Von Christof Gertsch

Aktualisiert am 17. Dezember 2017, 2:41 Uhr

On the evening of 15 March 2017, Stefan Fröhlich, a consultant at the Balgrist University Clinic in Switzerland, sat in his office, created a group chat on Whatsapp and added twelve phone numbers. First, the patient’s number, followed by those of the people who would be involved in his recovery over the following months: a surgeon, three physical fitness trainers and seven physiotherapists.

The patient was called Iouri Podladtchikov: 29 years old, and a Swiss snowboarder. Four days earlier, at the World Championships in the Sierra Nevada in Spain, he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee.

To understand how the accident came about, and why a group of top doctors in Zurich was now on red alert, we need to go back to 2014, when Podladtchikov won gold in the halfpipe competition at the Olympic Games in Russia, his parents’ home country. Up to that point, he’d been regarded as a bit of a show-off with a habit of winding people up the wrong way. Afterwards he was the man who had stayed true to his word: he had defeated Shaun White, the reigning Olympic champion from the USA. Not somewhere, not somehow, but at the ultimate «summit meeting». And with the hardest trick of all – the Yolo Flip, Podladtchikov’s own invention, which at the time only he and White could master. Yolo stands for «You only live once», and in snowboarding jargon is called a Cab Double Cork 1440, two inverts and two rotations – a trick of magical beauty that Podladtchikov conjured up in the skies over Russia. Later, when he stood on the podium, head thrown back, eyes closed, he seemed so overwhelmed, so moved by the moment, you couldn’t help briefly wondering if it wasn’t all too much for him.

Podladtchikov is on the old side for a freestyle athlete, but sees no reason why he shouldn’t compete in the Olympic Games for the fourth time in 2018 – and win Gold again. Two victories in a discipline that was only given Olympic status in 1998 and is already one of the highlights of Winter Games: a bit like achieving immortality in normal life. But the accident in the Sierra Nevada threw everything into doubt

15 March 2017

Stefan Fröhlich, 17:27: «This is the group which will coordinate Iouri’s rehabilitation.»

Veronique Vidal (physiotherapist), 17:29: «👍»

Alexandra Rohner-Müller (physiotherapist), 17:33: «You know we’re a good team and will give it our all 💥🏂💪💥»

At 17:54, about twelve hours before the operation which would decide so much, Iouri Podladtchikov, the patient, replied as if they’d just arranged to meet for dinner: «Looking forward ✊»

There were just 336 days left until the next Olympic Games with the halfpipe final on 14 February 2018 in the Phoenix Snow Park, a winter sports resort in western Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Three-hundred-and-thirty-six days to correct the stupid mistake he had made four days earlier: It was evening in Spain, the moon was high in the sky, and the snow reflected the beams of the floodlights illuminating the slopes – it looked like something out of a fairy tale. Podladtchikov was wearing black trousers and a red jacket. As he started from the left-hand side of the halfpipe, his white over-vest with the start number fluttered cheerfully in the wind. Podladtchikov appeared to be invincible. But the conditions were borderline: spectacular for the audience, dangerous for the athletes. The cold of the evening had turned the tracks in the halfpipe into rigid, icy grooves. If you got the edge of your board caught in one of them, it would send you flying like a cyclist caught in a tram track.

Halfpipes are semi-circular ditches of snow and ice, which these days are usually hewn directly into the mountainside. 180 metres long, 20 metres wide, and seven metres high. Along their length, snowboarders can perform five to six jumps, one every four to five seconds, alternately on the left and on the right side, sometimes spinning three to six metres above the lip of the halfpipe. The halfpipe in the Sierra Nevada was shorter, and Podladtchikov limited himself to four jumps. To begin with, everything went to plan. He followed a Double McTwist 1260 with a Frontside 1080 Double Cork and a Cab 1080 Double Cork: the most difficult tricks in the book, each with two flips and three to three-and-a-half rotations, but for him almost routine (the number in the name of the trick refers to the turns around the body’s longitudinal axis in degrees). Then came the grand finale, for which he had saved up the Double Backside Alley-Oop Rodeo, a trick which is almost as hard to explain as it is to perform. Essentially it is a double flip over the lateral axis of the snowboard. Your snowboard is facing uphill, while you’re spinning in the opposite direction downhill. Podladtchikov had spent a long time perfecting this trick, and together with the Yolo Flip it made the perfect run.

Worried about under-, rather than over-rotating, as in previous attempts, Podladtchikov pushed off from the wall a tiny bit too hard at the start. Good snowboarders can feel, even before they go into the spin, whether they will complete it as planned on the vertical wall of the halfpipe, or if they pushed off too hard and will land in the middle of the pipe, the so-called flat, a brutal landing from a great height. Good snowboarders then usually have the sense to break off the attempt. Iouri Podladtchikov didn’t.

What went through his mind in the milliseconds between pushing off and the start of the spin? Afterwards he described it like this: «I am the reigning Olympic Champion, TV viewers want to see me perform. I haven’t snowboarded for the last twenty years in order to now say: ‘Hey, it’s a bit dangerous, I better stop’. Right now I’m risking my life and I have two choices: If I don’t do the jump, I’m a coward. If I do it, I’ll crash. But if I break it off now, I’ll be letting down my fans. The chances that I’ll pull it off is practically nil, but if I don’t believe I can do it now, I won’t believe I can do it next year at the Olympic Games. I know nobody will understand me, but if I injure myself attempting to finish the trick, it won’t be as bad as letting myself be dictated to by gravity or god knows what, and giving up. Of course you shouldn’t jump in front of a train – but now I have to do it.» And it happened: ACL tear, journey home, surgery.

16 March

Iouri Podladtchikov, 10:47: «Just woke up, knee feels the same as it did before the operation. Not swollen at all.»

Diego Schütz (fitness trainer), 10:51: «Great! If you want vitamins and minerals, let me know 😉 A presto, campione!»

Iouri Podladtchikov, 10:51: «Absolutely! Power cocktail please, and those fruit bars.»

Stefan Fröhlich, 10:55: «👍👍👍 I would recommend a higher dosage of vitamin C and D for the next few weeks.»

Iouri Podladtchikov, 12:13: «I’m telling you, this Game Ready is great, it’s up next. The pain is already better, feels sooo good.»

Game Ready is a cold compression therapy device that looks like a vacuum cleaner. It had been recommended to Podladtchikov by Lara Gut, a skier who had suffered a torn cruciate ligament a few weeks earlier. He knew that the clinic in St. Moritz, where he was going to be operated, had a Game Ready. But in case it would be needed more urgently by another patient, he bought his own for 3,500 francs.

Post-op selfie: Iouri Podladtchikov right after waking up from surgery. Two months after the operation: Iouri wakeboarding on Lake Zurich. Picture: private

Now he was lying in his hospital bed feeling contented. The water, which was pumped from the ice container through a hose to the cuff attached to his knee and back again, was set at a temperature of six degrees. Every half hour the device switched itself off, because too much cold can be harmful. Then Podladtchikov gritted his teeth, the pain was almost unbearable without morphine. In the preliminary meeting he had persuaded the surgeon Georg Ahlbäumer not to give him regional anaesthesia for the procedure. «No fucking way, I don’t want some fucking regional anaesthesia,» he told him. «Just a general anaesthetic, nothing else.» Two years earlier, in January 2015, he had had his foot operated on by Ahlbäumer, conventionally with general and regional anaesthesia, and hadn’t felt his foot for hours after the operation. He made a huge fuss, because the flow of information from foot to head had been stemmed. Regional anaesthesia, he thought, felt like a temporary amputation.

Ahlbäumer, it should be added, is one of the most experienced orthopaedic doctors and trauma surgeons in Switzerland. If it had been up to him, he would have recommended that Podladtchikov have a conventional treatment. With athletes he doesn’t tend to experiment, it is too important that the body works perfectly again after the operation. But Podladtchikov is not a normal athlete. Ahlbäumer told him about «speed recovery», a relatively new rehab method. Above all, it requires the patient to have a pretty high pain tolerance.

»Do you think you can do it?» asked Ahlbäumer.

»Sure,» said Podladtchikov.

Today, three-quarters of a year after the operation, Ahlbäumer acknowledges that the risk paid off. But back then, when Podladtchikov was lying in his hospital bed in St. Moritz, letting everyone know he had just revolutionised sports medicine, the outcome wasn’t yet clear. Only Podladtchikov firmly believed it would work.

