With any sport comes the inherent risk of injury. In equestrian sports, which adds another, often unpredictable, living being into the equation, that risk can be particularly high. Fortunately for the thousands of equestrian athletes based in Wellington, the village is home to renowned physical therapy specialists skilled in helping riders quickly rebound from an injury
Show jumping competitor Wesley Newlands found the help she needed to do just that at Athletes Advantage, located off Pierson Road in Wellington. In September 2016, the 29-year-old Canadian was riding in Belgium, simply walking to cool down her horse after a training session, when the horse tripped and fell. As the horse went down, Newlands’ leg became stuck underneath, shattering her ankle.
At a hospital in Belgium, where the staff spoke limited English, making communication difficult, they opted to put Newlands in a cast for 12 weeks rather than perform surgery.
Upon returning home to Canada three weeks later, Newlands’ doctors advised that they would have elected to do surgery at the time of her injury. However, since her leg had already been set in a cast for three weeks, they elected to continue with the recovery plan determined in Belgium.
When Newlands arrived in Wellington in late December with plans to compete at the Winter Equestrian Festival, her ankle had been non-weight-bearing for months. Despite the removal of the cast after 12 weeks, she was still experiencing several problems with her foot.
“My foot was turning purple, and I was having a lot of swelling,” Newlands explained. “I couldn’t really walk.”
That’s where Wellington-based experts Dr. Nicholas Sama and Ed Smith of Athletes Advantage came into play. Sama, an orthopedic and trauma surgeon, X-rayed Newlands’ foot and recommended that she begin working with Smith and Athletes Advantage for physical therapy.
Inside the expansive warehouse space turned state-of-the-art gym and rehab facility, Smith helped Newlands regain strength and stability, as well as the ability to walk normally again, after atrophy of the foot and leg from lack of use.
“With Wesley’s situation, she had an injury that most likely should have been operated on,” said Smith, who founded Athletes Advantage 14 years ago and places a strong clinical focus on post-operative sports medicine rehabilitation. “The result of the downtime — the non-weight-bearing, casting and bracing — was so substantial that she got extremely tight, and she also experienced circulatory deficiencies because she couldn’t use the leg normally.”
Smith, a graduate of the College of Physical Therapy at the University of Florida, said Newlands developed many problems simply from not being able to use her foot.
“She ended up with Dr. Sama, a trauma surgeon here in Wellington who knows the equestrian world very well,” Smith said. “Working with him, we were able to develop at as rapid a pace as possible, but she had been non-weight-bearing for so long that the bones had actually lost density. Early on, we were concerned that the foot was going to fracture as soon as we put weight on it.”
Starting gradually, Newlands visited Athletes Advantage two to three times a week throughout the winter, resulting in returned strength and the ability to use her foot and ankle more normally. By week four of the 12-week Winter Equestrian Festival season, Newlands was back in the competition ring. By the end of March, she was able to ride and compete with all of her mounts, including Wieminka B, Geisha van Orshof, Gin Tonic and Isibel d’O.
“I was able to get back in the saddle pretty fast,” Newlands said. “I had a lot of psychological nerves when I was coming back to competition, and I’m still dealing with the worry that I’m going to hurt my leg again. I protect it a lot, but physically, I’m so much stronger.”
Newlands credits the experts in Wellington for her renewed strength and quick return to the show ring, and she is not alone with her success story. Smith has been practicing outpatient orthopedic and sports physical therapy for more than three decades, and Athletes Advantage has helped countless athletes with similar stories.
“These athletes play a sport, and we have a defined period of time that we’ve got to get them back to performance,” Smith said. “We built this place because I’ve always felt that there was a large gap between a closed-in, medical office and the sport that the athletes are returning to. So, we tried to build a place that would facilitate that transition. When they are done working with us, they are fit to return to practicing their sport.”
In doing so, Smith developed a unique niche. “We have enough space and enough variety at our facility that we can take people from a day after surgery all the way back to being strong enough to return to their sport,” he said.
For Newlands, that has certainly proven to be the case. Thanks to the rehab she underwent, she is spending the summer competing at show jumping events throughout Europe under the tutelage of 2008 Olympic gold medalist and Wellington resident Eric Lamaze.
As she continues to regain full strength and function of her ankle, Newlands’ short-term goal is to earn a place on the Canadian show jumping team and, “to be the best rider that I can be.”