Twin Olympic biathletes and Durango natives Lanny and Tracy Barnes made what might seem to be a radical decision this winter. Smack dab in the middle of the season they stopped racing and had a surgeon make a few scattered but very strategic slices in their legs.
An end to their careers? Hardly. They see this as more of a new beginning.
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Racing is supposed to hurt, but not like this, Lanny Barnes thought during early-season racing on the world biathlon circuit.
?We really didn?t know what was going on,? says Tracy, also a world-class biathlete with aims of competing in the 2014 Olympics. Her lower legs were hurting too.
The legs were aching during races to the point where they couldn?t push off or balance well. In a sport that consists of bursts of cross country skiing interspersed with target shooting, the condition was critical.
?There was just something that was holding us back. We knew we were in good shape,? Tracy says, ?and the skiing should be there.?
The lower legs contain four muscle compartments, separated by membranes, or fascia. If the muscles grow or swell they can put pressure in a compartment, sometimes to the point that it is painful or even damaging to the muscle. When someone is running or cross country skiing, the condition can cut off blood circulation.
?It?s essentially giving the muscle a heart attack,? Lanny says.
Lanny was competing in a World Cup in December, her lower legs nearly useless, when an epiphany came. Her symptoms matched what little she knew about compartment syndrome from a teammate and fellow competitors who?d had surgery for the condition.
?It just popped into my head during a race – maybe we should get tested to see.?
A team doctor concurred. So they returned to Durango, where orthopedic Dr. Richard Lawton met them at the base of Chapman Hill. The test for chronic exertional compartment syndrome: The twins ran up the hill a couple of times, and Lawton stuck their legs with a big needle before and after to see if the compartmental pressure rose significantly. It did.
In contrast to the casual fan?s perception, biathlon does not go away once the Olympics are over. But in truth, the world?s every-four-year showcase is often the beacon that keeps biathletes motivated. So for the twins, the timing was crucial. They could continue to suffer and finish the season, or they could undergo and procedure and start recovering for the 2013-14 season, which, incidentally, includes the Feb. 7-23, 2014, Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
On Feb. 1, they were rolled into surgery in Colorado Springs, Lanny then Tracy. A doctor made vertical incisions in the fascia in several places to relieve the pressure. The operation was outside their health insurance plans, but a doctor who volunteers to work on athletes at the Olympic training center performed the surgery.
They recuperated at the training center, rolling themselves around in wheelchairs for a few days, then returned to Durango, where they both now live again, Tracy with her husband, Gary Colliander, a former U.S. team coach and now a Durango Nordic team coach.
?It was a pretty slow recovery, but it was pretty uneventful, which is good,? Tracy says during an interview nearly 11 weeks after the surgery.
They?re back on their skis, and back in business. Because their training season is just beginning, they haven?t missed anything.
?I think in the long run it was probably a blessing in disguise because we haven?t had a break this long since we started biathlon,? says Lanny, who joined the national team in 1999 with Tracy. ?Sometimes those forced breaks are the best because it allows your body just to recover from the training in general, mentally and physically.?
After spending time living in three other states and traveling the world, the twins feel at home in Durango, where they were born and raised. It?s probably an unlikely place to get your start in biathlon – there?s no training center within hundreds of miles – but they?ve made it work.
?Shooters don?t want you running around at the range, and skiers don?t want you shooting around on the trails,? Tracy notes with irony.
It?s also a struggle financially. Top competitors in Europe, where 20,000 fans or more may crowd a World Cup course, can make hundreds of thousands of dollars. To help their cause, the Barneses wrote a cookbook during their convalescence. Filled with 42 nutritious or refueling recipes, along with family lore and advice, the Twin Biathletes Cookbook is available on their website for $25.
Their focus now is on preparing for two U.S. Olympic team qualifying events, one in August in Vermont and one in Utah in October. Those events will be contested on roller skis. Then they don snow skis for final team qualifers in conjunction with international events. The five-person women?s and men?s teams will be announced just after Christmas.
After both competed at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, only Lanny made it to Vancouver in 2010. Her best result was 23rd in the 15-kilometer individual event – the best showing for a U.S. woman since 1994.
The twins just turned 31 last month, making them the eldest women on the U.S. biathlon team. They see that as an advantage in a sport where experience often provides a crucial advantage. And they feel they?re peaking physically as well.
No U.S. biathlete has ever medaled at the Olympics. Is it possible that the surgeon?s knife will give them the edge they?re looking for?
?I think this surgery is really going to help us to reach our potential. So we?re real excited to see how it goes,? Lanny says. ?Now we?re more hungry than we?ve ever been.?
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.