Andy Pruitt in his Boulder sports-medicine center.
Andy Pruitt in his Boulder sports-medicine center.
Mark Manger

The Ace of Ace Bandages

Andy Pruitt first tended to the aches and pains of athletes in 1965, when he was fifteen years old. He hadn't intended to be on the wrapping side of Ace bandages. The previous fall, Pruitt was still playing on the school's football team; in fact, a football injury was the reason he was wearing a cast on his arm on opening day of pheasant season.

Typical of a guy known as a hardhead, the use of only one arm wasn't sufficient reason to slow him down. He simply borrowed his brother's automatic shotgun. "Of course he still had to go hunting," remembers Hillary, his brother. "Andy was always very determined. I guess you could even say stubborn."

So it was Hillary's gun that Pruitt was bracing against the ground, clearing the shells with his one good arm while he balanced on a knee, when his friend's shotgun accidentally discharged. The birdshot ripped into Andy's lower leg. In the middle of a field, off a lonely dirt road, he tightened his own tourniquet while he waited for help to arrive.

"When I woke up in the hospital the day after, my family and minister were there, sort of forming a tent over me, wondering how they were going to tell me," he recalls. "But I knew my leg was gone -- I'd put on my own tourniquet. The first words out of my mouth, my first two questions, were 'Will my new foot have toes?' and 'When will I run again?'"

"I knew I wasn't going to be a great football player with one leg," he says. But sports were his life, and he figured he could still work as a trainer for the team, which he did the following year.

Soon after, he also found out he could wrestle. He threw his opponents off balance by approaching them from one knee, a position they weren't familiar with. The summer after his accident, he and Hillary also became fanatic go-cart racers. Later, Andy became a high-jumper. He finished high school with twelve letters in sports. "After the accident, it was like there was no change in his attitude," Hillary says. "Maybe he was more determined."

"I had nearly bled to death, lying there in some field in the middle of nowhere," Andy says. "I figured my life had a mission, and I set out to find out what it was."

Today Pruitt is running late, but patients come first -- especially if they've driven for a full day across the Great Plains just to get seen at a small Boulder clinic. It also helps if they're medical professionals themselves. "He drove all the way from Kansas, so I figured I'd better spend some time with him," Pruitt says of his last client of the day. "We have a huge physician following," he adds. "Doctors come from all over to see us."

So, seemingly, does everyone else who's ever broken a serious sweat. Lance Armstrong, whom Pruitt has trained and treated since the four-time Tour de France champ was seventeen years old, sneaks in the back door. Frank Shorter, the Olympic marathon gold- and silver-medal winner, is a longtime patient. World Cup ski champ and two-time Olympic gold-medalist Hermann "The Herminator" Maier makes it a point to stop by whenever he's in town, as does Norwegian Gunn-Rita Dahl, the women's world mountain-bike champion.

So do lesser-known jocks. "Yesterday I had a fat old lady come in," Pruitt recalls. "She said, 'Sorry, I'm not an athlete, but my son told me to come.' What can you do? We can't say, "Sorry, you're a little fat lady, get outta here." Besides, say she's a mall walker and has plantar fasciaitis; it's just as debilitating to her as to some obsessive Olympic marathoner. You could even argue it's more important to the mall walker, in the scheme of controlling cholesterol and heart disease."

Following his graduation from high school and college in Iowa, Pruitt turned into one of those perpetual-motion machines who makes the rest of the population look like it is walking underwater. In 1973, right after college, he took a job working as an athletic trainer for then-University of Colorado football coach Eddie Crowder.

Although ministering to jocks was his job, Pruitt couldn't stop doing sports. He began training the ski team that same year. "And if you're going to be taking care of skiers, you've got to be able to get down the hill," he points out. He became a skiing fanatic. Naturally, he wasn't happy with just cruising down blues. In 1978, Pruitt won a bronze medal in the downhill at the U.S. Disabled Ski Championships.

One day in the mid-1970s, after returning with a friend from a little bike ride to Yellowstone National Park, Pruitt's buddies persuaded him to enter a bike race up Flagstaff Mountain. He did -- with his bike still crammed with panniers and Pruitt himself wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. He nearly won, and he was off to his next passion.

Over the next decade, he won two National Championships and two World Championships as a disabled rider. In 1988 he came in sixth at the Paralympics in Seoul. Just as gratifying, he says, was his rise to a Category 2 rider -- only two steps below a professional -- among able-bodied bike racers. He even earned a healthy supplement to his CU salary through endorsement deals.

It was probably inevitable that Pruitt would start combining his vocational and recreational interests with the same intensity he brought to everything he did. His father was a country chiropractor from Kentucky, after all, and sports had always been Pruitt's life. "So to find a way to be involved in sports and medicine," he says, "jeez, this was the thing to do." His search for a mission was becoming clearer.

Thanks to his own experience riding, combined with his studies (he went on to earn a master's degree in science, become a physician assistant and earn a doctorate of education), he noticed that most cyclists -- even the best riders in the country -- often had no idea how to tell if their bikes fit them. Over the years, Pruitt developed more and more sophisticated ways to measure the rider against his machine, becoming the country's foremost expert in bike fitting. Along the way, he also invented one of the most widely used injury-preventing bicycle shoes in the business, wrote a book and authored hundreds of magazine articles.

Serious athletes began to recognize, and to appreciate, Pruitt's own particular blend of experience, learning and frenetic drive. During the past two decades, he has led the sports-medicine program for the United States Cycling Federation and was the team trainer for U.S. bikers in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. At the U.S. Olympic Festival in 1986, in Houston, he became the first person to work as a trainer -- for the track and field team -- while also competing as an elite athlete, as a cyclist.

