When I saw Dan Brown’s number flashing up on my phone on Sunday 7th July, I knew it wasn’t to ask me how my day was going and if I was having a nice weekend. It could only mean one thing, someone had hurt themselves. As I’ve mentioned many times before, injuries are a fact of action sport life and it’s always a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’. No injury is a good injury, but some are a hell of a lot worse than others – this was one of the worst. Browny told me Tay had been choppered off the mountain with a back injury, and as the afternoon unfolded it was clear it was a serious back injury. Tay had fractured his T7. I asked Browny to keep me updated, whilst also staying in touch with team fitness coach Alan Milway. With Tay in a French speaking hospital, me in the UK and people spread all over the place it was a bit of a communications nightmare – but we managed to push through. The language barrier was tough as the surgeons were trying to explain to Browny & Tay what the injury was and what they intended to do about it.
By Wednesday 10th there was a clear plan by the surgeons – Dan relayed to me the intention to fuse some of the vertebrae together – which sent alarm bells off in my head as I was already thinking about Tay’s return to sport. A spinal fusion is something rugby players can and do have, and carry on playing. However given how young Tay is, I didn’t think this was the way to go – however it was then changed to a fixation. This meant they were going to put titanium rods either side of the fracture site. Again, the degree of ‘fixation’ can vary and the intention was to rod the damaged vertebra, the ones immediately above and below. I was really keen to have Tay flown back to UK and taken straight to the back specialist I use, however the insurance would not fly Tay out of France without the operation. This is entirely understandable as the bones can and do displace in flight. Some companies are prepared to have the patient as immobilised as possible and fly them, whilst others insist the surgery is carried out. I reminded everyone involved that the hospital that Tay was being treated in Grenoble likely dealt with 100′s of surgeries similar with recreational skiers throwing themselves down the mountain in the winter and were probably more than capable.
I began making arrangements for Tay back in the UK in conjunction with Milway – we were speaking to each other on a daily basis. Once he was out of surgery, which was a success, it was a few days recovery before he was flown home in a private plane with a nurse direct to Wales. The insurance company did a fantastic job, working with Browny and the whole process went as smoothly as it could have. Now he was back in the UK, me and Milway could get our hands on him and bring all the resources of the performance network into play.
Having had such a major operation, the short term treatment once back in the UK was to rest to allow some healing. Tay had some rudimentary guidelines from the doctors in France, but essentially it was rest he needed. I also advised his parents to take him to the GP as soon as possible, something I wouldn’t normally do but Tay would need some decent post op care, which meant reporting to the GP to get some NHS resources to swing into action. Unfortunately the GP experience was a massive ‘computer says no’. As helpful as the GP tried to be, due to Tay having the operation in France this meant referring him onto a specialist would take a few weeks before he was able to see anyone about his back. Figuring that the GP route would get bogged down in red tape, I’d already placed some calls and got Tay to the one of the WRU ‘go to’ guys for spinal injuries – Dr Stuart James – as we really needed an urgent expert opinion on exactly what operation Tay had carried out on him and what the next steps were. Big thanks to elite physio Tim Atter for helping out with setting all that up. When Tay’s dad sent me the images and scans – it was fairly shocking, even for me.
I actually had never seen that level of fixation in the spine, and even to me it looked a bit ‘over’ fixated and certainly not the relatively minor fixation described by the doctors before the op. I was also thinking about how young Tay was and any considerations needed with growth. Meeting with the specialist surgeon in Wales, he too felt he wouldn’t have gone with quite so much fixation – but every surgeon is different. Regardless of the operation it’s what happens post op and how that’s managed which is going to have the most positive effect. The thing to do now was come up with a plan, so me and team fitness coach Alan Milway sat down and began working it all out…
With a broad plan worked out between Milway and myself, we got Tay up to Doug for an assessment – explain the broad plan and get some exercises dialled in
Tay and his parents had one obvious question – when can he race again? Milway and myself sat down with Tay and his dad for a frank discussion. Will Tay ride a DH bike again at a World Cup race? Yes he will – however when it comes to timescales we’ve got a load of bridges to cross, some significant bridges that involve a clear plan moving forward each time. Whilst this might seem like avoiding the question, we need to stay focused on what is happening now. As with any athlete it’s not about if they are fit to ride, but fit to crash. Returning an athlete to sport is not just about can they physically do it, but can they crash without causing further damage. It’s important to have a goal in this rehab process, and the long term goal is return to racing – however we’ve got some significant short terms goals to achieve – first one being 4 solid weeks of rehab to see how Tay responds. Milway and I explained to Tay that the next 12 months was an opportunity to get himself into the best shape of his life, addressing any issues he already had – he would at the end of this process be a much better athlete. Of course, you don’t want someone to break their back to end up a better athlete! But this was now time to turn him into a machine. Milway and Jason (Tay’s dad) headed off home whilst myself and Tay went straight to the gym and go through the first of 6 gym sessions he’d be doing over the 3 days.
As soon as we got in the gym it was obvious we’ve got some postural issues to deal with – in the short term this is what we’re working on. We need him to have strong trunk and for everything to be working in line, in the time it takes to do this type of work his back is also healing and when we hit the gym he was already 4 weeks post op. Everything Tay did was under the strictest of supervision, it’s not ‘training’ but movement and control.
We’re trying to get Tay used to controlling and holding himself in a good position – it’s in fact postural training which I’m sure any junior athlete would benefit from. It would be interesting to pull all the junior WC riders together and see how their posture compares to Tay’s. I’m certain hardly any of them would be in a much better place – again an opportunity for Tay to press the ‘reset’ button and come out stronger. The constant supervision is vital, giving an athlete a programme to follow is one thing but when it comes to this type of work someone has to be on hand. What Tay thinks he’s doing and what he’s actually doing can be two different things, as when he thinks he’s ‘stood straight’.
Tay worked hard over the 3 days – but we didn’t push him. In the 3 days he did 6 gyms sessions and two pool sessions. The pool sessions were more mobility, lunges, swimming and kicking. We also did some hot and cold contrasts with a jacuzzi and plunge pool! Every morning was an early start with a walk around the block, not exactly threshold training – but the key is structure, frequency and a plan.
No one is under any illusions on how much work there is to do, and how much effort is going to be needed to get Tay back on a DH bike at a WC race. Tay knows it’s a long road ahead of him, and this is probably one of the biggest challenges he’s ever going to face – just happens to be right at the beginning of his career. He’s a great kid and I’ve no doubt we’ll get him back stronger than ever – but it’s going to be a long hard road. When we get to the other end though, it’s going to be a very different Taylor Vernon getting on that bike….
Darren Roberts is the High Performance Manager at Harris & Ross Perform in Manchester and was Head of High Performance at Red Bull UK working with the likes of the Atherton family, Danny MacAskill, MX enduro star David Knight and many, many others. He’s also worked with premiership rugby and football teams and individuals, and presents conferences on performance management of extreme sports athletes right through to more traditional sports. He’s a man with fingers in lots of pies!