In Olympic year, half the battle is keeping fit
POISSY, France (AP)
A luxury sports car, it turns out, is a very appropriate place to interview an Olympian about how he injured his back. Because the contrast between the two is so compelling.
Muscular, comfortable and responsive, the car is everything a bad back is not.
This car, a black and beautiful Italian-made Maserati, and the stiff and aching back both belong to French figure skater Florent Amodio.
On his drive home from a teeth-clenching session of brutal, kneading deep-massage therapy, the 2011 European champion is explaining how his body broke down from overuse before this year's World Championships.
''It's a machine and it had run out of fuel,'' he says.
But the painful set-back isn't wholly negative.
''I learned a lot from all of this,'' he says. ''I've come out the other side stronger and motivated for the Olympics.''
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second story in a series exploring how an Olympian prepares - mentally, physically, athletically and otherwise - for the biggest rendezvous of a sports career. The Associated Press is periodically checking in with Amodio to track his progress toward the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. In Part I, the 22-year-old said he views the Olympics as ''the ultimate competition'' and is aiming to medal next February.
When a carpenter loses a hammer, he buys a new one. When an architect's ink-pen runs dry, he can refill it. But athletes only get one complete set of tools for their trade - flesh, sinew and bone. They have to look after them rigorously.
Amodio neglected to do that for the briefest of whiles and is now paying the price.
''Aie, aie, aie,'' he mutters under his breath as his physiotherapist presses and squeezes him like pizza dough, jabbing her fingers deep into soft tissue above his right hip.
Does it hurt?
Amodio bleats out a weak ''Oui'' and moans.
''Please,'' says his healer/torturer, gently scolding him as her fingers probe, ''don't make me look like a monster.''
After the European Championships in January, where he skated exceptionally, winning silver and recording his highest-ever total score, Amodio threw himself into a series of exhibition galas. These glitzy skating shows are how he and other skaters earn a living. Amodio gets 5,000 euros ($6,500) for a night's work - which helps explain the sleek head-turner with red leather seats he has parked outside.
Zurich and Lausanne in Switzerland, Helsinki in Finland, Stockholm in Sweden; flights in between; 12 shows in two weeks; ''such an energy drain, and you don't recuperate, don't eat well, don't go to bed early, don't do the full package of things you need to do,'' Amodio says of the galas.
''You burn up. It's as though you're an engine stuck in high gear,'' he says. ''My body really didn't like that. It was 12 nights and so intense, hugely exhausting. After that, the moment I started training again, my body simply said, `Stop!'''
Unable to bend at the waist and in ''enormous pain,'' he had to rest for a week instead of properly preparing for the World Championships, held in March in London, Ontario. Not surprisingly, he bombed. He fell in both his short and long programs and placed 12th with a score of 216.83, some 50 points behind the champion, Canada's Patrick Chan. Amodio says he was in pain for the whole competition.
Still, he didn't pull out because he figured the experience would prove valuable.
''I did things I didn't know I was capable of,'' he says.
''My sole ambition now is to show the whole world that I am the best,'' he adds. ''I knew full well that it would give me this motivation and aggressiveness that will carry me to the games.''
X-rays and tests in France found he had pinched a disk in his spine and severely strained muscles. The pain stretched from the small of his back down his right thigh. Blood tests also found he was short on iron and vitamins, he says.
Hearing Amodio speaking about his body, it's quickly clear how attuned he is to its needs and subtleties, constantly alert for any aches or problems, like a piano tuner keeping his ears open for sour notes. Amodio rattles off the names of muscle groups with easy familiarity. Stripped to the waist on the massage table, he doesn't look like he's carrying an ounce of surplus fat. He is so slim and slight that when he later slips back into a padded coat, it looks as if he's suddenly doubled in volume.
His back is his canary in the coal mine of overexertion, ''the first alarm that rings in my body, telling me to stop,'' he says. Back problems have also laid low 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko, forcing the Russian to drop out midway through the European Championships and later miss the worlds.
''When we do a jump, the weight on our backs is enormous,'' Amodio says. ''It's not that we damage our body every time, but almost.''
But taking breaks can be complicated, too. He says he quickly feels he's losing his edge when he doesn't skate or train.
''We're so completely invested in our sport that those few occasions when you say to yourself, `I'm going to have three days holiday, have a break, relax, go partying,' they throw everything off kilter, simply everything, and in such a short time,'' he says. ''Even when I go on holiday, I have to stay active.''
Still, this time, his back left him little choice. Shuffling on and off the massage table, Amodio looked beaten up.
But one month later, speaking by telephone, he sounds as chirpy as a songbird. He says he canceled plans to compete in Japan and instead treated himself to some serious pampering - massages, hot tubs, recovery, family time and no skating. In short, ''putting fuel back into the machine.''
He was just starting to get back to work and beginning to put some serious thought into his new programs for the Olympic year, including selecting the music for skating. On his Facebook page, he asked fans for music suggestions and posted a handwritten note in English: ''My back start to feel better.''
''I'm really much better,'' Amodio says by phone. ''It did me some good to take a break from skating. I have a whole new attitude.''
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester