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Andreas Toba: Hero de Janeiro Safely landed

Issue 03/2017

Hanover, July 2017: Andreas Toba is back. The “Hero of Rio” can finally take part in competitions again. At the Olympic Games in Rio, he continued to perform on an injured knee – but now it’s holding up fine. But the all-around gymnast has had to learn a new discipline: Patience.

The descent was far from elegant. Backwards, arms and legs extended upward, the man flopped from the horizontal bar onto a heap of foam pieces. It made for an amusing sight. Judges would likely score it little better than a five minus. Be that as it may, what the gymnast had just demonstrated on the apparatus was truly exceptional: Fearlessly, he swung himself high, tensed his powerful biceps, picked up speed for two, three rapid twists, crossed his hands, and raised his narrow legs to the highest point above the bar to gather momentum for the final loop. Whether he’s performing the giant , the straddle Tkachev or the Kovacs somersault , Andreas Toba moves through the exercises on the bar with flair. Were it not for the strain etched on his face with every turn, you could almost believe it was completely effortless. A top score. The two young gymnasts next to the foam pile are applauding too.

“It cracked! I couldn’t hold my leg up any longer.”

There is a relaxed atmosphere in the gymnastics hall at the Olympic training center in Hanover on this early summer evening. Andreas Toba, the German champion of the 2016 artistic all-around gymnastics and an Olympic athlete who has competed in London and Rio, is back to his full training routine. He suffered repeated setbacks due to surgery and complications following his severe knee injury in Rio. Back in the spring, six months after his cruciate ligament was reconstructed and his meniscus operated on, an infection in his knee took him out of action once again. Shortly before that , he had to go under the knife for further work on his meniscus. This unfortunate tale began with the floor exercise in Rio. At the end of his first run, he landed awkwardly on his knee after a jump.
“I knew straight away that something was badly injured,” he says of the fatal moment: “It cracked, and I couldn’t hold my leg up any longer.” The extent of the damage was revealed later in the hospital: A ruptured cruciate ligament and a torn meniscus. Yet somehow, just fifteen minutes after the injury, Andreas Toba hauled himself onto the pommel horse and achieved the best score out of all the German gymnasts on this piece of apparatus, despite the damage to his knee. How he managed this remains a mystery and not just to the 26-year-old himself. “I wanted to help the team,” he says succinctly. Although there was no medal , the “Hero de Janeiro” nonetheless enjoyed a huge amount of public recognition. His selfless efforts for his team were honored by the German television audience, who voted him the winner of the Bambi prize.

Protection with a stabilizing hard-frame orthosis

The SofTec Genu stabilizes and activates at the same time. This was the next treatment step and represented an important combination for returning to training.
The SofTec Genu stabilizes and activates at the same time. This was the next treatment step and represented an important combination for returning to training.

But it’s not just spectators’ hearts that athletes want to win – their sights are set on competitions too. Long months passed before Andreas Toba could even begin to think about this again. During this phase, a large number of medical aids were used to help treat the injury, in a virtually textbook sequence. While he was still in Rio, the Bauerfeind orthotist on site recommended the immobilizing GenuLoc knee orthosis. The function of this orthosis was to secure and protect the recently injured knee joint. Two dorsal aluminum bars are incorporated into the supporting material of the orthosis to keep the knee in place, and can be bent to a specific angle – the first measure taken to prevent damaging movements and impacts. With this protection in place, the athlete was able to make the journey home. Then, two weeks after the injury, the cruciate ligament reconstruction was performed along with meniscus suturing. After this surgery, Toba wore the stabilizing SecuTec Genu hard-frame orthosis. In cases of cruciate ligament tears, collateral ligament injuries, and meniscus surgery, the affected knee joint requires external stabilization for a certain amount of time in order to restrict movement in a controlled manner. The SecuTec Genu fulfills this function in several ways. It is a lightweight and especially rotation-stable knee orthosis, designed to fit the anatomy of the leg. Flexion and extension can be individually restricted to provide protection. In addition, it can be put on and taken off easily from the front. And it lies flat.

