ZOA LINSEY…REFECTIONS OF A TRUE CHAMPION by Leigh Penman
For Zoa Linsey the year 2010 may not be ending with her being a champion on stage and claiming the Ms Olympia title. However, in my opinion it is ending even more significantly with her emerging from an overwhelming injury stronger, wiser and indeed a champion of life itself. For most of us reading this, the pain of a headache is enough to send us whimpering to the cupboard in search of solace in an Advil bottle. It is beyond the boundaries of our imagination to even begin to understand the pain Zoa endured this past year due to an increasingly serious injury. That she has remained positive throughout is a testament to her strength of will, determination and true warrior spirit.
All that being said, the stage is now set for Zoa to reflect on this past years events starting with the lead up to the Ms Olympia show…..
First of all, can you share with us what you were dealing with physically during your preparation for this year’s Ms Olympia?
“My prep for the Ms. Olympia was going very well all the way until I flew into Las Vegas 2 days before the show. Of course I had the regular issues requiring sports massage and chiro adjustments but nothing out of the ordinary or giving me more concern than normal.
“On a normal basis I deal with lower back/upper glute pain and tightness, muscle spasms and old injuries flaring up so, due to having very low body fat and an extreme workout schedule, I had some increased issues with this area and had to be careful with my training and day-to-day activities. However I did not have any symptoms that I did not just chalk up to muscle tightness and hard-training until the Tuesday before the show.
“As most of you know, I live in Okinawa, Japan which is in total a 36 hour trip (from leaving my house to arriving on location) so this is very hard on the body. In order to deal with the changes that this trip produces, I normally fly into the States 3-4 weeks pre-show and stay with family. This adds an extra dimension of stress to competing as I have to deal with a new gym, grocery store, schedule, travel time, etc. I am also without my normal massage practitioner so that is also a concern for me this close to the show and with keeping my body relaxed and injury free.
“As far as how I was feeling, well this was my fifth show in one and a half years so my body was definitely feeling tired and I will admit I was looking forward to a long off-season of rest and recuperation, both mental and physical. I had some nagging injuries I was looking forward to resting and just in general taking care of the things that often get pushed to the side due to a time-line or a commitment.
“However I was very happy to compete at the Olympia. I had decided that ‘come what may’ I wanted to be part of the experience and although I knew I wouldn’t have time to add extra size, or improve much in terms of extra muscle or improved shape due to my lack of off-season rest time, my goal was to come in with my best condition ever and the pretty shape that I am known for (tiny waist and long muscles). Especially with this talk about what is happening with female bodybuilding and what may happen in the future personally, both my husband and I decided that if I wanted to get on stage, I should just do it and have some fun. It was indeed a dream of mine to compete on that stage and I was thrilled to be there.
“The show was on Friday, I flew into Vegas from Washington on Tuesday night. On the flights from Washington to Las Vegas I started experiencing extreme lower trap/scapula and upper trap tightness and piercing pain. I took a total of 2400 mg of Ibuprofen that day in order to try to relieve some of the muscle inflammation. The ibuprofen did not relieve any pain; in fact I felt no relief in any way, despite adding even a mild muscle relaxant to the mix. Of course my concern started to be that if the pain continued I wouldn’t be able to take any pain medication closer to the show as this would affect my extremely dry and lean condition. And at the Olympia those details count.
“Waking up Wednesday morning before the show, I couldn’t move my right side, I had piercing shooting burning pain under my right shoulder blade and my right arm all the way down through the triceps forearm and my lat was throbbing in a deep and unbelievably profound way. I had never felt this kind of pain before and my only thought was to find a chiropractor, perhaps a rib was popped out and could be fixed before the show.
“Thankfully my friend in Las Vegas hooked me up to a very experienced clinic where dealing with athletes was a norm. After an adjustment, hot/cold compresses and some acupuncture I experienced no relief, which was not normal for me. At this point I was unable to stand or sit for more than 5 minutes as the pain was so intense while standing (pressure). Lying down offered some relief and took the pressure off the throbbing deep pain running down my arm.
