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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer