Thursday 17 October 2019

McMullen playing long game after horror injury

Jumping for joy: Adam McMullen is on the road to recovery. Photo: Sportsfile
Jumping for joy: Adam McMullen is on the road to recovery. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

October 2018, and Ireland's best long jumper sets off down a runway on an indoor track at the University of Ulster. It's Adam McMullen's last jump of a humdrum session, but as he plants his right foot to start generating speed, there is a loud crack.

And then his world comes crashing down.

Adam McMullen. Photo: Sportsfile
Adam McMullen. Photo: Sportsfile

"It's like being shot," says McMullen. "You don't know what's going on - where in your body the accident happened. I just knew it was below my knee."

His right leg collapses, and in an instant this 6ft 5in sculpture of a man is reduced to wreckage, hopping hopelessly across the track like a buckled ballerina.

He beckons a physio, who examines his leg and asks if he can get a doctor to schedule an MRI scan that day. Her urgency is the first tell: this is bad.

The dreaded news arrives in his doctor's clinic that afternoon: his Achilles tendon is ruptured. Not torn, strained or inflamed. Ruptured.

As injuries go, this is about as bad as it gets. A dream-dashing, career-ending, life-altering punch to the gut.

Startles

When McMullen shows people the video they usually have the same gag-reflex, and it's easy to see why.

It's the sound that startles most about the three-second clip, the snap-crack-pop of his tendon echoing around the arena, as if someone had slammed a medicine ball off a marble floor.

Four days later, he goes under the knife. As his surgeon explains to him before the procedure, a healthy Achilles should look like a cat's or dog's tail - narrow, compact - but his is like a horse's tail, splaying everywhere in loose strands.

The goal is to weave them back together, to reshape a tendon that could, after several months of rehab, absorb the astonishing loads required at McMullen's level.

And make no mistake, that's a very high level.

The 28-year-old's PB of 7.99m makes him the second-best Irishman in history behind Ciarán McDonagh (8.07m). However, that leap in February last year came and went without much fanfare, its true calibre only registering when equated with other performances via IAAF scoring tables: it's like a 10.20 100m, 3:55 mile or a 2:11 marathon.

If McMullen was equally accomplished in those events he'd be a household name in Irish athletics, but instead he exists in shadows, a select few knowing the true breadth of his ability.

Try marching eight large steps across your front yard to understand how far he can leap in a single bound.

At top speed the Crusaders athlete covers more than 10 metres a second and puts a force eight times his body weight through the Achilles, which is about the width of an index finger.

But when that tendon goes, everything goes - and it often stays gone.

McMullen, however, was adamant this wouldn't be the end. After surgery he spent 10 days in a cast and a further six weeks in a protective boot. By December he was back walking (with a limp), by January he was back doing drills (at walking pace).

In February a colleague of his at Athletics Northern Ireland went on a coach-education course at Altis, a world-class training centre in Phoenix, Arizona, where he got chatting to Dan Pfaff, an American who is one of the world's most renowned coaches.

During his time in Britain ahead of the 2012 Olympics, Pfaff had been a mentor to Jonas Dodoo - a British coach who advised McMullen in 2018 - and so he agreed to help the Irishman, with McMullen flying to Phoenix in March for three weeks of guided rehab.

"His insight was a lot different to anyone I'd worked with before," McMullen says of Pfaff.

During a week-long course that drew coaches from around the world, McMullen was a willing guinea pig with Pfaff dissecting his movement in fine detail.

"He sees things holistically as a whole-body movement," says McMullen.

He learned how the tiniest error in ankle movement was exacerbated further up his body, how specific muscles and tendons were compensating for weaknesses or imbalances elsewhere.

"All the rehab I had been doing was either prescribed or invented by Dan," says McMullen.

"So why not find the guy who invented the drills and make sure you're doing them right?'"

For every claim, Pfaff had empirical evidence to back it up, from his work with a Japanese long jumper in the '80s to a Ukrainian Olympic medallist in 2000 to Greg Rutherford, the Olympic long jump champion in 2012.

In four decades of coaching Pfaff produced nine Olympic medallists in athletics - three more than Ireland ever has - so when someone like him talks, you listen. McMullen soaked up every word.

Since returning to Belfast he has made slow, steady progress, juggling his training and rehab around his work with Athletics Northern Ireland, with whom he coaches a horde of promising sprinters like Lauren Roy.

Right now he can get close to top speed in supportive running shoes, but the journey to sprint flat-out in spikes will take time.

Caution is a constant companion. Just the other day a Romanian rival of his with the same injury texted to say he had re-ruptured his tendon.

"My body might be fully healed, but my mind and brain might not want to put it through those big forces," he admits. "There's that protective mechanism."

In an ideal world, he'd be back jumping in time to retain his Irish title in late July, which would launch him back to the international stage for the following month's European Team Championships. But he won't rush this. The risks are too great.

Stronger

The injury sent him to the bottom mentally over the past six months, but it means he has been rebuilt physically stronger than before.

Because his injury did not occur in the take-off leg, McMullen knows he just has to get his right Achilles strong enough to hold up at top speed, which he reckons will take another eight to 10 weeks.

Once he can sprint, he'll start making the trip to Loughborough to have Dodoo oversee his technique, and McMullen remains in constant contact with Pfaff by phone and email.

For all that it's been the injury from hell, Pfaff is quick to remind McMullen that he has worked with 25 athletes who ruptured their Achilles, and 23 got back to personal-best shape afterwards.

McMullen likes those odds.

Irish Independent

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