Story transcripts

The pain and the glory

Sunday, March 5, 2006
Reporter: Tara Brown
Producer: Stephen Taylor

The guts, the glory and oh, the pain. In just over a week, we'll be at it again. Cheering on our champions as they go for gold at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. And the winners? Well, we'll worship them as gods and pay them like movie stars. But we'll surely expect our pound of flesh in return.

Our sporting heroes have to be the strongest, the fastest — the best. Whatever it takes. To hell with the consequences.

On Sunday night, some outstanding triumphs and the crippling consequences of being number one. But is the gain worth all that pain? You bet your life it is.


TARA BROWN: It's their high, the adrenaline that comes from pushing themselves to the edge for that perfect performance. And it's beautiful to watch.

But with the pleasure, comes the pain. These are the broken bits of some of our most talented sports stars — snapped tendons, shattered bones and arthritic knees.

LIZ ELLIS: This scar here is where the drill went in to drill the new bit of tendon into the knee.

TARA BROWN: Careers over, these elite athletes are now left with the premature aches of old age. What age would you say your body is?

KIRSTIE MARSHALL: My knees? Probably about 60.

TARA BROWN: At 36, former world champ, Kirstie Marshall, now wears a knee brace, even for a short walk, and this is why...

COMMENTATOR: Well this is the moment we've been waiting for, Kirstie Marshall.

TARA BROWN: …15 years of aerial skiing. Graceful when it goes right...

COMMENTATOR: Nicely landed, beautiful jump.

TARA BROWN: …awful when it goes wrong.


TARA BROWN: So how many operations have you had?

KIRSTIE MARSHALL: On my knees — 13. I've had three on the left, and 10 on the right.

GARY BUCKENARA: In the '83 Grand Final, that tendon actually snapped in my knee, which was a weird feeling because I felt my kneecap halfway up my thigh, so it wasn't a very good experience.

TARA BROWN: For Gary Buckenara, injury was just part of the journey to greatness.

TARA BROWN: Talent and pain-killers helped him win four AFL premierships, but it came at a cost.

GARY BUCKENARA: Okay, well, the left leg is the bad one.

TARA BROWN: Eight knee operations, premature arthritis, and soon a complete knee replacement, after doctors gave him routine cortisone injections in his knees, to keep him playing.

GARY BUCKENARA: When they opened me up, my tendons were all mushy, and really like a piece of jelly.

TARA BROWN: And that was because of the cortisone?


TARA BROWN: For us spectators, the spills are part of the thrills — something to cheer from the safety of the stands. For our sporting heroes, their bodies are all too human. What makes them different is their drive, their desire to keep coming back for more, despite the injuries, and despite the risks. Take, for instance, motor cycling great Mick Doohan.

MICK DOOHAN: My right leg I broke twice in two different accidents. I've broken my left foot, I've done the ligaments in both knees. I've broken a scaphoid on my left hand, the humerus and the radius of my left arm. The AC joints on both shoulders, under the shoulderblade on my, I think, right or left, I can't remember. I think when I was a kid, I fractured my right wrist as well when I was about nine years old, trying to show off on a mini bike.

TARA BROWN: But it was showing off on big bikes that won Mike Doohan five World Championships.

TARA BROWN: He now lives with the permanent injuries of those heady days, but back then he was the king of speed.

MICK DOOHAN: It becomes obsessive. There's nothing else that exists except for that sport that you are into at that time. You know, you live, breathe and do motor racing.

TARA BROWN: It was almost over before it began. In 1992, in a practice session, Mick crashed and broke his right leg, gangrene set in, and doctors planned to amputate.

MICK DOOHAN: One of the surgeons came along with a sterile tool and started working away at the flesh, and it just kept going, I couldn't feel too much of it, and kept going until they were in and around the bone, and I could see the bone and the tendons and the whole thing and I thought, "This isn't good." This is a graft that we stole from the other...

