The Iron Lady
Eisenhower Surgeon Helps Ironman Champion Stay on Top of Her Sport
Cherie Gruenfeld competed in her first Ironman triathlon at age 48. Today, at 69, she’s one of the most decorated Master’s triathletes in the world, winning to date, 11 Ironman World Championships in her age class along with dozens of half-Ironman and other triathlon competitions, and setting course records along the way.
Her most recent win, in fact, was this past October at the renowned Kona Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. She was one of nearly 1,800 athletes who swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles and ran 26.2 miles — a full marathon — along the rugged Kona coast. It’s a remarkable demonstration of physical and mental endurance, and one that can take a toll on a person’s body at any age. Yet Gruenfeld did it just one year after a bike crash injury forced her to miss the 2011 competition.
“We don’t intend to get hurt, but we do,” says Gruenfeld, whose 2011 shoulder injury was her second since 2006 when she first sought out Orthopedic Surgeon Stephen J. O’Connell, MD, a hand, elbow and shoulder specialist at Eisenhower Desert Orthopedic Center. At that time, Gruenfeld and her husband Lee had moved to the desert from Santa Monica, and she considers finding Dr. O’Connell to be “pure serendipity.”
“It’s really nice to have somebody who understands what we do,” she says, referring to athletes like herself. “The first time I walked in the door, both Dr. O’Connell and his Physician Assistant Andrew Allen, PA-C, took me seriously. They understand that I want to get back in the game as quickly as possible and be 100 percent when I get there.”
Gruenfeld’s first visit to Dr. O’Connell in June 2006 was after she’d fallen off her bike during a competition, fracturing her sacrum (the triangular bone at the base of the spine) and injuring her right shoulder. “We treated her conservatively and she improved a lot, but she was bothered by a small rotator cuff injury that happened at the same time,” recalls Dr. O’Connell. “So that September, we did arthroscopic debridement and decompression of her shoulder, she did physical therapy and, six weeks after surgery, she was able to do a 50-mile bike ride.”
“That experience revealed her to be a pretty intense athlete,” he adds, with masterful understatement.
In July of 2011, however, Gruenfeld had another bike accident, severely fracturing her left clavicle (collarbone). “We took her into surgery and did an internal fixation with a customized titanium plate and multiple screws,” Dr. O’Connell relates. “To help her heal faster, we also did a bone graft and injected platelet-rich plasma (PRP) to stimulate healing.”
"I really love to race, compete and have the opportunity to win. I’m successful, so why wouldn’t I be motivated?” says Cherie. (Above) She trains on her bike in Hawaii and practices in a pool. The first running of the U.S. National Ironman Championship at Lake Placid in 1999. Cherie came in first in her age group, establishing the U.S. record, and then broke it two years later.
It was almost the same injury and treatment Gruenfeld had had in 2002, when she lived in Santa Monica. Then, however, her orthopedic surgeon told her she could go back to training about ten days after surgery.
“I thought that was terrific,” remembers Gruenfeld. Because the doctors had allowed her to resume using her arm right away, however, her clavicle hadn’t healed into good, strong bone.
“I expected Dr. O’Connell to tell me that I could go back to training and competing, but he had a serious talk with me and told me I was going to have to stay quiet and let my body heal for the remainder of 2011,” she says.
“I’m not very happy when I can’t do what I want to do, but I trust Dr. O’Connell, and I think he trusts me,” continues Gruenfeld. “He knows that I’ll push to the edge of the envelope, but when he tells me not to go over the edge, I won’t.”
“She’s an excellent patient and the ultimate in motivation,” responds Dr. O’Connell. “And that’s what makes the best patients — they’re on a mission to get better and return to the activity they love.
“Athletes like Cherie are human; their bones, muscles and tendons heal at the same rate as anyone else’s,” he continues. “The difference is in how intensely they rehabilitate. If you’re tentative about physical therapy, you’re probably not pushing the body hard enough to regain function. Cherie has the drive, determination and motivation to push herself. She’s the epitome of a committed patient.”
“I really love to race, compete and have the opportunity to win. I’m successful, so why wouldn’t I be motivated?” she says. “On that day in October in Kona when I crossed the finish line, there was a sense of accomplishment and gratification like no other. A wave came over me and I thought, holy cow, all those hours I spent training for this moment.”
“That was a sad day when I couldn’t do Kona in 2011, but I knew Dr. O’Connell was right,” says Gruenfeld. “When I came back, I had a completely undefeated season, testament that he was right — and we did it together.”
A WINNER GIVES BACK
An injury may occasionally sideline her from competition, but Cherie Gruenfeld never stops putting herself out there to help kids have a better life. In 2000, she created Exceeding Expectations (www.eefoundation.org), a nonprofit organization supported entirely by private donations that helps to redirect the lives of at-risk inner-city kids in San Bernardino using the sport of triathlon. The objective is not to turn them into athletes, but to teach them how to set goals and work hard to achieve them.
“When I say it’s hard work and tell them what they have to do, they don’t question it because they see what I do,” she says. “So it’s important that I can do this for as long as I can do it well.”