FAIRBANKS - The oldest ski team in the 50th annual Turkey Day Relay cross-country race in Fairbanks on Friday featured the youngest knees.
Susan Sugai, Bryon Broda and Bill Husby, all past 60, managed that dual distinction by skiing on their second sets of knees. "Kneed to Ski," they called themselves, as in they really need to ski to enjoy winter in Fairbanks.
They have the scars to prove it. That their new joints owe more to metal and plastic than the cartilage that came with the original equipment, and that the three skiers can once again bend their knees without pain, qualifies as a miracle.
They finished the course in a total elapsed time of just under an hour. Not the fastest. Not the slowest.
At this age and in these circumstances, the test of success is not measured in minutes, seconds or hours. The important thing is move at whatever speed you can manage for as many years as you can manage, said Sugai.
She is a ski coach and a retired Fairbanks scientist, the head of a ragtag group known as "Susan's Class of Untrainable Men," a name for a training group concocted for purposes of its acronym. As a longtime member of SCUM, I have watched Sugai, Husby and Broda both before and after the surgical enhancements.
You could always tell they were hurting by the sight of their bent legs and knees that knocked. While nothing could stop them from cross-country skiing, everyone noticed how difficult it was for them to walk up steps, though they did not complain. As for the post-operation period, I've been overjoyed to see them move with the freedom of their younger selves.
Other teams in the Turkey Day Relays wore costumes, ranging from beach attire to masked monster get-ups and had names inspired by poultry, stuffing, movies or old music groups. The Flying Burrito Brothers, for example. Sixty-six teams took part, with kindergarten students on the low end and Kneed to Ski on the upper end.
For costumes, "Kneed to Ski" featured copies of X-rays of their replacement knees ironed onto the front of their black ski pants. These were copies of the real X-rays, showing the metal and plastic contraption that has given them a range of motion once seemed impossible.
While the weather was above freezing Friday, which made it difficult to wax for the snow conditions, the trails were in good shape thanks to a solid base of snow at Birch Hill that hasn't melted.
Husby, a retired teacher who had his knees replaced nearly 10 years ago, has wanted to field a knee generation team for some time. Sugai had the dual operations four years ago, while Broda, a retired IRS officer, has emerged with new knees over the past 14 months. He had his second knee replaced last spring.
The rebab process is long enough that in most cases doctors suggest a patient recover from one leg operation and build up strength before going onto the second.
As Sugai finished the anchor leg, race director John Estle announced the team results and said "There's a lot of titanium there." To be more precise, he could have said, "There's a lot of cobalt chrome alloy there."
For all three, the knee replacement surgery came after years of pain. Fellow skiers began calling Husby "Poles" in the years before he had his knees replaced because he couldn't bend his knees and relied entirely on his ski poles for propulsion.
The three of them avoided knee replacement surgery for as long as possible, though they did not surrender to a sedentary lifestyle, no matter how many times they had to ice their knees or take ibuprofen.
It is the ability to participate that means more than anything else to her, said Sugai, and going outside is a vital part of getting the most out of what Fairbanks has to offer.
As Husby puts it, his doctor told him the point of getting new knees was not so that Husby could make it to the mailbox and back. "I want you to use them," the doctor said.
Broda said it was about eight years ago when doctors told him replacements were his final option, the result of a combination of injuries, genetics and bad luck, the same factors cited by Sugai and Husby.
"I didn't get the extended warranty when I had the chance," said Broda. "The originals wore out." His knees hurt every time he walked. Not anymore.
The extra material glued to their bones, which replaced the cartilage they once had, made each of them about an inch taller. "And better looking," said Husby.
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