The Strenuous Journey of Recovery

A full-time route setter in East London, Alexander Lemel, underwent hip surgery. This story is the strenuous journey of recovery.

Working at Mile End climbing wall, Alexander sets the coloured routes on climbing walls for beginners to elite athletes. An extremely physically demanding job, he has to be in the same shape as the athletes he is setting. With a ton of training on top of a physical job, injuries become part of the process.

Catching the climbing bug quickly after immersing himself in the sport, he quit his original job as an estate agent to work at the climbing wall. “I thought about going back to my job in a stressful environment and thought I would like to be climbing all the time. That is what life should be. Doing what you love, and being paid to do what you love”, explains Alexander.

Routsetter, teamBMC

2020 hit. Lockdown happened. Everyone who was a climber scrambled to get fingerboards at home or built small walls to satisfy the climbing bug. Alexander began to train more at home with more stretching and yoga, and that is when he tweaked his hamstring, rippling a domino effect. He was suffering from hamstring pain, hip pain to groin pain. Everything continued to worsen, and no physios were open. He had to manage this injury alone. He had no idea where, why or even how it happened.

Time went by, Alexander was limping and eventually, things began to open. He saw the Team GB physio. They diagnosed it as Femoroacetabular Impingement (FAI) Syndrome. Due to his repeated impact job, this wears away the cartilage. As it slowly tore away, he could not climb or even walk. Physio was not working, so he took things into his own hands to find a surgeon. On discovering the first surgeon, he did not like his bedside manner and did not go with him. Always trust your gut, especially with operations. He found a new sports masseuse instead first. Emma at the Lewin Clinic still looks after him today. She introduced him to the physio Colin Lewin who had seen this condition before. Colin recommended a new surgeon, and Alexander knew this was the one for him.

Alexander bouldering with hands and feet on all holds. The Strenuous Journey of Recovery
Alexander Lemel, Band Of BirdsĀ 

He went in for a diagnostic injection on Saturday and had to decide that night to do the operation Sunday due to covid regulations. His quality of life was so affected he knew he had to do the surgery with no time to prepare.

When it is mentally affecting you every day, trying everything to recover, which means getting to this surgeon in six months where it usually takes longer.

Alexander Lemel

The surgery was successful, and they survived 60% of his cartilage. However, “my recovery was really difficult”, says Alexander. It was not even the hip that was the problem now. Climbing is predominantly an upper-body sport. Therefore, when he hit rehab with the same intensity as his training, all his lower body and tendons “just exploded, it was although they were saying no we do not like this amount of work you are forcing us through” explains Alexander.

His hip was recovering, but all the other injuries were now slowing him down. This aspect was mentally challenging as it felt like one battle after the next.

He poured everything into recovery and surrounded himself with all the right people on his journey. It took Alexander a year and a half to walk up the stairs without wobbling. Alexander states “I spent most of the time on the floor just trying to lift my leg that would not move. I would lie there thinking, why has this happened to me? What is happening?”

Alexander bouldering at the top of the route reaching for the top hold. The Strenuous Journey of Recovery
Alexander Lemel, Band Of BirdsĀ 

Reflecting, Alexander was so weak after surgery that he could not even walk.

I felt like people completely wrote me off. I lost my identity through that.

Alexander Lemel

Alexander noticed when he was smashing his job, everyone was happy to be there surrounding him. However, when he was at his lowest and did not climb, only a few people stayed. Alexander used that fire through recovery. To all the people that disappeared when he needed them, he did not need them anymore. That was a huge motivation on his strenuous journey of recovery.

Now back to a level where he can train as much as he wants. Alexander explains that he could not even step up on a mat, so the level of work he had to put in was immense. “The mental effect was the hardest barrier to overcome,” says Alexander. Once everything had settled, he could start training. The mental side of trying to climb again was heartbreaking. He still gets frozen on the wall. Before the surgery, he could flick about with dynamic movements, and now his brain shuts off.

Going to a gym and strengthening a muscle is a hell of a lot easier than trying to work and strengthen your mind.

Alexander Lemel

It is not a straightforward path and can be very frustrating. That is where the support of other people is so important. Nevertheless, psychological support is not always there. You have your family and friends, and Alexander had incredible support from everyone at the Lewin Clinic, “but it is those times where you are on your own. When you are alone that is hard”, Alexander explains.

People can support you as much as possible through your journey and recovery. However, it is you in that position. You are the one in your head. It gets to a point where you have to be able to pull yourself out of whatever hole you are in, which is hard, but you can do it. You can get through the strenuous journey of recovery and get back up.

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