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From Shirley to Sochi - why Billy Morgan is still going to the Winter Olympics
The Team GB snowboarder’s hopes of competing at Sochi next month were threatened when he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his right knee last September.
Billy has already broken several bones, par for the course for one of the most talented snowboarders on the planet with a reputation for pushing the boundaries.
He was the world’s first to perform the Triple Rodeo (three mid-air rotations) two years ago, YouTube footage of which went viral, before becoming the first Briton to perform the Backside Triple Cork 1440 last February.
But his worst injury so far was sustained during a relatively straightforward training routine, what he describes as “a front flip off a box”, in Castleford, Yorkshire.
A ruptured ACL ended Walcott’s season and his hopes of going to Brazil with England, but 24 year-old Billy should still be ready to compete on the world stage on February 8.
In his first competition since the injury, the recent US Grand Prix in Colorado, Billy qualified for the finals in first place.
A bespoke brace and a strict rehabilitation programme overseen by Totton-based physio Dean Cook, who runs Dynamics Physiotherapy & Sports Massage Clinic in Eling, has ensured his four-month recovery.
“Back in September Billy’s chances were very slim, the MRI scan results weren’t looking too good at all,” says Dean, who sought advice from top orthopaedic surgeon Andy Williams.
A London-based knee specialist who has operated on many Premier League footballers, Williams is also believed to be Walcott’s surgeon. “He deals with a lot of elite athletes so we were very lucky to be able to go and see him,” continued Dean. “His advice was that Billy needed an operation, but the biggest problem with an ACL op is the amount of time out for rehab - usually a minimum of six to nine months.
“So the operation was never an option if he was going to be able to compete at the Winter Olympics.
“He would never have got his strength back quickly enough, mainly because the graft, the new ligament they make from the hamstring, needs a certain amount of time to mature.
“It was not good news and Billy was understandably distraught. He knew he was going to be up against it.”
But there was still hope.
“Our only option was to rehab Billy without a new ligament and get him as strong as we could,” explains Dean.
“I knew there was a chance we could have him ready for Sochi without an ACL. Other snowboarders and skiers have competed without one and when we presented Plan B to Andy, he was quite optimistic.
“It couldn’t happen with a footballer or in any multi-directional sport that involves a lot of pivoting so it would never have been an option for Walcott.
“But because of Billy’s strong ‘squat’ position on a snowboard, we asked if a knee brace was an option in the second meeting and Andy agreed that with the right training it was definitely a possibility.
“So we put Plan B into action. We went through intensive rehab with a three-hour session of physio and strength conditioning every day for five days a week.
“A company called Össur came on board at the end of October to sponsor Billy with a brace that fits his knee like a glove.
“For a good few weeks, he wore it 24/7. He can get around without it now but it has to be worn in training and competition while he’s without an ACL.”
For the last four years, Dean has also been the go-to physio for the Southampton-based Team GB divers so he looked after the likes of Pete Waterfield, Stacie Powell and Chris Mears in the build-up to and during London 2012.
He has also treated several members of the Team GB sailing team and for the last 14 years has looked after the touring shows that visit the Mayflower Theatre.
But this has been his biggest challenge. “Billy’s the first client who I’ve had to get back to an elite level without an ACL and with a complete rupture of the MCL.
“I think it was quite a major shock to him when he realised what was required, but he’s doing well.
“His MCL has knitted back quite nicely with rehab and the bracing and is getting stronger all the time.”
This has not been Billy’s first major challenge since his zest for snowboarding grew following his first experience on genuine snow just seven years ago, having started out at the Southampton Alpine Centre in Thornhill Road, aged 13.
He considered quitting the sport due to financial difficulties three years ago, before his outlandish feats attracted sponsorship from the likes of Quiksilver and Red Bull.
The first real test of his damaged knee was performing tricks again, which he has gradually built up to since arriving in Colorado last month.
So his results at the US Grand Prix were hugely encouraging.
“Billy’s obviously managed to land without any problems, which was great to hear because in Southampton we couldn’t really replicate what he does due to the timescale,” explains Dean.
“We went to The Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead five weeks ago but at that stage he was still feeling his way back and could only cruise around on it.
“Matt Dickens, a strength-and-conditioning coach from British Ski & Snowboard, helped prepare him for snowboarding properly with the brace.
“He’s gradually been increasing his skill difficulty with the help of the Team GB physios, who are managing the next stage of his recovery.”
The US Grand Prix snowboarding finals were cancelled at the weekend, due to poor weather. So next up for former Bellemoor schoolboy Billy is the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado and then Sochi, where Slopestyle - the freestyling event for snowboarders - will make its Winter Olympics debut.
All being well, Billy will be a serious medal contender on Russia’s Black Sea coast, where he will show off the skills that were first developed skateboarding on the streets of Shirley and as an acrobatic gymnast at Southampton Gymnastics Club.
Only when the Winter Olympics are over will he decide whether to undergo an operation.
“Billy’s going to have to make that decision when he gets back,” continued Dean. “We’ll discuss the pros and cons then. Lots of skiers and snowboarders opt not to have the op because of the time out of action.
“But Andy Williams would like to do it and Billy will be well prepared after all the strength and conditioning.
“If he doesn’t have it done he’ll always have to wear the brace and there would be medical implications with the joint in years to come.”
In the meantime, roll on Sochi 2014.