Surgery is never a word taken lightly, especially by professional athletes. Even if things go exactly as planned in the operating room, function and feel can be altered in a way that leaves a stroke or skill forever changed, and rarely for the better. Tim Landeryou recently caught up with the #6-ranked player on the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour, Ben Croft, who recently went under the knife, to discuss his thoughts and feelings about the end of the 2014-2015 IRT season, and how this surgery will affect him and his game going into the 2015-2016 IRT season.
Hey Ben. First of all thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Why don’t we start by talking about the year so far? You’ve finished the last two seasons at #6 and are on track to finish in a similar position this season, currently ranked #5 (at the time of the interview). How do you feel about your performance this season?
It was a good season for sure; although it certainly didn’t end the way I wanted it to. I didn’t really have a goal of where I wanted to finish the season [in the rankings]; I just wanted to finish. Obviously it’s disappointing because I was having a season where I think I could have finished 4th if I had played the last few tournaments and now I’m in jeopardy of finishing 6th or 7th. I feel lucky to have made it as far as I did through the season though so I’m happy with it.
You competed and played extremely well this year. Now that the current season is over for you, can you tell us a bit about the injury you’ve been dealing with? When did the issues begin and what prompted the decision to have surgery?
I’ve known about this injury since Garden City Turkey Shoot in November of 2013, so it’s been awhile, but I didn’t know what I had done at the time. I just dove and felt that I had done something wrong. After that I missed a few tournaments to try and let it heal on its own. In January 2014, I had an MRI and found out I had a SLAP tear on my labrum. SLAP is an acronym and stands for “Superior Labral tear from Anterior to Posterior”. At that point I had a decision to make. I could try to play through it with cortisone shots, rest, and take it as easy as possible. That’s what I did, but obviously I didn’t take it easy enough I guess. It doesn’t exactly jive with the way I play.
The other route I could have taken was rehab, but in my opinion it was the riskiest of all the decisions. It would have been 4-6 months and you just don’t know if it’ll work. It’s unlikely that it would heal itself, so I just decided to play through it.
What prompted [the decision for surgery] was I had four cortisone shots in my shoulder in a year. They say for a younger person two to three is the maximum they’ll do in a year, so after the fourth one wore off I decided to do [the surgery]. It was a difficult decision but there weren’t really any other options at that point.
Can you give us any details on the procedure? What did the surgery entail?
I don’t actually know a ton about it. I know the SLAP is where your labrum meets your bicep, so there was a tear in there that they went into to repair with an anchor and sutures (stitches for inside your body). But, my MRI was done in January 2014 and the surgery was done in April 2015, so sometime during that period I had caused a PAINT tear in my rotator cuff. I think the most severe of all of the things was that they said, and this is all coming from a sedated, half-anesthetised, half-conscious Ben, some of the bones in my shoulder and arm had shifted from playing racquetball for 18 years and so they shaved one of the bones down in that area so there wouldn’t be bone on bone contact and that surgery is so invasive that no one really does it. This was actually the more severe of the two injuries, and had to be anchored in and sutured as well. So I’ve got anchors and sutures holding my shoulder together right now. It was kind of a crazy thing, I went in thinking it was just a SLAP tear and that ended up being the least serious of the problems in there.
Why did you choose this part of the season to have it done? What’s the recuperation time? Are you expecting to compete in all the Tier 1 events?
The goal of having surgery in April was that I wanted to be back for the US Open. If I can play tournaments in September, that’d be great. It might be a stretch, but really I’d yield those and play the US Open if I weren’t 100% yet.
The scary part about that whole decision [to have surgery] is that there is no guarantee that you’ll come back. It depends on how hard you work through the rehab, how your body reacts, and some luck. You can work has hard as you can but your body could not come back with the same velocity, range of motion, or strength. I’m not going to be the same player I was.
I’m competing against the top players in the world, and if I’m hitting the ball 20 miles an hour less, it’s not good enough. So there’s no timeline to getting back to 100 percent because there’s no guarantee I will be, which is kind of a scary thought, but I don’t think that’s happening in my case. The surgery went well, I’m going to rehab, andI’m still relatively young. They gave a six to nine month window where, if it’s going to be 100 percent, that’s probably when it’ll happen.
How will this affect your ability to compete next season?
It’s so hard to tell. I don’t really have goal past my next PT (physiotherapy) visit. I’ll take it day-by-day, week-by-week and see where I’m at.
Shoulder injuries are not uncommon in this sport. Did you consult with any [former] athletes/coaches about their experiences with this type of injury? Were any of these individuals particularly helpful or conversations particularly meaningful to you?I didn’t talk to too many people. Obviously Mitch Williams, who’s one of my best friends and had a similar surgery. I was either going to be able to do things like pick up my kid and wash my hair, or have the surgery. I’m keeping positive the whole way. I’m probably going to have better range of motion than I did before, and I’ll probably be able to hit the ball just as hard if not harder than I always have. I don’t need to talk to anybody else about the experience they had because mine will be different.
Are there any goals left on the table for you in the racquetball world? How does surgery fit in with accomplishing those goals?
It’s definitely rekindled a fire I had for the game. I certainly appreciate being able to play more. And not only do I miss racquetball, but also lifting, holding my kid, everything. The best thing that can come from this is I will want to play racquetball once I’m back to 100 percent even more than I did when I was just starting out playing.
I’m sure your fans will love to hear about that. Is there anything else you’d like to say to your fans or put out there to those people who have been keeping up with your progress?
Yeah I do. I kind of feel bad. A lot of people have asked me about my shoulder, and John (Scott) wanted to interview me on the IRT Network. My goal wasn’t to shut everybody out, but keep it to myself, play through, and be positive. So I kind of tried to keep it as close to me without letting anyone know how bad it was.
I didn’t want to make excuses. I can’t stand excuses. When I was 17 at the US Open, one of the guys who played hurt his ankle on the court. You could see him favouring it a little, but he didn’t say a word. The next day he was on crutches. I couldn’t believe he’d broken his ankle. He lost the match and walked off the court straight to the emergency room, and didn’t say anything, or make excuses. I respected that so much, that now I hate when people use excuses. In my own head, I didn’t want to be able to justify losses.
One other thing: I just want people to know that I appreciate everyone who have asked about it. I might have brushed them off and said it’s all good, but I appreciate their concern. I’ve received a lot of messages, texts, and calls wishing me well. I don’t even know some of these people, or might have said hi to them one time, but they took time out of their day to hope I come back. I think it’s pretty genuine that they want me to come back and play racquetball again. It’s cool to know that,
Thanks again Ben. I wish you the best of luck with the rehab and recovery process.
Thanks Tim, appreciate it.
By Tim Landeryou
Photos of Ben Croft from 2014 US OPEN by Restrung Magazine.