When the United States women’s national volleyball team played China this October in the championship match of the 2014 FIVB World Championship final in Milan, Italy, it seemed a shame that one of them had to lose.
The US team was favored, coming into the tournament ranked #2 in the world, while the relatively young Chinese squad made a surprising run to the final. After losing two close games to start the match, the Chinese women dominated the third game, and looked to even the best-of-five match at two games apiece. But the US women prevailed 27-25 in a dramatic deciding fourth game, winning their first ever world championship.
For Sherwin Ho, MD, Associate Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine, the final was a no-lose situation. As team physician for the Chinese national team, his immediate rooting interest was with their young squad. But he had been a long-time physician with the US team too. No matter the outcome, one of his teams was going to come out on top.
“You couldn’t have scripted it any better, to have both my teams end up at the top in the gold medal match,” he said.
Ho had been working with the US women’s volleyball team since 2006, accompanying the team to the 2008 Beijing Olympics as an advisor for their silver medal run. During that time, the US coach was Jenny Lang Ping, a legendary former player who led China to their first Olympic gold medal in 1984. After the Beijing games, she returned to China to coach a professional team, and occasionally asked Ho to treat some of her players. Then last summer when she became head coach of the Chinese national team, she invited him to become the official team physician.
Since then he has made several trips to China to evaluate players and address any injuries, working with physical therapists and staff based in China full-time. National volleyball teams primarily focus on the qualifying seasons for two major events: the world championships and the Olympics, each held every four years in offsetting biennial cycles. Players often sign with professional teams around the world in the years in between, so life for an elite volleyball player is a non-stop grind of training, professional matches, and national team play.
Volleyball players can suffer traumatic injuries like ACL tears and ankle sprains, but as with any professional athletes, the most common injuries are related to overuse. Years of repetitive jumping, landing and swinging arms overhead to strike the ball can lead to a lot of cartilage damage and meniscus tears in the knees, or tendonitis and labral tears in the shoulders.
Ho says treating these injuries in such high-level athletes provides the ultimate challenge to hone his skills as a sports medicine physician.
“This is what sports medicine physicians live and work for, to take care of athletes at the very highest level,” he said. “If you treat a player from an elite team who then gets back and performs at that same level, that’s very gratifying. For those of us in sports medicine, that represents the pinnacle of our achievements.”
No less gratifying, he says, is managing a team of athletes through a season to keep them healthy and prevent the kind of injuries that need surgery.
“Nurturing a team through a six month season takes a different skill set,” he said. “In the operating room I can use my hands and surgical skills to fix a player, but oftentimes it’s equally challenging and rewarding to manage an entire team through a long season, and have them be healthy and injury-free to perform well enough at the end of the season to win the gold or silver medal.”
Or in Dr. Ho’s case, winning both at the same time.