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For Canada’s Olympians, injury and pain are part of the game

Tabia Charles competes in the women's long jump athletics final in the National Stadium at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 22, 2008.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/REUTERS

Jason Burnett is fine. Really, he's good. Never mind the metal plates in his right leg. Or the screws holding them in place. Or his bandaged left foot, wracked by plantar fasciitis, which aches every time his weight bears down on a trampoline.

"I have pain throughout the day," said Mr. Burnett, 25, an Olympic silver medalist in trampoline from Etobicoke, Ont. "That's fine with me, because I have a bigger goal to achieve right now. I'll deal with this problem later. Right now I have something else to do."

Injured? No problem. En route to London 2012, that's a mantra as familiar to many Canadian Olympic athletes as O Canada. At his point, with the Games only weeks away, athletes will have to play the cards dealt them. It's now as much about mental preparation as it is physical training.

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Leading the charge of stoic determination is Alexandre Despatie, who confirmed Thursday that he was London-bound despite a June 12 diving accident that left him with a concussion and a gruesome 10-centimetre gash just below his hairline. The two-time Olympic silver medalist will be marching into the Olympic Stadium with Mr. Burnett and other world-class competitors making due with sore knees, tender ankles and hobbled hips.

"I feel pain all the time, but the only time it's really bad is when I'm playing basketball," says Teresa Gabriele, 32, point guard for Canada's national women's basketball team. She suffers from atypical plantar fasciitis in her foot, deteriorating cartilage in her knees, a bone spur on her heel and tendinitis in both Achilles tendons, and wakes up most mornings walking around "like I'm 85 years old."

Serious injuries can derail or end athletic careers, but a spectacular comeback is also what Olympic telecasts are made for. Canadian gymnast Kyle Shewfelt broke both his tibias and spent the next 11 months in rehabilitation before competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Silken Laumann shattered her leg 10 weeks before the 1992 Games; five operations, and countless hours of gruelling rehabilitation later, she won bronze.

Then there's Mr. Despatie, who broke his foot a few weeks prior to the 2008 Games in Beijing, and won silver.

How does that happen? Derek Robinson, a sports psychologist who has counselled Olympic speed skaters, hockey players, track-and-field athletes and alpine skiers, says it's the mental work – not just the physical rehabilitation – that gives athletes an edge.

"They can come back more mentally refreshed," said Mr. Robinson, a mental performance consultant with the Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary. "A lot of athletes really feel that, 'Wow, I'm lucky to be doing this. I want to be doing this.' They get grounded back to their values: why they're doing it, why it's important to them. Sometimes an injury can clear all the clutter."

Still, he said, getting to that point of mental clarity is a tricky process.

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"There's fear of re-injury. There's fear of failure. There's fear of letting the team down," Mr. Robinson said. "There are also emotional stressors if they're not where they were prior to the injury, and they have to handle some pretty disappointing results."

Researchers looking at sport psychology have come to understand that physical readiness and mental readiness are not synonymous, said Canadian researcher Les Podlog, an assistant professor in the department of exercise and sport science at the University of Utah College of Health.

In his research on the psychology of returning to competition after injury, Prof. Podlog has found that athletes feel best, and even perform at their best, when they have the autonomy to decide when they return – with the support of coaches, family, and health staff. What doesn't work, he said, is when they feel forced to return by external pressures from coaches or looming competitions (like the Olympics). Athletes can also put undue pressure on themselves out of guilt, fear of failure, or anxiety about being isolated from their peers.

Mr. Robinson agrees.

"If you're not going to do more [physical] damage by competing, then it really comes down to a level of acceptance," he said. "Because, obviously, the athlete is aware of the pain, and if they're mindful of it without thinking, I'm not going to win, I can't compete. ... If they are aware, and they accept it, and they still take responsibility for what they are signing up for, then their psychic energy, their brain power, is now focused on the task at hand and they are fully engaged."

Mr. Burnett says he has the confidence to compete in pain because his doctors and physiotherapists have assured him he's not doing more damage to his foot.

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Ms. Gabriele says she's still competing because her passion for basketball outweighs the fact that her chronic injuries are a total drag. Still, her plans to retire from basketball after these Games will feel pretty sweet.

"People that have retired from sport say that waking up after you're retired is the best thing ever, because you're like, 'This is what a normal person feels like. I'm not in pain,' " she said.

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