TARA BROWN: Thanks to some extraordinary medicine, Mick didn't lose his leg...

MICK DOOHAN: This could have looked prettier, we could have actually closed all this up.

TARA BROWN: …nor did he lose his nerve, as crazy as it might seem when you see his scars.

MICK DOOHAN: We realigned the leg and got the length back into it and healed it.

TARA BROWN: This torture tool helped make Mick a champion. It got him back on the bike in half the time that doctors predicted.

MICK DOOHAN: You know, it did its job well. I thought I'd never see another one, but I did, unfortunately, get to experience a couple after this.

TARA BROWN: It may not be as high octane as motor racing, but the body contact in our football codes is bone-crunching. When it comes to skill, tenacity and the number of injuries, there's few to rival rugby league's Andrew Johns.

COMMENTATOR: Andrew Johns put his body on the line and I think he got a hip or an elbow in his jaw...

TARA BROWN: A broken back, a broken shoulder, broken jaw, played with broken ribs and a punctured lung. He's had groin operations, ankle reconstructions, a dangerous neck injury, and a knee injury so bad he had nightmares. What were the nightmares about?

ANDREW JOHNS: Just the pain I went through, the snapping noise, it just... Yeah, when I'd go to sleep it'd come back all the time. It really shook me up.

TARA BROWN: What drives an elite athlete, what's going through their minds?

DR PETER LARKINS: There's this innate thing which you don't medically quantify, and it's hunger for success.

TARA BROWN: Former Olympian, and now sports surgeon, Dr Peter Larkins, has seen the inside of many an athlete's knee, and the struggle to recover at any costs.

DR PETER LARKINS: We can get people back playing, but the injury will still give them trouble later in life, and athletes will still choose to go back.


DR PETER LARKINS: At the end of the day it probably comes down to an emotional ego, challenging themselves. I mean, they want to find out what they are capable of doing. It's the old, "I don't want to die wondering" concept.

TARA BROWN: Despite her fair share of spills, Australian netball captain, Liz Ellis, has had a fairly injury-free career until this, late last year.

COMMENTATOR: Oh, bother, we are in bother. A player's gone down. It's Liz Ellis.

TARA BROWN: And this is as bad as it gets for netballers — torn ligaments needing an immediate full knee reconstruction.

LIZ ELLIS: I just remember falling to the ground and swearing profusely and screaming and just thinking, "That's the Commonwealth Games, that's my career", but more than anything else, it just really hurts, it's just a huge amount of pain.

TARA BROWN: In the days following her injury, even as she was preparing for surgery, the one thing Liz Ellis wasn't thinking about was quitting.

LIZ ELLIS: I love playing netball so much that no matter what the risk of injury, it's worth it. It's a great game to play.

TARA BROWN: I just wonder if we come and see you when you're in your 50s, 60s, 70s, and you can't walk any more without pain, whether it's still worth it?

LIZ ELLIS: I think it's worth it, and I've got enough faith in science that I'll have a few knee replacements by then and I'll be fine. I'll just be the bionic girl.

DR JUSTIN ROE: Everything went well, as expected, and we just have to wait and see now.

TARA BROWN: Only 12 hours later, Liz hobbles into rehab. She's been told it will take six to eight months for her knee to recover.

LIZ ELLIS: If anyone can be a medical marvel, I've decided it might be me.

TARA BROWN: But she's determined to be fit for the Commonwealth Games, at this stage just three months away.

DR PETER LARKINS: I understand the motivation, I understand the obsession. I understand you want to be there as long as you can at that top level, because it doesn't last.

GARY BUCKENARA: Now, that's about the limit and that's about 35 metres, I suppose, so yeah, it's a bit sad, really.

TARA BROWN: Now the recruitment manager for his beloved Hawthorn Hawks, 47-year-old Gary Buckenara says his passion for the game and the crowd's adulation, kept him coming back until his body couldn't take any more.

