The pain shot up Trey Hardee’s spine like a lightning bolt.
He immediately hit the ground, clutching his back. He slowly rose to his feet, but struggled to breathe and returned to the floor after taking two agonizing steps.
“I had never felt anything like it,” Hardee said. “It was hot, like a fire in my back.”
The other decathletes in Beijing at the 2015 World Championships could only watch as Hardee writhed on the track in pain.
“I’d never seen him hurt so bad,” Aston Eaton told the IAAF. “I wanted to help.”
Injuries, such as the back injury Hardee suffered at 2015 Worlds, are an occupational hazard in all sports. Even in non-contact sports like track and field, athletes make themselves vulnerable to overuse injuries by engaging in daunting training regimens.
Hardee is no stranger to overcoming serious injuries. He became the 2012 Olympic decathlon silver medalist less than a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Now he will miss the 2016 Olympics after aggravating a left hamstring injury at Trials.
Hardee, who will serve as a guest analyst for NBC in Rio, sat down with NBCOlympics.com and described the mindset of a recovering athlete while making a promotional appearance for Red Bull.
Many Olympians could have told you the exact dates of the Rio Games shortly after the London Games ended.
Elite athletes plan their entire lives around big meets, working with their coaches to ensure they peak at the right time. With such high stakes, athletes are reluctant to withdraw from major competitions due to an injury.
When Hardee injured his back at Worlds, his first thoughts were about whether he could tolerate the pain and return to the meet. He had recorded the year’s best decathlon score at U.S. Championships in June, and, after two additional months of training, seemed poised to compete for his third world title.
Hardee received two shots, a muscle relaxer and a pain reliever, convinced he could return to competition immediately. He did not withdraw until his coach and agent sat him down and explained the long-term risks of continuing to compete with an injured back.
“It felt silly to quit,” Hardee said. “I wanted to show what I could do.”
Eaton, a fellow U.S. decathlete, was also eager to see what a healthy Hardee could accomplish.
“I knew he wouldn’t be able to finish,” Eaton told the IAAF. “That pissed me off. I know how much hard work he puts in and it didn’t seem fair.”
Next Few Days
After suffering an injury at an international meet, most athletes wait to see medical specialists back home before making any decisions about treatment options.
For Hardee, that meant spending the second day of the 2015 World Championships decathlon competition in his hotel bed without knowing the exact extent of his injury.
Hardee relaxed on his stomach, allowing his back to rest. He was determined not to watch the competition on television.
But even in China, word travels fast, and Hardee found out that Eaton was approaching the decathlon world record. Hardee turned on the television during the javelin throw, the decathlon’s penultimate event.
After watching Eaton throw the javelin, Hardee was convinced Eaton would break the world record in the final event, the 1500m. But he continued watching anyways to see whether anyone else would beat his world-leading score from U.S. Championships.
Eaton ended up breaking his own world record by six points, but the silver medalist, Canada’s Damian Warner, failed to top Hardee’s score from U.S. Championships.
“I watched a couple of guys I knew I could beat win medals,” Hardee said. “It was not fun.”
Elite athletes are taught to avoid excuses when it comes to training. They find a way to work out even when the weather is bad or their schedule gets busy.
It can be a maddening experience for an injured athlete to simply rest and recover while the competition is training and improving.
Hardee underwent Tommy John surgery in September of 2011, less than a year before the London Olympics. The reconstructive elbow surgery, which is common among baseball pitchers, prevented him from throwing a javelin until April or May of 2012.
After the surgery, Hardee became “frantic” as the weeks went by and he was still unable to practice throwing the javelin. But by August, at the Olympics, Hardee recorded the third-longest javelin throw and claimed the decathlon silver medal.
“It taught me that a lot of the physical [preparation] is overrated,” Hardee said. “It’s all between the ears.”
When Hardee injured his back at Worlds in August 2015, he was ready for the mental challenges of his second major comeback.
Hardee was understandably frustrated when he left Beijing. But when he returned home to Texas, he made a conscience effort to distance himself from the track. He spent time with his wife, Chelsea, and the couple’s two Rottweiler-mixed dogs. He worked on home improvement projects, and took a vacation to Ireland for eight days.
By the time he was healthy enough to return to training in October, he was excited to get started.
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Hardee said. “You need that time away to reassess, plan and set goals.”