“Without the orthosis, everything would have taken much longer”

The physician and gymnast during a check-up at the orthopedics practice in Hanover.
The physician and gymnast during a check-up at the orthopedics practice in Hanover.

For Andreas Toba, the flat design of the SecuTec Genu was the deciding factor in choosing to start training again at the beginning of the year. Any other orthosis would just have got in the way of his legs when practicing his moves on the gymnastics apparatus. The recovering gymnast wore the orthosis from the start of his rehabilitation program right up until he resumed training. “I simply would have been unable to return to training so early without it ,” he says. “Everything would have taken much longer.” And there was a psychological benefit too, as he explains: “The cool thing about the orthosis was that I wasn’t worried any more. That is, worried that I could injure my knee again. I knew it was being held in place by the orthosis.” Since the start of the year, Andreas Toba has been training with the SofTec Genu soft orthosis. This stabilizes the knee both passively and actively by combining the mechanical protection provided by a hard-frame orthosis and the muscle-activating properties of supports. The SofTec Genu thus helps to prevent incorrect movements while promoting safe mobilization. A viscoelastic pad on the kneecap reinforces the positive effect on the sensorimotor function and guarantees a secure fit.

Sports Knee Support as a “final safety measure”

With the Sports Knee Support on the pommel horse – as a final safety measure.
With the Sports Knee Support on the pommel horse – as a final safety measure.

After his landing in the foam pit , Andreas Toba jokes around with the two young gymnasts. Of course, his descent was not misjudged – it was exactly as he intended. The forces that act on the knee during a landing from such a height are completely unwanted right now. Both from the gymnast’s perspective and that of his therapist. Speaking of the therapist: It’s time for a check-up with Dr. med. Andreas Sander-Beuermann in Hanover’s city center. This orthopedist once treated Andreas’s father Marius, who was also a champion artistic gymnast. Today, the physician is pleased with the son’s progress. Of course, he’ll have to keep observing Andreas for some time, but considering the setbacks he has had, in particular a new meniscus tear in February, the healing process is going well. The expert , who has conducted around 4,500 cruciate ligament operations, is also pleased with how the medical aids have performed. Andreas Toba frequently uses the Sports Knee Support as a “final safety measure while training,” as he tells us. Bauerfeind developed this support for sports, using its medical counterpart , the GenuTrain, as the basis. The GenuTrain, in turn, is often Dr. Sander-Beuermann’s top choice for his other patients. “From my own experience, I know that the GenuTrain is simply unmatched in terms of its wearing comfort and proprioceptive properties,” says the physician. (See also interview on p. 37)

“Competitive sports can be just as dangerous as sitting down all day”

From the physician’s office and back to the Olympic training center, Andreas Toba just has time for a short lunch break before it’s time to head off to another piece of apparatus: The physiotherapist’s couch. What may first seem like a pleasant experience soon has the patient whimpering, as the therapist relaxes Andreas Toba’s knee muscles with a series of movements known as the myofascial release technique (MFR), interspersing this with gentler manipulation of the shoulder joint. The shoulder is another body part that is put under a lot of strain by gymnasts: “I push the humeral head backwards so that it can reposition itself. This isn’t an obstruction – the muscles are simply overloaded,” says the physiotherapist. “When you look at it like this, competitive sports can be just as dangerous as sitting down all day.” This is a problem that Andreas Toba seldom has to worry about. But finally, he’s checked off everything on the day’s to-do list. “Everything feels good,” he reports. “I’m already managing to practice lots of elements from my Rio routine on the high bar. At the same time, I’m working on the other pieces of apparatus again too.” The talented gymnast proves just how far he’s come as he stands in front of the pommel horse, his “Rio apparatus.” His muscles relaxed, he steps up to the horse confidently. With just a brief glance, he places his hands on the leather, then swings his legs up into the air. There’s no indication that he is at all worried about knocking his knee on the high edges of the horse. One last swing – and Andreas Toba has safely landed.

Images: Anika Büssemeier, Nick Langer