It began in mid-January with a simple taunt on Strava, the social network for cyclists/runners. Marcin hadn’t been training on his bike and his lack of posts reflected that. He shared that he had actually not been on the court since Nationals in early November and the US Open was just 3 months away. His knee pain had been increasing, and his doctor had recommended total replacement… my limited experience with knee replacement (my mother had a double) left me thinking that this might be the end of his professionally competitive days. Needless to say, I was fearful of sports like pickleball and tennis after knee surgery.
During his event at The Lakes Country Club Palm Desert, when tentatively asked about his outlook for the upcoming surgery, his response was a surprising ‘I can’t wait!’ OK, a follow-up – ‘Would you be interested in sharing the experience with a large community that may eventually have to consider this in the future?’ ‘Absolutely!” There are over 600,000 knee replacements each year, and there is rarely a pickleball session where you won’t hear about issues with joint pain that unfortunately follow us though life as a result of previous injuries, or resurface due to excessive play. One thing is certain – less pain and more mobility equals higher quality play and life in general.
You could call Marcin high mileage; he’s been on a tennis court since 6 years of age with well documented success – Poland National Champion and Davis Cup team, pro tennis circuit, and more recently, earning precious metal in pickleball from 2015 through early 2018 including US Open, USAPA Pickleball Nationals, and Tournament of Champions gold. All of this highly stressful training and competition has taken its toll – in addition to the right knee, he suffers from other issues, possibly related to his body’s compensation of the extremely weakened knee, including lower back pain at L4/L5, his right hip, and issues with meniscus in his left knee. His response to my January prompt- ‘my body’s so broken I can’t even ride anymore…’
Competing up until just 3 days before his scheduled surgery, Marcin dug in for 4 events at the Minto US Open Pickleball Championships, teaming up with Aspen Kern in MD25+ (bronze), Christine McGrath in MXD30+ (GOLD!) and MXDPro (4th), and with Dave Weinbach in MDPro (silver!). ‘I had great partners and matches during the Open; I felt pretty good about making it to two finals, all things considered….’
‘I had been playing tennis my entire life, but the pain became too much about 5 years ago, and I stopped playing shortly after that. So I started playing pickleball, about 3 years ago, because it was less physical than tennis. There is not the repetitive ‘load & explode’ of tennis but it was still a super competitive environment, and I could compete in singles again.’ Marcin established himself as unbeatable in singles, sweeping this sport’s Grand Slam events up until the Lakes pro event in March, 2017.
No singles since then. He kept at it with doubles, earning gold with Morgan Evans at ToC, ‘I was loving competition again, but as the pain increased, I’ve had to adapt my movements, both when pushing off from the right side, as well as when weight is transferred that direction. I increased my icing sessions to keep the pain and inflammation manageable during events and heavy on-court days at the club. The pain has made sleeping more difficult as well’.
We reviewed images and video from both The Lakes event and the US Open – it became obvious just how much he had been adapting his footwork and movement to compensate for an increasingly strength- and range-of-motion-limited right knee. “I reverted to shorter shuffle steps to reduce the load on the knee when moving around the kitchen; it changed my shot selection and ability to move quickly to seize opportunity’.
Marcin had previously told me about his physician’s choice of a Conformis, Inc device – a custom-made, ‘image to implant’ total knee replacement that uses advanced imaging, manufacturing, and ‘installation’ technology to essentially ‘restore’ a knee back to it’s original form and function. It’s one that Eisenhower Health’s Desert Orthopedic Center have been specifying, and his surgeon had seen success rates greater than with conventional, ‘off-the-shelf’ implants. I set up a meeting with the Conformis team in Boston for the full picture- more on this remarkable company, it’s technology, and just how Marcin’s personal implant and instrumentation (surgical installation tools) were designed in a future chapter.
Marcin’s physical therapist, Noé Sariban (aka The Pickleball Doctor), and the team at Shelley A. Cooper Physical Therapy were on standby for the road ahead. Noé, with an under grad in kinesiology, and a doctorate in physical therapy, “Because this is a replacement, and not a repair with original tissue to protect, I anticipate Marcin will be walking within just a few days’. Noé feels his patient will heal relatively quickly due to his fitness, although the road to competition-level fitness will be challenging due to some muscle atrophy and post-op neuro activity. How will it impact Marcin’s return to competition? “He’s lived with so much pain and limited use, we don’t see patients this young that often; a total knee replacement means he won’t have ACL, PCL or lateral ligaments for stability or the inputs to the brain that he is accustomed to. We’ll see how that impacts his mobility for pro-level competition.” Singles?? “Maybe. The intensity of PT beyond initial recovery will be greater with Marcin’s goal to compete.”
When do you plan to return to competition? “ Daniel Moore and I are teaming up again at ToC, with Christine McGrath: Pickleball and I partnering in MXDPro. It’s always a strong draw there; I’m trying to be realistic – my personal goal is to be competitive, but my team goal is to medal!”
We can’t wait! Stay tuned for chapter two in Marcin’s return to competition; follow ProPickleball on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.