Iouri Podladtchikov, 12:59: «I’m going to break all rehab records, I tell you, conditions are great, Georg is super happy and I am too, I won’t need the crutches 😝 No, joke. Maybe for a few days.»

Iouri Podladtchikov, 18:42: «Evening! Ate well, plenty of water, more chocolate, 35-degree knee bend – I’ll be back on my feet soon! 💪💪💪»

Stefan Fröhlich, 18:46: «About the chocolate 🍫: Watch out, Pepe is reading this too!! 🤐 Otherwise I’ll be accused of being a bad influence again 😉»

Pepe Regazzi (national coach), 19:10: «Haha, chocolate is good. 80 per cent cocoa and little sugar 👌»

Fröhlich, team doctor of the Swiss snowboarding team, and Pepe Regazzi, their coach, who were now sounding so relaxed, were the only ones in the Whatsapp group to have witnessed the fall. From above the halfpipe, they had watched Podladtchikov lying in the flat bent double in pain, first loosening his shoes from the straps and then burying his head in his hands. After what seemed like an eternity, he stood up and walked down. He was limping, but wanted to go through the award ceremony, doping test and media conference – the rat’s tail of the competition, trailing a silver medal (even before the fall he had secured himself second place).

But Fröhlich urged him to let him check his knee. He noticed an instability compared to the other knee when he moved it back and forth. He asked about previous injuries, to which Podladtchikov replied that he had a partial ACL tear in 2013. This reassured Fröhlich, who thought that might explain the increased forward translational movement. He told Podladtchikov that when they were back in Switzerland he would do an MRI to be on the safe side. «Maybe you’ll get away with a scare.» Podladtchikov left with the rest of the team, had a few beers, and when he returned to the hotel, Regazzi was waiting for him. His athletes are like children to him, he spends many months of the year with them, cooks for them and takes care of them in every way. Now he couldn’t hold back, he showered Podladtchikov with «what if» questions until Podladtchikov interrupted him: «Look, if my knee is broken, the damage is already done. And if it’s not broken, then there’s nothing to worry about.»

Today Regazzi says: «Other athletes cry, flip out, fall into a depression: ‘Why me? Why now? Why so soon before the Olympic Games?’ Sometimes it goes on for weeks. Only then are their minds free to focus on recovery. Iouri didn’t even know yet how badly he had hurt himself, but he was already starting the recovery process.»

17 March

Alexandra Rohner-Müller, 06:05: «Good morning, sleep well? Then we can start work – I’m glad 😊👍😊»

Iouri Podladtchikov, 06:08: «Alexandra! I was just up and about. Put on my T-shirt, brushed my teeth. Wanted to go out, but I think I’ll wait for breakfast. Running super easy. This running machine in Balgrist – I want to use it as soon as possible. Is our doctor awake yet? 🤓»

Stefan Fröhlich, 06:24: «Yes, good morning! You can adjust the AlterG treadmill to as low as 20 per cent of your body weight.»

Iouri Podladtchikov, 06:26: «Great! Please reserve it for me next week! We’re going running. I want to keep my muscles, otherwise it’ll take tooo long.»

Stefan Fröhlich, 08:17: «But by then you need to be able to tense your upper thigh muscles a little for it to be worthwhile. But I’m sure that won’t be a problem.»

Alexandra Rohner-Müller, 11:41: «In order to plan ahead a little: Do you know how intensively you want to come to physio next week?»

Iouri Podladtchikov, 11:46: «As often and intensively as you can make time for me!»

Susanne Haag (physiotherapist), 11:50: «You can count me in as back-up, in case Alexandra doesn’t have time.»

Iouri Podladtchikov, 11:55: «That’s what I call a TEAM 😍 Who wants a macaron?»

And so it went on, dozens of messages late into the night. Soon they had a schedule for the whole week: physiotherapy and the AlterG treadmill every day. The week after that, once the stitches were out, he would also have water therapy. Someone set up a Google Calendar so that everyone had an overview.

18 March

Stefan Fröhlich, 10:54: «The schedule is fine as long as the knee is in optimal shape, but we need to check from day to day, depending on how it feels and on the swelling.»

Iouri Podladtchikov, 11:42: «Strangely, yesterday and today I had more problems than straight after the operation. I may need to stay here till Monday. The screw is suddenly hurting a lot. I’m getting morphine up here, but I don’t think they’ll give me any to take home with me. I’ll keep you posted.»

Stefan Fröhlich, 11:47: «Don’t worry, that’s not unusual in the first few days.»

Iouri Podladtchikov, 11:48: «The pain suddenly came out of the blue, it was heavy.»

From this point on, reining Podladtchikov in whenever he started to overdo things became Stefan Fröhlich’s most important job. He had already guessed this on the evening of March 12, the day after the accident. In the morning, Podladtchikov hadn’t flown straight back to Switzerland from Spain, but to Milan, where he’d negotiated a contract with a sponsor. In the afternoon he’d arrived in Zurich and gone to the Balgrist clinic for the MRI. Over the years, Fröhlich had informed dozens of patients that they had torn their cruciate ligament, but never an Olympic champion with so little time before the next Games. He didn’t know how Podladtchikov would react, and prepared for the worst. First they talked in his office, then they got hungry and went to the restaurant Collana on Sechseläutenplatz, where they continued their conversation over pasta. For a while, Fröhlich thought that Podladtchikov’s laid-back attitude was an act, that the shock hadn’t even hit him yet. Then he realised the same thing as Regazzi: that Podladtchikov had thought further ahead than they had.

Podladtchikov bombarded Fröhlich with questions and by the time the waiters were shuffling impatiently in the background because they wanted to close the restaurant, he was still asking questions, and Fröhlich was patiently answering them. Podladtchikov wanted to know what cruciate ligaments are good for and why they tear, and Fröhlich explained that the anterior one tears far more frequently than the posterior one. «In your case, it was like this: When you landed, your right knee was subjected to a valgus stress combined with forced flexion and rotation of the knee. In other words, you buckled into a bow-legged position, and on top of that came a quick, hefty bending of the knee and a rotating movement. And that put a big strain on the knee and above all on the cruciate ligament.» Could he get away without medical intervention, Podladtchikov asked. No, Fröhlich told him. «We could,» he said, «treat the ACL tear conservatively, without operating.» But usually that’s only an option for people who don’t put as much strain on their knee as you. They can live without their anterior cruciate ligament quite happily and not have any symptoms. I wouldn’t recommend that for you. We would need to give the knee three to six months to see how it copes without the ACL, and if we then realised it hadn’t worked, it would be too late for the Olympic Games.»

While the waiters were already balancing the tills, Podladtchikov came to his most important question: «What options do I have?» Fröhlich launched into a monologue, which contained the following key information: There are five options. The first is the rarest (and not feasible for Podladtchikov because his cruciate ligament was torn in the middle and not at one of the ends): You suture the ligament at the point where it is torn, and insert a structure running parallel to the ligament, which stabilises it until it has healed. The second option, the implantation of a graft taken from a cadaver, is also only rarely used. One can’t be sure of the quality of the tissue, how the implant will heal and if the foreign tissue will be accepted by the body. But the advantage is that the intervention can be made more quickly and none of the body’s own tissue needs to be removed. The third option is to replace the broken cruciate ligament with a piece of the quadriceps tendon in the knee: stable tissue, hardly any problems harvesting the graft – but there has not been much experience of this procedure. The fourth and fifth options are the most common. You remove part of the patient’s patellar tendon or a tendon of the hamstring, i.e. the posterior thigh muscle. The difference is that you remove the hamstring tendon on its own, while the part of the patellar tendon is removed with a piece of bone at each end. Bone on bone grows together faster than tendon on bone. The advantage of the hamstring option: as with the quadriceps tendon, there is normally no problem harvesting the graft, and furthermore, at least in laboratory tests, it is more resistant to tearing than the patellar tendon. But the tendon needs time to become fully functional again.

Podladtchikov listened attentively. Sometimes his impulsiveness can be exasperating: one day he signs up to study art history, the next he takes a ballet lesson, another day he starts to play guitar. He buys a flat in the middle of Zurich and sells it a few months later, dreams of a flat in Paris and rents one in New York, moves in to his mother’s in Dübendorf, and suddenly moves out again, sees a new building going up on the edge of town and buys himself a 160-metre-square loft (in a good year he earns around half a million francs through sponsorship deals). But this flightiness is only on the surface. In fact, he pursues all these unrelated interests in order to add more strings to his bow. In particular, he wants to become a better photographer. Besides snowboarding, photography is the only activity he has pursued consistently for years and with growing ambition.

This snowboard and photography nerd was now turning into a cruciate ligament nerd, wanted to know everything and not make any mistakes. This way of approaching everything head on stems from an innate impatience, and the athlete in him, who is always striving to achieve more, and for whom it can never go fast enough.

12 April

Iouri Podladtchikov, 21:58: «Greetings from Ibiza 😊»

(Accompanied by a picture in which it is clear to see that he is sitting on a motocross motorcycle on a narrow, gravelly mountain road, in the background the crystal-clear sea.)

Michelle Jaquet-Fertek (physiotherapist), 22:24: «Boys holiday! If I’d known you’d go and ride a motorbike, I would given you a good rap on the knuckles. I’m sure the other physios feel the same as I do 🙈😅 Enjoy!»

Anna Carl (physiotherapist), 22:25: «Go Mich!»

Iouri Podladtchikov, 22:26: «Don’t worry: they’re electric bikes.»

13 April

Alexandra Rohner-Müller, 06:22: «Thanks Michelle! 😇😇😇 Unfortunately my arms are too short to reach Ibiza. A good rap on the knuckles is just what he needs!»

Nicole Weibel (physiotherapist), 06:46: «Enjoy yourself – maybe also with a bit of chilling by the pool 🌞💦😜»

Georg Ahlbäumer, 09:15: «Hello Iouri. I may be a progressive surgeon, but stop that nonsense! If the worst comes to the worst, your health insurance won’t pay up 👎»

This wasn’t the first time Podladtchikov had spent time convalescing, and from previous experiences he knew that he hated nothing more than being thrown together with other injured athletes. In order to avoid them and not to have to dwell on his injury, he sought diversion in activities for which he usually had no time. He organised piano lessons and in his excitement bought two grand pianos, one of which he flogged again when his initial euphoria had worn off. He accepted the offer of a publisher who wanted to publish a book of his photographs, and spent the night sorting through Polaroids from the last few years – photos of previous girlfriends, of good friends and solo travels, and lots of photos of naked women. And he had an idea for another Polaroid that could be a key image in the book and would have the title «My Blood».

As always things had to move quickly. The idea came to him shortly before the book went to press, and he was expected in Amsterdam, where the book was being designed, to sign off the final proofs. Two days before, he got in his car and drove to St. Moritz, where he had some blood taken in his surgeon’s clinic. The nurse taking the blood hung up the pouch, into which the deep red liquid was dripping, on a metal hook, and Podladtchikov photographed it. A self-portrait to his liking.

The people in the Whatsapp group were the first to see the photo, even before the publisher. They were now a bit like Podladtchikov’s clique. And sometimes they acted like his groupies. They applauded (👏👏👏) when he sent them a picture of himself pushing 80 kilos again on the leg press, shared his happiness (😀😀😀) when he told them by video about his progress in his piano playing, and – as if he were a mischievous child with whom they couldn’t be angry even when he played naughty pranks – they told him to be careful (😉😉😉) after he ignored their advice and headed into town on a skateboard.

Podladtchikov was unstoppable. Most of the time they didn’t try to hold him back, even though they knew the risks. And it wasn’t that there hadn’t been any setbacks. The first one had come the day after the operation.

Following his talk with Fröhlich in Collana, and a conversation with Ahlbäumer in St. Moritz, Podladtchikov had chosen option five, the treatment in which the damaged cruciate ligament is replaced by a roughly 28-centimetre tendon from the posterior thigh muscle. Ahlbäumer folded it four times, inserted the ends arthroscopically, i.e. by means of an endoscope, into the upper and lower leg and secured the ends with small screws. The tendon is much more tear-resistant than a normal cruciate ligament, you could pull a lorry with it. But this doesn’t mean that it will never tear again. Cruciate ligaments are only the passive stabilisers in the knee. When they are stretched, sensors send a signal to the muscles, but in the case of a fall, they don’t react fast enough. So following cruciate ligament surgery you have to pay attention to two things: first, you have to be careful not to fall down, and second, you need to rebuild the original amount of muscle as soon as possible. Or better still, not let the muscles atrophy at all.

And that’s the tricky part. Tests have shown that there can be a decline in muscle mass after just one day in bed. If you go for a month without exercise, you can lose up to half of your muscle mass. Although the tendon needs time to settle into its new role and turn into a ligament, it is not because of this that many cruciate ligament rehabilitations drag out, often for over a year. The actual injury heals after about six months. The decisive factor is the musculature, and although Podladtchikov can sometimes be overly dramatic, when he said before the operation that he couldn’t waste a second after he woke up, he wasn’t exaggerating.

In addition to not using regional anaesthesia, and starting to use Game Ready as soon as possible to prevent swelling after the operation, the third key aspect of «speed recovery» is that the patient must have an overwhelming desire to start exercising again – a desire that even top athletes don’t always feel after surgery. And fourth, the patient must be able to tolerate morphine. Doctors don’t like to administer it, because it is addictive and can have unpleasant side effects, but with a knee operation without regional anaesthesia it is unavoidable. It doesn’t matter how insensitive to pain the patient is: as soon as the general anaesthetic has worn off, the pain becomes unbearable without morphine. But morphine has another disadvantage, which affects the speed of recovery. If you imagine the body’s self-healing powers as a group of workers, then morphine makes the workers hopelessly drunk. They lounge around and need days to sleep off their hangover.

That was why Podladtchikov reduced the dose of morphine the day after the operation. But immediately he was in so much pain that he lost two days just lying around – and had to increase the dosage again. He suffered another setback on 10 April, two days before the motocross photo on Ibiza. He had pain in his shoulder, which is why Fröhlich did a second MRI. Diagnosis: «Bursal-side partial rupture of the supraspinatus tendon.» The supraspinatus tendon is located under the bony roof of the shoulder and encloses the humerus from above. The partial tear was also a result of the fall in the Sierra Nevada and had gone unnoticed until now. Although it didn’t impede Podladtchikov in any way, he would now also have to work on strengthening his shoulder in rehab.

When Podladtchikov wasn’t on holiday in Ibiza, or in New York indulging his artistic passions, he now went to two to four rehab appointments a day, in different parts of Zurich, sometimes with one physiotherapist, sometimes with another.

Alexandra Rohner-Müller, co-owner of the Movecenter Feldmeilen, had taken over the coordination. In the space of eight weeks, she pushed through a programme for which most patients need twenty-four weeks: three times as quick, three times as intensive. In summary it looked like this: Promoting passive and active mobility. Training on a stationary bike. Intensive functional strength training for the torso, arms and healthy leg to improve and maintain strength, coordination and sport-specific movement patterns. Functional training of the leg axes, first with a partial, then a full load. Passive measures such as lymphatic drainage, massage and ultrasound. Water therapy and running with weight relief on an anti-gravity AlterG treadmill to train coordination and to prevent any limping. Stabilisation training on a variety of wobbly surfaces, balancing on one leg and both legs. From week four: Sport-specific jump and strength training. Leg presses. Intensive torso training. Running school. Jump and sensorimotor training on a trampoline with 180 and 360 degree turns around the body’s longitudinal axis. Intensive strength, endurance and coordination training. Momentum training.

22 May

Iouri Podladtchikov, 10:31: «I almost forgot to tell you 😜»

(Accompanied by a 44-second video: Podladtchikov wakesurfing on Lake Zurich, green-blue water, white spray all around him, cumulus clouds in the sky. It looks as if nothing had ever happened.)

Diego Schütz, 10:42: «👍😉😎»

Dumezweni Mncube (personal trainer), 11:27: «Nice!»

Pepe Regazzi, 13:16: «Like a feather, nice flow and a great tresessanta. But watch out: The water can be hard and nasty 😉 So only with lots of concentrazione 🙏»

27 May

Iouri Podladtchikov, 17:02: «It was in my way so I had to jump over it.»

(Accompanied by a 19-second video: Podladtchikov skateboarding in Zurich, he skates up a ramp and spins about one and a half metres in the air over an obstacle.)

8 June

Iouri Podladtchikov, 00:24: «Twelve weeks today since the operation!»

Georg Ahlbäumer, 09:58: «I am deeply impressed! What is your subjective opinion about how your operated knee feels compared to the other one? Greetings from Indonesia.»

