When Paralympian Garrett Riley broke his leg in late October, many thought his season was over, but he didn’t give up.
The collision seemed rather innocuous. However, as the players dispersed and play continued, Garrett Riley was still lying sideways in the neutral zone. Athletic therapist Michael Lenart jumped on the ice and joined Riley as soon as the whistle sounded. He immediately called for medical assistance. Within seconds, Dr. Roy Diklich was at Riley’s side and calling for an ambulance.
Riley’s right leg – his only leg – was badly fractured.
Riley is a hospital regular. At 15, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma and had his left knee replaced with a joint prosthesis to try and save the rest of his leg. Seven years later, an onset of an infection caused Riley to go into septic shock. Then 22 years old, he had to undergo an amputation above the knee. Since that surgery in 2017, he’s dealt with issues with his residual limb, including extreme pain that required a few more surgeries.
Things got so bad that the young para hockey rising star had to temporarily give up the sport after the 2018-19 season, just a year into his national team career. The Brantford, Ont., native feared this was the end of his hockey adventure, and the pain wasn’t abating.
“I’ve had three surgeries on my residual limb over the past two and a half years to try to relieve the pain that I have constantly, every day,” Riley says. Unfortunately, none of the interventions really worked, so it was a big step back in my career. »
In August 2021, Riley underwent another residual limb resection just weeks before Canada’s National Para Hockey Team selection camp. He already felt like an underdog after being out of the program for two years, and physically he was not at his peak. Head coach Ken Babey didn’t see it that way, however. He saw a young player with raw talent return to the fold. Babey was excited about this young prospect.
We hoped Garrett would show up for selection camp ready to play this season and he did, Babey said. He earned a place in the team and was really starting to make his mark [au début de l’année]. »
After camp, Riley was looking forward to the season. The first hurdle on the road to the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games had been cleared, training was well underway, and the season schedule, which included a trip to St. Louis earlier in the season for a series of two games against the United States, was looking good.
The week started well, but was busy. With two practices a day to start the week, the days at the arena were long, and the team spent a lot of time together. Everyone was also curious about the arena – the games were going to be played outside. However, when the team arrived in St. Louis, work on preparing the ice had not even begun. Every day, the Canadian troop showed up and inquired about progress.
Everyone was surprised when the ice was ready for the first puck drop on October 29, and the excitement was palpable. Supporters began to arrive, including a family of four from north of the border, proudly dressed in red and white. Riley was anxious about returning to the ice in the maple leaf uniform, but the nervousness disappeared during the warm-up period.
Canada played a robust style from the opening face-off, which came as no surprise considering it was the first meeting between these two rivals since the World Championship gold medal game. IPC Para Hockey Championships 2021, while the first prize had eluded the Canadians. Riley didn’t make it in 2021, but the whole team felt it was important to win early in the game.
Riley was only in his second appearance in the first period, his equipment was even still dry. He stepped into the neutral zone as American forward Brody Roybal headed for a loose puck. Seeing that he would have no way to reach the puck before the American, Riley planned to check Roybal. Canadian defenseman Adam Dixon had the same plan. Roybal saw Dixon coming and braked in time. Riley hit the boards full force and stopped dead, just as Dixon’s sledge hit him. No one knows how Riley’s leg came out of the strap, but she took the full force of the blow; both of his calf bones were fractured.
I remember I had my eyes closed as they tried to get me out of my sled and onto the stretcher, and someone grabbed my hand, Riley recalled. It was (the equipment manager) AJ Murley, and I will always be grateful to him for that moment. »
Diklich accompanied Riley in the ambulance to the hospital and spoke to the St. Louis care team. Being an emergency physician himself, Diklich has seen his share of bad fractures. He was there when they tried to pull Riley’s gear, but they had to put the attacker to sleep to do so. And once the equipment was removed, the reason was obvious. Riley had an open fracture; the tibia had broken through the skin. A tough injury for anyone to deal with, let alone someone with only one leg.
Just eight hours later, Riley had surgery. A rod was fitted to support his shin, and he felt strong enough to attempt to walk the next day. It proved too difficult, and plans to get Riley home on a commercial flight were scrapped. Team coordinator Mitchell Furlotte waited a few days with Riley in St. Louis until a medical flight could be arranged.
