her stomach muscles — her abs — were partially detached from the tissue attached to her pelvis.

“She had a severe injury,” he said. “In terms of women runners, it was as severe or as close to severe as you can get.”

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Meanwhile, the adductor muscles that run down the insides of her thighs were coated with scar tissue, a locked-tight sheath serving to compartmentalize the muscles, restrict them.

“All I did,” Meyers said, as matter-of-factly as a man who’s performed about 6,000 of these surgeries over 20 years, was “tighten her rectus abdominis attachments. With a few stitches, that’s all … I made the muscle more mobile to create the attachment to the tissue on the pelvic bone.”

That was Step One.

Step Two: He delicately sculpted openings into the sheath around her adductors to allow the muscles to breathe.

“Tiny little cuts,” he said. “There are some [blood] vessels in there you have to miss.”

It took about 45 minutes.

The next day, April 12, 2007, Tollefson walked a mile.

Carrie Tollefson (R) edges out Jennifer Toomey (L)
REUTERS/Gary Hershorn
Carrie Tollefson, right, edges out Jennifer Toomey at the finish line to win the women’s 1,500-meter race at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team trials in track and field in Sacramento.

Pain in Athens
The last time Tollefson jogged into our sporting consciousness was in July and August of 2004. She planned to make the U.S. team in the 5,000 meters. But, hurt, she ran an awful race at that distance at the Olympic trials in Sacramento. No ticket to Athens.

But six days later, in 96-degree heat, she ran what could only be called the race of her life, practically sprinting for 1,500 meters, leading the nation’s best middle-distance women from start to finish, and winning the U.S. Olympic trials race.

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Made the team to Greece, right? Wrong.

The rules required her to not just win the U.S. race, but to achieve a certain qualifying time. She hadn’t done it. And, if some other woman who finished that trials race got to the required time and Tollefson didn’t, then the other runner, even someone who lost to her at the trials, would get the U.S. spot at the Olympics.

She jetted off to Europe in search of races, in pursuit of a time. She ran five 1,500-meter races in 12 days. She got the time she needed in Zurich. But when Tollefson arrived in Greece, she was a mess. Her midsection was killing her. She was mentally and physically exhausted.

She made it to the Olympic semifinals. She finished 10th. She smiled through her pain and disappointment.

Returning home, it was discovered she had a stress fracture in her pubic bone. Also, she had two hernias that needed repairing. She underwent that surgery.

Perhaps too soon, she got back to competing. She won an indoor national title in 2006 and ran at world championships in Moscow. Won a U.S. cross country championship and ran in Japan at the worlds.

But, the pain returned, worse than before. Thoughts of quitting raced through her mind. Until she was told about the Meyers surgery.

“Some days,” Tollefson said, sitting in the compact Highland Park home in St. Paul she shares with husband/architect Charlie Peterson, “I feel like one big anatomy project.”

Running towards her goal
“If she wanted to have another shot at an Olympic team, she needed to get that surgery done,” said Dennis Barker, coach of Team USA Minnesota, the unique elite running squad in the Twin Cities.

“She’s a runner. She’s the product, and she had to take care of the product … This is probably the best I’ve seen her in years, in terms of form and without favoring anything.”

Her body is one thing. But, for the first time in almost four years, she owns peace of mind.

Carrie Tollefson
Photo by Victah Sailer
In 2006, Carrie Tollefson competed in the New York City Fifth Avenue Mile.

“It’s so weird when you’re the athlete and you’re the one dealing with the pain,” Tollefson said. “It was such a private injury in a private area. I didn’t want to tell everyone. Now, I feel like a free bird.”

She’s back training. That started in September. Earlier this week, she left for Arizona with Team USA Minnesota teammate and 10,000-meter Olympic candidate Katie McGregor.

Tollefson hopes to begin racing again in late spring. She needs to get those darn qualifying times. She’ll probably focus on the 1,500, and not try to double with the 5,000-meters again. The U.S. Olympic trials are in July. The Beijing Games begin seven months from today.

“I want to get back to the Olympics and have an experience where I really don’t have any injuries in the back of my mind,” she said, speaking excitedly. “Athens I loved it, even though I was in pain. I was almost taking it in as if I were a spectator. I was looking at these athletes forgetting I was one of them. Now, it’s time to go back and dig deep and see what I’m made up.”

Jay Weiner, who has covered every Winter and Summer Olympics since 1984, will report from Beijing next summer for MinnPost.