Iouri Podladtchikov, 14:05: «Georg! Great to hear from you, send us a photo from Bali 😀 My knee feels really fine. To be honest, the main problem is in my head. I’m finding it hard to get back the feeling that everything will be the way it was. The training is definitely getting my knee back in shape, but like so often with this kind of injury, I feel I’m lacking flexibility and reactive power in other areas instead. I notice it more on asphalt than on water, but I’ve done strength training every day this week, maybe that’s why my knee’s a bit tired. I haven’t made it to ballet at all, because I’m sitting at the piano and working on my book, but soon I’m going to stop with these distractions and concentrate on the missing parts of the system. See you soon, Georg 😅 See you soon, TEAM.»

20 June

Iouri Podladtchikov, 12:18: «Back to snow.»

(Accompanied by a 30-second video: Podladtchikov in the snow, three months and a few days after the accident, on the glacier of Les Deux Alpes. He still looks a bit stiff, dares to do 180-degree turns and simple rotations in the halfpipe, the sky is steel blue. Within minutes everyone in the Whatsapp group reacts.)

Stefan Fröhlich, 14:13: «Very impressive, Iouri!!! 💪 But I’m going to carry on being the boring spoilsport who steps on the brakes. Now is the critical stage, when the cruciate ligament replacement is least resilient and most vulnerable. Falling is forbidden!!!»

21 June

Iouri Podladtchikov, 14:02: «Georg, can the screw come out as soon as possible?»

Since the start of June, Podladtchikov had only been going to the physiotherapists when needed, the Google Calendar was no longer being used. Now Dumezweni Mncube, his personal trainer, and Diego Schütz, strength and conditioning coach of the Swiss team, were in charge. They worked with Podladtchikov in Zurich, in Magglingen, in Tessin, and watched him sweating in the weights room and doing a reverse somersault into ice-cold water from a bridge in Verzascatal, a test of courage which was of course immediately posted as a video to the Whatsapp group. But above all it was a way for Podladtchikov to convince himself that he was over his injury.

But he was still injured, and this time he ran into a brick wall. The trainers forbade him to take part in a test competition in August in New Zealand, and the doctors insisted that they would only remove the screw in autumn.

12 September

Iouri Podladtchikov, 12:55: «Just woke up from the op, screw out, mega happy. Thanks Georg, great work as usual. In fact I would like to thank you all for your incredible support, without you I wouldn’t have managed my rehab in such a miraculously short amount of time. I am free and focused. Best regards from Room 33 😍»

29 September

Stefan Fröhlich, 11:34: «It doesn’t have much to do with rehab anymore, I’m going to rename the group.»

Fröhlich changed the subject line from «Iouri’s Rehab 🏋➡💪➡🏂➡🥇» to «Iouri’s Comeback 🏂➡🥇». Gradually the Whatsapp group quietened down. Podladtchikov could have returned to his usual routine – if such a thing had ever existed in his life. Because no sooner had he overcome one hurdle than he turned his attention to another, and this one, it soon became clear, would be no less crucial for his performance in the Olympic Games than his physical fitness. This hurdle had to do with his mind, not his body: Podladtchikov began to self-reflect.

Eye on the goal: only two months to go until the Olympic finals in South Korea.

There was a moment in the autumn when he was suddenly convinced he needed psychoanalysis. This need overcame him like all his other impulsive, seemingly incoherent desires: from out of the blue, but with such urgency that he couldn’t ignore it. Podladtchikov can rub people the wrong way – his friends as well as members of the public. He has many faces, embraces the world in one moment and pushes everyone away the next. He is egotistical (which top athletes have to be), and nobody could be blamed for finding him conceited. One moment he is loud, the next he is quiet, on the snowboard he is like a magician, in normal life he can sometimes be annoying. When he has time he will go to huge lengths for people, but if he’s stressed and under pressure, he can be endlessly demanding. He knows how to have fun, but lacks self-irony. He is full of love, but takes himself more seriously than anything else.

And it isn’t enough for him to please his many sports fans, he wants to be the kind of person who also gets an opera-house director watching the snowboarding final. He cancels lucrative sponsorship deals, because the sponsors’ social media expectations aren’t compatible with his Instagram aesthetic. In New York he tries to make contact with the curator of the Museum of Modern Art – and succeeds. He dreams of the cover of Vogue, not as a model, but as a photographer. He is genuinely upset when the culture sections of the newspapers show no interest in reporting on True Love is Hard to Find, the photo book that he worked on during his rehab. He is dismissive of anything too obvious, which is why he considers donating the money for a pair of snowboard goggles that he designed to a nunnery instead of to a skatepark in Afghanistan, as the goggle manufacturer suggested. (»I admire these women, how they dedicate themselves 100 per cent to one thing.») He’s annoyed to find himself at an age where people around him are often talking about the past and not the future. And he thinks that while he may be an Olympic champion, he still hasn’t achieved anything lasting, nothing that will still touch people in fifty years’ time.