“The chiropractors set me up with a pain management doctor that day (again I should have been putting my tanner on and relaxing and carbing up that day, but instead we were driving all over Las Vegas to various doctors and clinics!). The pain doctor immediately recognized from my posture and symptoms that I likely had a herniated disc in the cervical region. She offered me a choice. Deal with the pain and likely don’t compete, or try doing some hard-core nerve drugs, narcotic pain killers, muscle relaxants and an anti-inflammatory steroid muscle injection in the trap area to attempt to get me functioning. Joseph and I discussed our options and voted together that it would be better to get up on stage and walk it through, even if it meant a last place finish due to the change in conditioning and my inability to flex or feel my right side. Localized swelling was also a side effect from the muscle injections so although I felt I might humiliate myself on-stage and disappoint my fans and friends, I felt it would be better to walk it through and force myself to get up there and smile and be proud that I had the courage to finish the journey.
“So loaded up with 5 prescriptions, 4 pain-point muscle injections and instructions to come back post-show for an MRI and a possible epidural to get me back to Japan safely, I set out to survive the next 2 days and the commitments I had to the Olympia show!”
How was the day of the show itself for you?
“In one word – BRUTAL! I took the maximum of all the narcotics, muscle relaxants and nerve drugs that I could. I was on over 5 vicodin, 4-5 muscle relaxants and 3-4 nerve drugs just to get up on that stage.
“Back-stage I tried to put on a brave face and say hello to the other athletes I have admired for so long. It was very hard and all I could think of was just getting through this before collapsing. It truly took all of my strength to do this show.
“Trying to pump up, I realized I couldn’t even lift a thing on my right side. I could not flex my muscles. You see, I had had so much pain the past 2 days I hadn’t even tried to pose or look at myself; I was focused only on survival. Now that I was backstage I realized I could barely lift my right side and had no feeling in my right lat, trap or arm. Because I was in so much pain, I didn’t realize until afterwards that the muscles controlled by that nerve were already significantly deflated. I can see it in pictures now, but the pain was my primary concern, and just getting through it!
“On stage I had never experienced such hot lights. They were set up very low and even Iris Kyle, the undisputed champion, had to step back and lean over to take her breath. Everyone on stage was suffering with the heat and due to the medication I was on, it was even more extreme for me (the side effects of the drugs exacerbate heat, blood pressure and nausea).
“I just focused on stage on my husband and making him proud for me having the courage of walking this through. I felt some embarrassment and shame for not looking my best, but just had to tell myself that I was not in control of this anymore.
“After we left the stage, I collapsed out in the main area, almost blacking out and begged one of my friends to go find my husband. Finally he was found, we rushed out of the expo before I had to talk to anyone, as I had no strength left and just collapsed in my hotel room, planning on resting until I had to get back on-stage for the evening show.
“The evening show I repeated about the same performance. I was so drugged out (LOL) I just stood up at the front and did my absolute 100% best. Once that was done, I left as quickly as possible!
“I made it through the other commitments and basically stayed in the hotel until we were scheduled to fly back to Japan. I went for an MRI and they discovered I had a mammoth 9.5 mm disc herniation. I had an epidural to help ease the pain before travelling, saw another ortho surgeon to get permission to fly back and got another 4 prescriptions for some hardcore meds to help me make it back on that long trip home. My husband upgraded all my flights to first class so that I would be comfortable and in as minimum amount of pain as possible.”
I believe you had to begin treatment for your injury immediately after the show…
“Well I already had a commitment to guest pose the following weekend at a Navy Base on Mainland Japan. I followed through with this, without guest posing, but was there for all the events and autograph signing, and made it through another week heavily medicated until I arrived home 1.5 weeks after the Olympia. I was very fortunate to see 2 neurosurgeons here at the military hospital immediately that week and had surgery that same week on Friday after much consideration, research and discussion.”
What exactly did you get done?
“I had what is called an Anterior Cervical Discectomy & Fusion. Basically the surgeons open you up through the front of your neck and pull out the exploded disc between your spine. They pack the area with cadaver bone and re-attach the bones with a titanium plate and 4 screws to hold the bones together. The goal of the surgery is to take the pressure off the nerve that the disc exploding/bursting has caused, and consequently take the pain away that is caused by that nerve impingement and damage. This is why during my whole experience it wasn’t my neck that was sore, it was the areas affected by the nerve that originates between the C6/C7 cervical area. This was also why I was experiencing pain and lack of muscle control on my entire right side, and also why the muscles in that area were beginning to lose shape and size even a month before I started experiencing the pain.”
How long were you in recovery?
