One year ago, Eddy Alvarez was in Miami, in a funk, in a quandary and in agony.
His knees hurt, his heart ached.
His choice was to hang up his ice skates and his Olympic vision, or undergo knee surgery and reconstruct that vision from the debris of his shredded tendons.
Alvarez chose the path of certain pain and uncertain glory, which took him to the world short track speedskating championships in Hungary last month. He hopes it’s a step toward the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but he knows that in his slippery sport, crashes have a way of obliterating forward progress.
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That’s short track, say athletes calloused by cold falls.
A year after couch confinement, Miami’s Alvarez was in the middle of the sport’s most rough-and-tumble race, the 5,000-meter relay. He was co-anchor with J.R. Celski on the U.S. team for 43 laps, eight exchanges.
“Instead of handing off a baton, you are pushing a partner multiple times,” Alvarez said. “There’s a lot of strategy, passing, bumping, jostling and people throwing arms and legs and trying to trip you. It’s an intense race.”
It’s the essence of short track, which combines elements of NASCAR, roller derby and sprinting on a 111-yard oval at an angle so extreme that skaters use a pivot glove to stay upright on blades that are the width of two fingernails. Then put the whole show on ice.
No wonder Alvarez decided not to retire.
“I’ve been on skates since age 5,” he said. “I didn’t want to go out with any regrets.”
The U.S. team’s performance at worlds has only given him more incentive. The Americans were knocked out in the semifinal round, failing to advance by one place, and Alvarez said his slip with six laps to go was one of the reasons for the disappointing finish.
“Another lesson for our young team,” said Alvarez, who was home last week for a break before he begins his offseason training program. “We had a lot of bad luck this season, and we hope that means things will turn the other way in the Olympic year.”
Inspired by J-Rod
After a remarkable comeback, Alvarez is on course to become the second Cuban-American from Miami to make a U.S. Winter Olympic team, following in the powerful strokes of Jennifer Rodriguez, the four-time Olympian and two-time bronze medalist in long track. J-Rod also grew up as a champion in-line and roller skater, and was coached by Bob Manning.
“Not a day went by that Bob didn’t mention Jenny,” said Alvarez, who was known as Eddy the Jet when he used to perform in-line tricks for tourists on Ocean Drive. “She was a huge inspiration in my crossover to ice.”
Alvarez, 23, is less than a year away from the U.S. Olympic Trials. He’s part of a young group training in Salt Lake City and trying to fill the void left by Apolo Anton Ohno, who won eight Olympic medals and captivated Americans at his first Games in 2002. Ohno, 30, who became a Dancing With the Stars winner, is wavering on his retirement but time is running short.
Celski, friends with Alvarez since they were kids, is now the U.S. man to beat. Alvarez was ranked fourth on the team after January’s national meet, but moved up a spot prior to the world championships. The United States usually takes a team of four or five men to the Olympics, where they face stiff competition from the Koreans, Chinese, Canadians and Dutch.
“Eddy doesn’t just want to go to the Olympics; he wants to medal,” said Alvarez’s father, Walter. “What’s encouraging is that he had a solid season with no base training. A lot of people said it would be impossible for him to come back, but he’s telling me, ‘Dad, I’m getting there.’ ”
While other skaters were logging weight room sessions and six-hour bike rides and two-hour runs through the Utah mountains last spring, Alvarez was back at his family’s home in the Roads neighborhood, immobilized after five hours of surgery by Dr. Keith Hechtman, who repaired 12 tears to the patellar tendons.
Alvarez called the bilateral operation “a drastic decision, my last resort,” after years of alternatives, including platelet rich plasma therapy.
After surgery, he couldn’t walk for a month. Ghastly railroad track scars ran down the middle of his legs. After three months, he returned to the Kearns, Utah, oval to resume training and could not do even a single squat. In mid-July, he put on skates for the first time in 28 months.
“I stood in the middle of the ice watching everybody,” he said. “I had no muscles in my legs.”
But by December, Alvarez qualified for the winter squad and competed at World Cups in Sochi and Dresden, Germany.
“He couldn’t walk down stairs or lower himself into a chair last summer,” said Curtis Wildes, head trainer for the U.S. team. “He couldn’t hold a tuck for three seconds, let alone the two to five minutes you’ve got to hold it during a race, and the patellar tendon is key to that position. The biggest challenge was adapting to the fact that his body would never be what it was before.”
Wildes said Alvarez puts in hours of extra therapy to compensate.
“It’s an insane sport in terms of the combination of stamina, strength, speed, tactics,” said Wildes, who has worked with volleyball and pro baseball players and luge and bobsled athletes. “Eddy has one of the best starts, but the emphasis now is getting his endurance back because he’s essentially two years behind.”
At the 2010 Olympic Trials, Alvarez was hampered by a stomach virus and a series of race mishaps. He vowed to be back for 2014.
But along the way, knee pain became unbearable. He had been a star infielder at Miami Columbus High, and decided to switch back to baseball. He played shortstop for top-ranked Salt Lake City Community College, and made the all-conference team.
When he returned to skating, his knees revolted. He came home in December 2011.
“I was ready to quit,” he said. “Zero motivation. Zero hope. Sometimes I would just break down and cry.”
His older brother, Nick, a former Triple A baseball player who underwent Tommy John surgery by Hechtman (and is now owner of Cross Fit gyms), tried to boost his morale, as did his sister, Nicole, a DJ at KROQ in Los Angeles. His mother, Mabel, and father offered encouragement.
“When I saw a little ray of desire, I would tell Eddy he was born with natural talent and deep down he wanted to finish what he started,” Walter said.
Said Alvarez: “I couldn’t have done it without my family. My dad is such a Cuban man — he’s as stubborn as me. We did not want to give up.”
During recovery, Alvarez played guitar to buoy his mood and thought back to his childhood as the South Beach “Jet” phenom.
“Those were the days — no pressure,” he said. “I can remember stepping out of the car with my skates already tied, smelling the ocean breeze.
“It’s been a long road. But it’s fun again. I’m chasing, and I know where I want to go.”