With Podladtchikov there is no in-between, including in the way he is perceived by others. People either like him or don’t like him. All this flightiness and brilliance, this versatility and anarchy, is what he now wanted to pack into psychoanalysis. He made it to the seventh session, then the therapist terminated the treatment for reasons that she will not specify. But in the short time, Podladtchikov felt that he learned a few important things about himself, including that it matters to him what people think of him.

The day after his last session, he had breakfast in the restaurant Bank on Helvetiaplatz: «There are famous personalities that you don’t like as people. But they are masters in what they do. And then there are famous personalities you do like. For many years, the public was only interested in me as an athlete, they talked about my results, said: ‘Ah, he came second.’ The Olympic victory changed everything. Since then they say: ‘Look, he’s spitting on the ground.’ Or: ‘Look, he didn’t help that old lady cross the road.’ You can do everything right, but if someone spots you doing something wrong, you’re an arsehole. I know I’m one of those people about whom people speak badly.»

12 October

Iouri Podladtchikov, 13:59: «This trick cost me my cruciate ligament! Today I gave it another go, seven months after the fall!»

(Accompanied by a 9-second video: You can see Podladtchikov in the halfpipe on the Saas-Fee glacier as he lands the Double Backside Alley-Oop Rodeo, the trick with which he intends to finish his Olympic run – the double flip over the snowboard’s lateral axis, with the snowboard facing uphill, the body downhill.)

Pepe Regazzi, 14:00: «The 👑»

Michelle Jaquet-Fertek, 14:01: «👏👑👑👑»

Stefan Fröhlich, 14:05: «The new one seems to be stronger than the old one 😉»

The national coach Regazzi noted that the injury had in fact given Podladtchikov an unexpected – and not to be underestimated – advantage in preparing for the Olympic Games. While Podladtchikov’s opponents tried to make all sorts of last-minute advances during the spring and autumn, he was concentrating on the basics. If he hadn’t had his fall, he would scarcely have been able to resist the temptation to expand his repertoire. Which isn’t necessarily the best thing to do, because in snowboarding there is an unwritten rule that you should only do tricks at the Olympics that you’ve already demonstrated in competitions in the previous season. Partly so as not to put more pressure on yourself in this already highly charged competition; partly so the judges don’t have to judge a trick they’ve never seen before – which often ends up with them giving it too low a score.

9 November

Stefan Fröhlich, 15:59: «Everything intact! Just a little contusion in the joint, no structural lesion, no bruising of the bone! 👍👍👍 And pretty thick, the new cruciate ligament!»

Susanne Haag, 16:24: «😳😳😳 Did something happen?»

Stefan Fröhlich, 16:35: «Hyperflexion on the trampoline, but everything’s fine! ✊»

Diego Schütz, 16:40: «That’s good news!! Go, Iouri! 👍💪»

Nobody had expected that the Whatsapp group would have to be used again for its original purpose – for medical updates. Podladtchikov had just returned from a week’s holiday at the Dead Sea in Jordan when he made a careless landing during trampoline training – an important part of building up his strength again – and twisted his knee. At first he wasn’t too worried, then he was. He called up Fröhlich, who sent him for an MRI. All clear. Podladtchikov travelled to Paris, where he met with a gallery owner who wanted to exhibit his True Love Is Hard To Find Polaroids. He cleared an afternoon for a conference call with Leica: the camera manufacturer will soon launch a Podladtchikov Special Edition. He designed the cover for the first studio album of his teammate Pat Burgener, who is a musician as well as a snowboarder. And he turned up at his snowboard manufacturer at the very last minute before leaving for the US, because he had completely forgotten to order boards for the Olympic season.

And now the countdown begins: starting on 7 December in Copper Mountain, Colorado, for the first of four competitions before the Olympic Games. No time to think, no time to mess around, 69 days until the Olympic finals in Pyeongchang.

Translation: Jenny Piening