Getting home wasn’t the hardest part of this misadventure. Riley’s injury occurred just 127 days from the start of the Beijing Games. Normal recovery from an open fracture takes about two or three months, but that’s a lot of time out for a top athlete who trains six days a week in the gym or on the ice, especially during of a Paralympic year. So Riley decided on the spot that he wouldn’t be sidelined that long and that his injury wouldn’t stop him from making the team, not after everything he’d been through for the past two years.
“It definitely crossed my mind at the start that my season was over,” Riley said. But then I said to myself that I was tired of hanging around doing nothing, so if something went wrong, it went wrong, but at that point, I just needed to push myself and take back the stock. »
Two weeks after the collision, Riley was back in the gym. He only did arm workouts, but he tried hard not to lose anything he had gained during the year. He was in constant contact with the team’s support staff and even worked with physical trainers he knew from his experience with Team Ontario. Working alone in the gym for over a month was tough for Riley, but he focused on his goal and made a little progress each day.
Then an infection set in.
It was nothing to be alarmed at first, but for Riley it brought back memories of his cancer as a teenager and the infection that ultimately cost him his left leg. It was a tense two weeks, with everyone in Riley’s life holding their breath and waiting to see if he could fight off the infection. Suddenly, getting back into hockey was no longer the priority. Saving the one leg he had left was all that mattered.
I just kept doing things that I could control and that I could do to help me get back on top and get to where I needed to be,” Riley says.
He joined the national team in Calgary in December for training camp (replacing the canceled Canadian Tire Para Hockey Cup), although he still hadn’t been cleared to hit the ice. During practices, team physical trainer Bryan Yu would bring a cardio machine to rinkside so Riley could see what was happening on the rink. For the first time in six weeks, he really felt like part of the team.
However, there was always the question of his return to the ice. The Ontario orthopedic doctor took a much more conservative approach than Riley would have liked, but given the extent of the injury and infection, there really wasn’t much choice. Even with the protection of sledding, returning to full training, especially with contact, before the injury has healed sufficiently could have long-term adverse effects. Additionally, Riley was still using his leg for balance while skating, which he says was still causing pain when he finally received clearance from doctors to return to training.
Two months to the day after the accident – December 29 – Riley was back on the ice. It was while training in Toronto with three other Ontario-based team members. He worked alone for a while, familiarizing himself with his sledge and leg, before taking part in drills with the rest of the players. It was a great day, and as word of his return spread through the team, there was also a surge of energy.
“To be part of his journey, to see him just get on a sled, and not even really think that meant he was going to play competitively again or be able to make the team was really special,” Lenart said. But the reality is that he had missed a lot of practice time and at this level every time out is time your teammates and opponents benefit from, but not you. »
Was he going to have enough time?
Riley quickly realized the same; those two months of recuperation had taken a toll on his fitness and pace. If he was to have a shot at breaking into the Paralympic team roster, he would need more ice time, more specific training and more work with coaches, but options were limited at home in Ontario. Babey suggested Riley come to Calgary in early January to work with him and the Alberta-based players, but also to have focused sessions with Yu and the support staff.
It was a big order. The team was already planning a month-long centralization in a bubble ahead of the Paralympics, and that would add three more weeks away from home – more than nine weeks in total if Riley carves out a spot on the final roster. That was the goal; for the past year, Riley had thought of nothing but wearing Canada’s uniform in Beijing. Three more weeks were not going to deter him from trying everything to excel when the coaches made their decisions in early February to complete the training.
Twenty players had been selected to Canada’s National Para Hockey Team in September, but only 17 were going to compete at the Games. Riley knew his chances were good, but he was nonetheless nervous the day the call finally came.
“That Zoom call was really emotional,” Babey said. The way he fought back, I think he earned a lot of respect from his teammates, and I know he earned that from the coaching staff and the support staff. »
At that moment, Riley was rewarded for everything he had been through in his life. Cancer, an amputation, chronic pain, surgery after surgery, a broken leg; everything had led to the point where he would have a chance to achieve a childhood dream and represent his country.
Garrett Riley was a Paralympic athlete.