GARY BUCKENARA: It's such an exciting thing to run out on grand final day in front of 100,000 people, and try and strut your stuff.

TARA BROWN: Even if it means after the game finishes, that strutting your stuff is going to be very painful.

GARY BUCKENARA: Yeah, while I'm in pain at the moment, and paying the price, I suppose, it's something that I've thought about and something that I'd do again, yeah. T

ARA BROWN: These days, do you still feel like superwoman?

KIRSTIE MARSHALL: No, not unless she's old and decrepit.

TARA BROWN: For Kirstie Marshall, like any great athlete, the end of a career signals the painful realisation they've been beaten — no matter the willpower, the body won't bounce back. Did anybody say to you, "Don't be so short-sighted, think about life after sport"?

KIRSTIE MARSHALL: No. The only time I ever heard that from a surgeon was after my 13th operation. And that's when he said, "If you make it back from this it will be a miracle. If you can walk without pain, it would also be a miracle."

TARA BROWN: And what did you do?

KIRSTIE MARSHALL: I didn't try and come back. I knew.

TARA BROWN: Today, Kirstie is a politician in the Victorian Parliament, and while every step forward hurts, it's also a reminder of her fabulous past.

KIRSTIE MARSHALL: I look back and I don't have any regrets. So I might have pain now, but who's to say that I could have been hit by a bus or in a car accident and living with pain for that reason. At least I did these amazing things.

MICK DOOHAN: I would have preferred to have parked the motorcycle in the pit lane or in the garage than leave in an ambulance, but, again, that's the way it happened. And, in actual fact, it's probably an easier way to be forced into retirement than to have to make the decision.

TARA BROWN: It was a brutal 250km/h end to a stellar career. That right leg busted just one too many times.

MICK DOOHAN: The first I knew I was off the bike, I was upside down looking back down at the bike. And, you know, it was, "Oh shit, this isn't good".

TARA BROWN: Seven years on, Mick Doohan is still a boy with plenty of toys. He still rides a motorbike, but it's to tow his helicopter out of the shed. Beyond bung legs, life is good. But for all the glory and for all the prize money, Mick's love of racing came down to something more personal. So what is the addiction, what is it that's giving you the high?

MICK DOOHAN: Just pushing everything to the edge and getting away with it.

TARA BROWN: Liz Ellis has given everything to be fit to compete at the Commonwealth Games. But it's not enough. As remarkable as her recovery is, there are no miracles. Time has run out.

LIZ ELLIS: For a netballer, it's the biggest thing that we get to do and when it's taken away from you, it is gut-wrenching.

TARA BROWN: It's going to be pretty hard to watch it.

LIZ ELLIS: I don't know that I will. If the girls win, I think I'll be inconsolable. And if the girls lose, I'll be inconsolable. So there's no two ways about it, it's going to be a really tough time

TARA BROWN: Andrew Johns knows too well the pull of competition.

ANDREW JOHNS: I had a lot of complications with the last operation...

TARA BROWN: He can't walk away without trying for at least another premiership. But being able to walk is his priority. That knee injury still haunts him.

ANDREW JOHNS: If it meant another serious operation of a knee, I'd pull the pin because I don't want to have a knee replacement at 40 and be in a walking stick at 45. You know, what's the quality of life with that?

TARA BROWN: You'd imagine, with time, elite athletes might reflect on the deal they've made — short-term glory for potentially a lifetime of pain. But, no, they tell me all the physical sacrifice was worth it and every one of them would do it again.

ANDREW JOHNS: If someone were to come to me at 18 and said, "These are the injuries you are going to have", I wouldn't have thought twice about it, I would have said, "Yeah, no problem."

TARA BROWN: So it's all worth it — the surgery, the pain, the training?

LIZ ELLIS: The scars — yeah, absolutely.

TARA BROWN: It is just sport.

LIZ ELLIS: How can you say that, Tara? Out!

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