It was 18 months before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and he could barely drag himself out of bed. He couldn’t put on his clothes without help, couldn’t tie his shoes or go for a walk. His girlfriend had to prepare most of his meals.
Most everything was a struggle for Brendan Green.
Two back surgeries within five months will do that to a person, even to a world-class biathlete.
And yet here he is now: the late addition to the Canadian Olympic biathlon team and a guy who couldn’t take lying down any longer than he had to. Green may not have had the preparation he envisioned, but the 27-year-old from Hay River, NWT, will be cross-country skiing and shooting in Russia – and that has fired a jolt of inspiration through the entire Canadian team.
Sometimes, just making it to the Olympics is a medal performance in its own right.
“Seeing him in so much pain was not fun to watch,” said Rosanna Crawford, also an Olympic biathlete – and the girlfriend who would make Green his morning smoothies before heading out for training. “But I knew that if anyone could come back from two surgeries and be ready for the Olympics, it was him.”
With Green aboard, Canada’s eight-member team boasts talent (Jean-Philippe Le Guellec, the first Canadian male to win a World Cup race), experience (Zina Kocher, the only woman on the team to have won a World Cup medal) and some recent successes in the individual and team-relay events.
Chris Lindsay, Biathlon Canada’s high-performance director, has gone so far as to call his athletes “the most underrated team in Canadian Olympic sport … a biathlon team that is ready to legitimately challenge for the Olympic podium for the first time in nearly two decades.”
Green was part of the men’s 4-x-7.5-kilometre relay team that finished 10th at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He is also being counted on to compete in the newly-added mixed-team relay.
It all depends on well he can rebound after missing an entire World Cup season with a disc in his back that herniated not once but twice.
“The Olympics were always in the back of my mind when I was recovering, but I tried not to focus that far ahead. It was about making small goals and trying to achieve them,” Green said of his pre-Sochi mindset. “It was really a humbling experience to be in the best shape of my life to not being able to walk.”
It began with a weightlifting injury he suffered while doing squats in a gym. He recovered fairly quickly and competed on the World Cup circuit. But while warming up for a 2012 race in Norway, Green felt something give out in his back. He started and finished the race despite pain shooting through his left leg.
He flew home to Calgary and had surgery done in April. Twelve weeks later, the pain hadn’t gone away. There were burning sensations. A magnetic resonance imaging exam showed the disc was herniated again. Once more, Green went under the knife, only this time the concerns were greater.
“Everyone was trying to be as optimistic as possible. But I think it was on everyone’s mind whether competing again was a possibility for me,” he said. “I’m a pretty motivated guy but needing a second surgery was tough to deal with. I was experiencing nerve problems. The surgeon told me [the second operation] could help a lot or not at all.”
The long recovery frustrated Green.
Crawford proved to be more than just a physical caregiver. Having been through back surgery herself, she advised Green on what he needed to do emotionally.
“I knew how much real pain you can experience after back surgery. I told him to listen to his body,” Crawford said. “I said, ‘If you feel you can’t go for a 10-minute walk, don’t do it.’ It was about taking small steps.”
The initial steps were delicate – getting out of bed on his own, bending over to pick something up, going for a walk, then going for walks alone. Eventually, Green got on skis and began increasing his workouts. By the fall of 2013, he had little time and only a few races left to qualify for Sochi.
In his World Cup return last December, Green missed the Olympic qualifying standard by 1/10th of a second. His last chance was the Canadian Olympic trials in Canmore, Alta. He needed to race well on back-to-back days to punch his ticket to Russia. He won both times.
Green is convinced he never could have made it to the Olympics without the support of his friends, team members and especially Crawford (whose older sister, Chandra Crawford, an Olympic gold medalist in 2006, will be cross-country skiing in Sochi). Now that he’s healthy again, Green has set his expectations high as a way to reward all those who assisted him when he was bedridden and needed them the most.
“Vancouver was a great experience. I was the youngest guy on the team. Now, I’m a more experienced athlete and I’m really thankful for all the help I received,” he said. “I think I’m more grateful now to be able to do what I do.
“This is definitely a meaningful Olympics.”