Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen skate in the singular, which is to say, they skate as one.
Nothing about this was clearer than last season when they performed to the percussive freestyle Polish guitarist Marcin Patrzalek (one of my favourites) for the free dance, full of power and intricacies and exquisite moments, a picture in every move.
But now, they are sadly detached, Fournier Beaudry alone in the rink training their routines, and Sorensen contemplating the best way forward, currently poised with crutches in hand. While twizzles lay dormant, Sorensen has become quite adept at using these gleaming crutches. A new skill. Not one he expected to learn.
Fournier Beaudry and Sorensen had no choice but to miss the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships last week in Mississauga, although they attended and watched wistfully. Sorensen’s knee injury has put the rest of their season in doubt, although there is always hope. Skate Canada has left a spot open for them on the world team, should Sorensen be recovered in time for the world championships in Montreal in March.
It’s all a pity. The quality team is one of the few this year to attain a level 4 of difficult in the compulsory Finnstep in the rhythm dance. They did it early and they did it twice: at Skate America and at Cup of China. The only other team to consistently get level 4s this season in the Finnstep are Italians Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri (Internationaux de France, at NHK Trophy and at the European championships this week.) Reigning world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron did it at NHK and at the European championships, but not at home in France or at the Grand Prix Final. Only four other teams managed a level four in this exacting Quickstep. Sorensen did it all on a painful knee.
Sorensen noticed his right knee was a bit off at the end of last May. He’d already had surgery on that right knee 10 years ago: on the meniscus. Nothing special about that, he said. Lots of folk have had it done during their careers. But when the knee began to bug him last May, he sought the advice of a doctor. An MRI didn’t show a tear, although it did show the beginning of osteoarthritis. A cortisone injection in late June helped. He started feeling better.
Stop one on their international tour: Nebelhorn Trophy, an event they won with 201.00 points. Underlying this victory was some on-and-off rumblings of pain during the week leading up to the event.
They earned a bronze medal at their first Grand Prix event, Skate America in Las Vegas, but the pain had become increasingly worse.
Returning to Montreal, they skated for two days. And on day three, Sorensen finally announced that he just couldn’t skate. “We were in a lesson and he told our coach: ‘My knee is really feeling bad,’ and we said: “Can you skate,’ and he said: ‘ Well I can finish this session but after this session I am not going back on,’” said Fournier Beaudry.
Sorensen took four or five days off, with the idea that it would be impossible to do Cup of China. “We had pretty much pulled out of Cup of China,” said Sorensen. “I called Mike [Slipchuk, high performance director for Skate Canada], and I said: ‘I am not in a good place right now.’”
They were to have left for China early on a Monday, but on Saturday, Sorensen, who was dog sitting pooches owned by clubmates Madison Chock and Evan Bates, took the bowwows for a walk. As he walked, he noticed that his knee felt different. Better.
He called Slipchuk and told him to put a hold on the pullout, because he was going to try to skate on the Sunday.
He and his partner were trying to pull a miracle. But when Sorensen got on the ice, he felt the same pain within five minutes. He told Romain Haguenauer that he couldn’t do it.
“Skate for another 15 minutes,” the coach said. “Then we’ll try. Warm it up properly. Don’t make a conclusion in five minutes.”
They did both programs, even though Sorensen still felt pain. But they skated well. “We hadn’t skated for the week,” Sorensen said. “Patrice [Lauzon] said: “Yeah, it looks good.”
They hadn’t even packed. It was 7 p.m. Sunday.
Sorensen called Slipchuk, who was about to write a note detailing the pullout. “It looks like we’re going,” Sorensen told him.
Slipchuk had also just spoken to the team doctor, who was going to write a medical note.
“No, hold on,” Sorensen told him. “We’re going.”
They finished third at Cup of China. “We did pretty good,” Sorensen said. “It was a matter of performance. We hadn’t really worked on the stuff we wanted to improve from Las Vegas. We just got out there and sort of did a repeat of the program we had done. We knew we wanted to change some stuff and we never had the time.
“Sometimes you do what you’ve got to do. It’s not something I would do again, I think, because it was very painful.” He had intramuscular shots of allowed pain killers every day between practice and competition.
“It was just not a great situation and stressful,” he said.
“You just had to rely on what we’ve done for many years and the body knows what to do,” Fournier Beaudry said. “We’ve been doing these programs since June. So then you’ve just got to trust your training. And that’s what we did. And we had great results.”
But as soon as they returned home, Sorensen got checked out by a doctor. This time, he had a complete MRI done, with contrast ink, because the pain had also changed. “It was not the same pain from June,” he said.
Doctors found two chondral defects in the cartilage in his thigh bone (femur), one of them large (10 x 18 mm) and a smaller one of 8 x 8 mm. “Pretty substantial holes on the end of the femur,” Sorensen said.
Knee bones are capped with cartilage, important for shock absorption and the general function of one’s knees. A chondral defect refers to damage to the articular cartilage that lines the ends of bones. Chondral defects can be caused by wear and tear. Or by the constant pivoting and twisting of the knee.
The defect or hole on the side of femur was rolling on top of the meniscus, And the meniscus would get caught in the hole. This caused a lot of degeneration in the meniscus.
The crux of the matter was in what to do to solve Sorensen’s problems? And how it would affect their sport? “What do you want me to do?” the doctor asked.
There were two options. One: the surgeon could fix Sorensen’s meniscus only, without touching the defect. And Sorensen would be fine to go on the ice within a month. (The doctor didn’t know until he operated just what was actually going on with the injury: the MRI doesn’t show everything, Sorensen said.)
