After competitive dreams end, gymnast finds a new beginning

Plica syndrome
Colby at the beach

Colby Parsons fell in love with gymnastics at age 4. “I loved the communal aspect of my team and the focus on mastery in gymnastics,” recalls Colby, now 19 and a Brown University freshman. As a young boy, Colby dreamed of competing as an all-around gymnast in Nationals. But sometimes life plans don’t go according to plan.

As a young teen, Colby was ranked fifth in Massachusetts, but he was in constant pain. His parents thought his knee pain might be caused by growing pains or an overuse injury. His coach suspected shin splints.

“His pediatrician said, ‘Give it a few weeks. Take a break from gymnastics,’” recalls his mother Nancy.

But kids like Colby really don’t take a break.

Despite the pain, Colby continued to compete and reached the state championships in 2012. During a run to the vault, his knee pain became so intense he couldn’t complete the run.

“He had to scratch. It was devastating,” says Nancy.

It was clear Colby’s pain wasn’t going away. His pediatrician said, “Let’s find the best,” and he referred Colby to Dr. Lyle Micheli, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Sports Medicine Division.

Colby’s first appointment was with Boston Children’s sports medicine physician Dr. Gianmichel Corrado. “It can be a good idea for a patient to see a sports medicine doctor before an orthopedic surgeon,” says Micheli. That’s because the sports medicine doctor can prescribe conservative treatment and can expedite the management process.

Corrado tried conservative options — bracing, physical therapy and a cortisone shot — for several weeks, but Colby’s pain persisted. Corrado connected Colby and his family with Micheli.

Colby’s diagnosis: Plica syndrome

Micheli diagnosed Colby with Plica syndrome, or extra tissue trapped behind his kneecaps. The syndrome can become symptomatic or painful with repetitive motion of the knee.

Typically, doctors complete the surgery for Plica syndrome on each knee separately, so patients can use crutches rather than a wheelchair. But Colby persuaded Micheli that he had the upper body strength to manage the wheelchair. Micheli performed the operation July 18, 2012.

Colby celebrated, popping wheelies in his wheelchair a few hours after surgery.

The gymnast started physical therapy a few weeks later, approaching it as an athletic challenge. After two months, Micheli agreed to allow Colby to return to gymnastics on a limited basis, restricting him to upper body events.

On his first night at practice, Colby was practicing a fairly simple maneuver on the parallel bars when he fell and broke his wrist.

Saying good-bye to gymnastics

With the new injury, on top of some persistent knee pain, it became clear Colby wasn’t going back to gymnastics. He said goodbye to his teammates. “His personality — which had always been bright and cheerful — took a hit. We wanted our son back, and we wanted him to be free of pain,” says Nancy.

About this time, the diving coach at Colby’s high school approached him and suggested Colby join the team.

Colby and Nancy asked Micheli what he thought about the sport. “He told Colby, ‘It might be a good idea. It’s not hard on the knees like gymnastics,’” recalls Nancy.

Plica syndrome
Colby enjoys rock climbing

Micheli also offered another suggestion, referring Colby to Dr. Pierre d’Hemecourt, another sports medicine physician at Boston Children’s. d’Hemecourt suggested hydrodissection, an ultrasound-guided injection of saline and cortisone, to break up the remaining tissue behind Colby’s kneecaps.

“That was the turning point,” says Colby, who was a high school sophomore at the time. The procedure relieved his pain and let him focus on diving and other activities like rock climbing.

Plica syndrome
Colby during a visit to China

The gymnast blossomed as a diver. “It’s a relatively easy transition from gymnastics to diving. Gymnasts are comfortable flipping and turning and have the body awareness you need to dive,” explains Colby.

He excelled at his new sport and was even recruited by several Division 3 colleges. But Colby had his heart set on Brown University, a Division 1 diving school, for its flexible academic curriculum. He decided to go to Brown and focus on other athletic interests.

A few weeks into his first semester at Brown, Colby volunteered as a stunt man for the cheerleading squad. A diving coach spotted him, and asked him to try out. Colby started training with the team.

“Recovery isn’t always a linear path, and that’s a good thing,” says Colby.

Learn more about the Boston Children’s Sports Medicine Ultrasound Clinic.

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