“I am still in recovery. It takes 6 months to a year for the bones to fuse together and it takes a year for the nerves to regenerate to begin to stimulate and re-grow the affected muscles.. After that point the doctors say that what you have is basically what you are left with. Some people gain 100% back, some people don’t gain any muscle back and some people only get a portion. It depends in large part on how long you were injured for and how long the nerve was affected, if the injury damaged the nerve root, and also if you are able to keep the area stimulated and alive so the nerve has a place to grow back into. There are no set answers from the medical community.
“As far as the initial recovery, I was released from the hospital the next day and basically spent the first 4 weeks home-bound. However I was anxious to begin healing so began light cardio at home after 10 days. Light activity is recommended to help the tissues heal and to improve circulation and shuttle oxygen and healing nutrients to the affected area.
I began light rehab stretching and moving at about 14 days at home and started hitting the gym for very light rehab type training at 3.5 weeks.
“Right now I am still rehabbing but have more freedom with weights and machines however am somewhat limited due to the muscle imbalance I have to give time to heal. I am also not free to do any compound or heavy free weights until x-rays confirm that the bones have grafted. I go for my 3-month x-ray at the end of December as well as for an MRI on my entire spine to make sure my lower back does not have any serious issues! Now that I have time off I want to look after everything! “
Being used to being in the gym almost every day how hard was it for you to adapt to a period of inactivity?
“I had no problem with the inactivity as I could not have done anything even if I wanted to. When you can’t move your neck and you get fatigued after holding your head up for 1 hour, there is no burning desire to go lift weights. I split my recovery up into phases and set about making small goals that were realistic and would give me a sense of accomplishment.
The hardest part of this injury is the ‘not knowing’ if my physique will heal to it’s original shape, and just trusting that over time I will be where I want to be. These are the moments I truly need to focus on being thankful that I am HEALTHY. Many people who have a similar injury are permanently disabled, some paralyzed and their entire quality of life has been affected. I am fortunate that for most regular day to day activities I am already at 100% capacity so in the big scheme of things I am very fortunate.”
What advice would you like to give someone out there who may be trying to ‘bravely’ push through an injury?
“GO TO THE DOCTOR and if the doctor tries to shrug it off, go to another doctor. Bodybuilders are notorious for ‘pushing’ through and we have to be that way at times. However with a cervical or spinal injury there is no such thing as ‘pushing through’ when you run the risk of being permanently damaged or limited in the future. You don’t need to be paranoid but you need to take care of the body that keeps you doing the things you love.”
Any tips on making it through the rehab process without going insane?
“Stay thankful for what you have right now. Focus on the positives and constantly remind yourself that as one door closes there are many more that will open. Bottom line I have spent my time pushing through to FIND the positives, even if I have moments of doubt. If you spend your time whining and complaining you won’t have the vision to see those doors open. I am not closing the door on competing myself. Given that there is FBB in the future, or whatever division I choose, I plan on coming back after a restful and productive 2011. However, if that door does end up closing I hope to be one of those people who celebrate the opportunity and see the blessings in every day life.
“Do I want to lift heavy and train like I used to? Of course! Do I miss certain things? NO DOUBT! At some moments do I feel cheated? Cheated out of the chance to make my first Mrs. the way I wanted it? Cheated out of what I saw in my future? Yes of course! However if I choose to dwell on what I don’t have, or what I felt I didn’t get, I’ll never see the future as full of more opportunities and more great things! I HAVE TO focus on recovery, on my future, on feeling hope, but I also have to accept whatever comes my way with a positive spirit and a smile on my face. I have chosen to be very open about my injury, about my weaknesses, my occasional feelings of frustration, my moments of joy and hope on my FB fan page my YouTube clips, even without knowing what the future holds…because I want to encourage others to show courage and bravery in the face of obstacles. And my fans and friends hold me accountable . And that’s my goal – to be a true champion of LIFE, despite or even because of whatever comes my way.”
“Ultimately I choose to make my life about great experiences, good stories and even better memories. I don’t ever want to look back in my life and have regrets over not going for what I want. I am thankful for all the people around me who have held me high when I needed to feel hope and push through – THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART!”
Zoa Linsey can be contacted on the following:
You Tube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/josephandzoa?feature=mhum
Face Book Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/ZOA-LINSEY/108919095811