Dr. Cassie Maximenko will be at Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury on Saturday for the 11th Pat Griskus Olympic Distance Triathlon, but she will not win her fourth straight race. She’s OK with that, for now.
Maximenko is on a long, painful and unpredictable recovery trail from a severe ankle injury sustained six months ago. She does not know when she can compete again or even resume a full training schedule.
The injury occurred Jan. 13 in Madison, Wis., at the cyclocross national championships, a grueling bike race in extreme conditions of cold, snow and ice, during which riders often leap off and carry their bikes up hills and over barriers.
Here is how Maximenko describes the event: “It is all off-road, not a super-fast race. The course had thawed and then froze, and thawed and then froze again, leading up to my race. It had a lot of time to get rutty and frozen, but then the sun came out, and the ice began to melt, and it was really slippery.”
It was on the first lap, maybe 10 minutes into the race, when disaster struck the Naugatuck chiropractor and coach.
“I was coming around a slow corner, getting ready to get off my bike to climb over barriers,” Maximenko said, “and when you come around a corner, you put your foot out to (touch the ground) and counterbalance your weight. I don’t know what specifically happened because things happen so fast, but my (right) foot spun around backward.”
She hit the ground, which is not uncommon. “But you get right back up and get going,” Maximenko said. “But I looked at my foot and it was facing the wrong way, and I thought, ‘I don’t think I can get up.’”
So Maximenko lay there on the rutted course in the melting snow and ice while racers buzzed around her. She couldn’t move herself, so she called for spectators to drag her off the course.
“There is no ambulance, so two spectators carried me to the medical tent, where I was splintered,” Maximenko said, “but I had to sit there and wait for the race to end because the tent is inside the course.”
Maximenko sat in the tent for 40 minutes in 20-degree temperatures until friends got a car inside the course. She had to get herself to the hospital.
“The first thing I felt was anger,” she said. “I was disappointed that I couldn’t continue. I know how hard I worked to get to a national championship, and in an instant it is over.”
Maximenko had surgery the next day at the University of Wisconsin Hospital.
“Four screws were inserted in the ankle,” she said. “The fibula was shattered, and they couldn’t pin it back. It was in too many pieces.”
Dr. Maximenko, though, was back to work within two weeks.
“I have the best patients in the world,” she said. “I treated them standing on one leg, with crutches. This taught me to really appreciate the fact that I have two legs to stand on now. Some people don’t.”
That is a staggeringly ironic thought as we approach the 11th Griskus triathlon, a memorial event celebrating the life of a man who completed two Ironman triathlons in Kona, Hawaii, despite having his left leg amputated.
“I stayed as positive as I could throughout everything,” Maximenko said. “I treat it as though I am training for a race. Training to get better is what I am doing.”
First came rides on a stationary bike, then time in the pool. She has lost eight pounds and “a ton of strength in my right leg. Five weeks ago, the screws were removed, although part of one is still in there.”
She had to stay off the leg for 12 weeks, then walked in a brace for four more. “Now I have to re-teach the leg how to walk and then I will re-teach the leg how to run,” Maximenko said.
The injury has given the doctor, whose patients are mostly athletes, a new perspective into the physical and mental struggles of injury rehab.
“You go through stages of anger, denial, frustration, acceptance and moving on, and you go through those stages on a weekly basis,” she said.
She gives her husband, Mike Maximenko, also a triathlete, “credit for not packing up and leaving.”
This weekend, Maximenko will be on the sidelines at the Griskus, coaching the athletes she trains with the YMCA triathlon club and those she trains one-to-one. She will feel “like a proud mom.”
But an athlete still. Maximenko vows to return to cyclocross nationals and finish that darn race. There is no timetable, but the six-time Griskus champ — she has won three Olympic distance and three sprint titles — hopes to be back on a triathlon course by April 2014.
“I am shooting for 2014,” she said. “My tentative goal is to do a 70.3 (a half-Ironman) and qualify for the world championships.”
Maximenko competed at the Las Vegas worlds in 2012. She wants another.
“It is a lofty goal, but that’s what you thrive on at this point,” she said. “I’m 30 years old. For endurance athletes, the peak fitness range is 30 to 35. I look at it as my best time. I hope to qualify for worlds again and be back for the cyclocross season and at nationals next January in Colorado.”
Cassie Maximenko is a Griskus champion for a reason. She now carries the spirit of Pat Griskus with her on every step of this comeback.