During his years at CU, from 1973 to 1985, when he left his position as the university's director of sports medicine, Pruitt noticed that CU students weren't the only ones banging on his door for the particular kind of care athletes demand -- quick, direct attention that gets them back in motion as quickly as possible. Apparently, even the area's best and most famous athletes had no place to go for their injuries, either, because they kept wandering into Pruitt's clinic.

Frank Shorter came regularly between Olympic games. The late pro skier Spider Sabich also sought treatment between races. "I had a huge group of professional cyclists, runners, skiers, tennis players -- everyone," he recalls. "It was just a parade. I'd shut the front door and they'd just be banging down the back door. It actually got kind of unruly."

That people who happened to be either pre- or post-collegiate athletes were missing something in their lives was hammered home during big world-class sporting events as well. Pruitt provided medical care for the first Red Zinger Classic elite bike race in Boulder. "Even there," he says, "I saw that the European racers had minimal sports medical care. The Americans had none."

And while he observed that specific attention was available for the world's best athletes at places like the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where Pruitt also occasionally worked, he couldn't help but notice that it ended as soon as the athletes left to go home. "So here was a badminton player getting world-class care," he remembers, "and then going back to Des Moines, where there was nothing."

Sports medicine -- especially the notion of specialized care for everyday athletes -- is a relatively recent phenomenon. The American College of Sports Medicine wasn't formed until 1954. Then again, the widespread participation of ordinary people in sports is a recent development, too. "It used to be that once you got out of school, you didn't do much," says Jack Berryman, a professor of Medical History and Ethics at the University of Washington.

But now, he adds, thanks to a rush of pro-activity trends in the last thirty years, more people than ever before are finding sweat someplace in their lives. Title IX -- the law that demands that girls have as many athletic opportunities as boys -- brought women onto the field, and the jogging craze added middle-aged men to the mix. The fitness movement of the past generation (think aerobics, kick-boxing, yoga) that promised better health and longer lives if you moved just a little bit crowded the fields even more. So did the mindset of the massive baby-boomer generation that refuses to concede any signs of aging.

The catch, of course, is that exercise, despite all its advantages, comes with its own set of physical problems, too -- from strains and sprains to aching muscles and swollen joints. Pruitt estimates that an active runner can expect his body to perform without complaint for twenty years -- after which time it begins to break down.

As a result, while active adults today are less likely than ever to succumb to the diseases of their parents -- diabetes or heart disease -- many experts have identified a lurking epidemic of arthritis waiting to strike the more active generations. "So there is a whole new industry to take care of the exercisers out there," Berryman says.

A scan of the Yellow Pages reveals dozens of medical professionals claiming to be specialists in Sports Medicine. Yet the recognition that athletes need particular medical care wasn't accepted right away -- even if it was a given among those who were either elite athletes themselves or worked with them. Triathloning, for example, was born when antsy runners needed an energy outlet while recovering from their running injuries.

"Treating athletes is different," says Pruitt. "Everything from the size of our hearts to what we expect out of ourselves is different." Yet as late as the mid-1980s, Monte Sutak, director of athletics for the Boulder Valley School District, recalls that "It was our coaches who were doing all the taping and rehab work for our high school athletes. We were concerned about expertise; our coaches aren't trained to diagnose anything."

In 1996, after leaving CU and working for eleven years in a Denver medical clinic as a physician assistant, Pruitt had the sudden realization that something important was missing from his life. After a while, it came to him. "I needed my fix of stinking locker rooms and smelly buses filled with athletes," he remembers thinking.

He wasn't a fetishist. But for a guy who'd been around jocks most of his waking hours -- as well as having lived the life -- the relatively clean and easy schedule of a city-side sports-medicine clinic was too much like being a gardener who had let himself turn into a seed-catalogue salesman.

At the clinic, Pruitt says, "We saw only the stale stuff -- sports injuries that hadn't gotten better after treatment at some suburban clinic." Sprain, strain and torn-ligament-wise, there was no longer any dirt in his life. His mission became clearer still.

After two years of planning, he convinced Boulder Community Hospital to let him build his dream facility -- an all-in-one clinic for anyone who moved his or her body for health or pleasure, from Lance Armstrong to fat little ladies. It would include connection to all kinds of medical doctors, physical therapists and trainers, as well as a biomechanics lab (runners' uneven gaits often result in injury) and performance assessment. Anything to help those willing to get off their butts.

"The key clearly was Andy," says BCH vice president Jim Peters of the clinic's founder/ director. "He was well known in the biking community, among the area's elite athletes. He had an amazing reputation. Basically, without Andy, we wouldn't have done it." Instead, the hospital spent a couple million dollars, investing in Pruitt's vision by basically giving him everything he wanted.

This past January, Andy Pruitt's mission, the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, celebrated its five-year anniversary. In its first year of business, 2,100 patients stopped by. Last year the number was 28,500. They come from all fifty states and from seventeen countries.

The way Pruitt envisioned it, a good sports clinic wouldn't stop at passively receiving injured patients; it would also bring athletic care to the muddy fields and sweaty buses he missed so much.

"It's amazing what he does for us," says Boulder Valley's Sutak, who today places the value of the six athletic trainers Pruitt donates to the district and makes available for every high school athlete at more than $300,000 a year. "Our students probably receive better care than those at most colleges. And these aren't people studying to become trainers he sends. They work with world-class athletes when they're not here."

Still, says clinic administrator Karen Martin, the real genius of the place is that medical care that once was available only to Olympians is also there for anyone who takes the time to climb a mountain, kayak a river or walk the quiet early-morning halls of a deserted mall. "We see a seventy-year-old woman who is not an athlete, but she's active. She just wanted to come to a place where people get better."


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