“You will be in pain, but you can do whatever you want,” he said. That way, Sorensen could absolutely make it to the world championships in March.
The other option was far more involved, the different between putting your finger in the dyke and reconstructing it. The doctor believed the pain was caused not so much by the meniscus as by the chondral defects. The doctor told him he believed that the chondral defect needed to be fixed so that the pain would be gone.
The risk of doing the meniscus only was that if he felt the same pain anyway, he wouldn’t be going to worlds. There would be a second surgery necessary – with double trauma and double rehab on the same knee, within a couple of months.
The doctor didn’t give him his favored option until he asked: and that was to repair the chondral defect, then he’d clean up the meniscus; he believed the pain was really caused not so much by the meniscus as by the defects. “And then I wasn’t you not to think about worlds this year because it takes long [to heal],” he told Sorensen.
“And I want you to be serious about it [the rehab],” he continued. If he did such an involved surgery – taking bone plugs with healthy cartilage from a non-weight-bearing part of the femur and implanting them into the defect – he did not want the plugs to be dislodged.
“I don’t do it to people that I know aren’t going to be serious about what the rehab process is,” the surgeon said. Skate Canada’s team doctor said the same: the defect must be fixed; long-term goals are more important. “It’s not about this year,” she said. “Yes, it sucks, but you need to take care of your knee.”
The silver lining that shall not be spoken but we cannot help ourselves here: Sorensen’s osteopath, working closely with his doctor, in favour of the defect repair, said there still might be a chance they could make it to the world championships. But Sorensen must leave the idea out of his mind, so that he won’t be tempted to push too hard to be ready. The end result would be that he would come out of all this stronger for next season.
Sorensen opted for the defect repair. “I’m too old to mess around with stuff,” Sorensen said. “I’m pretty good at following instructions. That’s what I’m good at.”
That meant he could not bear any weight at all on his right leg for three weeks, starting on December 16.
Up until the Monday before the national championships, Sorensen could not put weight on the leg. Now he’s in phase two of recovery: putting about 30 per cent of weight on the leg.
“It’s going really well,” Sorensen said. “The doctor looked at my knee, and there is almost no pain.” He avoided taking pain killers.
He’s also been using a borrowed icing machine (it cost $5,000 new, not in their budget) that compresses with air like a NormaTec machine. He used it every other hour for 20 minutes, religiously for the first two weeks. “That helped tremendously to keep inflammation down and create some blood flow,” Sorensen said.
By last week, Sorensen could flex his right leg rather well with no pain. “I think I’m ready to walk,” he said, the heart beating. “I’m not allowed to yet.”
He doesn’t get rid of the crutches until phase three – walking – on Jan. 28, that is if the doctor deems that he is ready for this step. It doesn’t mean he will be doing one-legged squats and returning to the ice, doing everything he could before. “You just have to follow the protocol of rehab, one day at a time,” he said. “Don’t overdo it. Don’t push it until you have pain. Stop before you get the pain so it doesn’t get worse.”
The idea is to be smart about it.
“We are really going from day to day and seeing how his knee is doing,” Fournier Beaudry said. “He’s really religious about how to rehab in a good way. And then we’ll see from there.”
Meanwhile, Fournier Beaudry has been training as much as before. She does a lot of off-ice work. She’s been training the programs – the intriguing Bonnie and Clyde rhythm dance, the beautiful free dance to “Summertime” – doing the run-throughs by herself (not so much the lifts, obviously).
“I’m trying my best if in order we do worlds,” she said. “If we have to let worlds go and move onto the next season…at least we won’t have lost this opportunity to grow.“
Both of them do off-ice dance classes with the magical Sam Chouinard, who works with many skaters at the Marie-France Dubreuil/Patrice Lauzon school in Montreal. Sorensen sits on a chair. Fournier Beaudry stands up. Chouinard is standing up. He shows choreography.
And they working on some aspects of the sport that they didn’t have time to do before. Sorensen is working on his flexibility and nutrition.
In the first three weeks of his recovery, he had time to reflect “on how I wanted to proceed in the sport and what I wanted to improve,” he said. “I wanted to be the most responsible and professional about my career as possible.” A man of action forced into a state of thought.
Sorensen thinks it has all been tougher on his partner. “You realize that figure skating is not only just on the ice,” she said. “You realize how much there is many things around that you take care of, that sometimes you just neglect.”
The hardest thing about this injury, she said, is not to be surrounded and teamed up with Sorensen. “We are usually 24/7 all the time,” she said.
She remembers being on the ice one day by herself, and missed Sorensen so much she called him.
“She was almost crying on the phone, saying: ‘All the other people are training. I’m here alone,’” he said.
She told him she was proud of him.
The first couple of weeks of his recovery, Sorensen didn’t go to the rink much. Besides, it was snowy and icy, and he was on crutches. When Fournier Beaudry almost fell down the stairs early one morning of a dance class, she informed Sorensen he wasn’t going anywhere. He stayed home.
All of this rigamarole has been a passport to a broader understanding for a team too often thwarted.
Sorensen realizes how much one depends on having two legs, that living with one leg is feeling like a plant pulled up by its roots. Still, putting things in perspective, he realizes that he had a surgery that wasn’t the biggest you could have, like one to repair an ACL tear, which can take you out for six to nine months.
“It’s only superficial,” Fournier Beaudry says hopefully. “Yes, we put all our energy into training and it’s our passion and our job and it’s what we do every day, but at the same time, nobody is sick. We still got each other.”
For now, it’s a waiting game for them.