Injury To Recovery Against The Odds

Injury To Recovery A Ballerinas Story

Most athletes, dancers, will in their careers will face both physical, emotional strains, and possible injury, in their chosen professions.

Take acclaimed ballerina Wendy Whelan who in 2013 underwent reconstructive surgery. Whelan, who was 46 at the time, feareing that she would never dance again. But after months of injury rehabilitation and physical therapy, she returned briefly to the company she had danced with for more than three decades.

Whelan took her final bow with the New York City Ballet in October 2014. Now, nearly three years after leaving ballet, Whelan continues to perform contemporary dance. She says she feels liberated in her new life: “I’ve been strapped in — physically strapped in to pointe shoes, strapped into a leotard and tights, my hair’s been strapped up — for my whole entire life. … I was terrified to be unconstricted, and now I don’t know another way I’d rather be.”

It was the smallest slip, but I felt it deep in the back of my hip hamstring area. And I thought ... I pulled my hamstring; I didn't imagine it would be a tear.

Wendy Whelan danced with the New York City Ballet for three decades. Read about her injury to recovery.

The documentary Restless Creature chronicles Whelan’s injury to recovery and final performance with her company.

Interview Highlights

On the hip injury that hastened her retirement from ballet

It came out of nowhere, literally came out of nowhere. I slipped, ironically, on Sept. 11, 2012, and I knew something had happened. It was the smallest slip, but I felt it deep in the back of my hip hamstring area. And I thought … I pulled my hamstring; I didn’t imagine it would be a tear.

Hamstring injuries are very common in athletes. Acute hamstring strains can occur with high-speed running or with excessive hamstring lengthening. … The article focuses on diagnosis, treatment and return to play considerations for acute hamstring strains and proximal hamstring tendinopathy in the athlete.

I couldn’t do certain dances that season. I did some. I didn’t do the ones that I was really well known for and wanted to do. And I waited a few months, didn’t stretch it, still danced at a certain level, and within three months I couldn’t close fifth position. Fifth position, if you don’t know ballet, is the base of ballet. It’s the most basic position that everything moves from, and I literally couldn’t do that. So that was a big shock.

I tried everything. I tried acupuncture. I was going to therapy. I tried massage, everything you can imagine — I had injections, MRIs. And then the MRI came back and said there was inflammation in my hip, so I had my hip drained. The doctor also did an ultrasound and he said, “I see a complex labral tear.” … It was there forever; I just didn’t know it until it was discovered, and it had gotten to a place where it was needing to be fixed. … Eight months later I was on the operating table getting reconstructive surgery.

On choosing to document the end of her ballet career

Wendy Whelan tells of her decision to document the end of her ballet career as being complicated, confusing, exposing her vulnerability. But as filming began Wendy was all on board with the project. She came to like the footage, the directors, filmmakers, especially the cameraman. He had done dance films before, and knew exactly how to move in the studio, following Wendy closely..

The documentation of Wendy’s story turned into a supportive thing, pushing her to bare herself, to open her story up with confidence and creativity.

On showing pain on camera

“My leg wouldn’t accept the weight without a buckle, so dancing was a really big question. That was really hard for me to show, and I actually took a break from the filming at that moment. I needed to get some epidurals in my back and I just was like, “I just need some space.” … I had the cameras leave, because that was just too much for me to show that I couldn’t walk.” states, Wendy Whelan.

Wendy Whelan documents her journey of injury to recovery. Like many athletes who suffer an injury she was faced with “the what now” decision. Wendy was able to go from ballet to contemporary dance.

I felt slowly like … I am now me, and you’re seeing me, the goofy Wendy. I’m not trying to be who you all thought I was for so long. I’m just this girl. I jumped like a little kid a little bit, and I had bad posture and I was walking like a normal person in my bows and I’m like, yep, I’m just a human being and I’ve been this the whole time, but I haven’t been able to show it. Listen to the full interview here.

Like most athletes, most dance careers can last up to 20 years. Some people, as seen with Wendy Whelan, continue dancing until their early 40s or later, and some people have to retire earlier than age 34 because of an injury.

An serious injury can end an athletes  or dancer’s career. Because of the risk involved, it is important to work for a company that has worker’s compensation insurance.

Athletes who’s injuries ended their careers: