Head Route setter at Mile End climbing wall in East London, Alexander Lemel, talks to Talia Lazarus to tell his strenuous journey to recovery after hip surgery and what it was like dealing with such an injury whilst having a very physically demanding job.
Working at Mile End climbing wall, Alexander sets the routes on climbing walls for beginners all the way through to elite athletes. Having an extremely physically demanding job - carrying ladders, stripping holds, loading them in buckets, washing holds, testing blocks, tweaking moves - he has to be in the same shape as the athletes he sets for. His days combine a tonne of training on top of a physical job, and so injuries do become part of the process.
Catching the climbing bug quickly after immersing himself in the sport, Alex quit his original job as an estate agent to work at the climbing wall. “I thought about going back to my job in a stressful environment and thought I would like to be climbing all the time. That is what life should be. Doing what you love, and being paid to do what you love”.
WATCH: Alexander Lemel stars in Routesetter on BMC TV
Then 2020 hit. Lockdown happened. Everyone who was a climber scrambled to get fingerboards at home or built small walls to keep their climbing training momentum going. Alexander began to train at home more, stretching and practicing yoga, which is when he tweaked his hamstring, causing domino effect of injuries through his body. Everything continued to worsen, and no physios were open.
As time went by, Alexander was limping and eventually, things began to open. He saw the GB team physio and they diagnosed it as Femoroacetabular Impingement (FAI) Syndrome. The constant and repeated impacted on his body as a routesetter was wearing away the cartilage. As it slowly wore away, he found he could not climb or even walk
Physio was not working, so he took things into his own hands and sought a surgeon. He went in for a diagnostic injection on Saturday and had to decide that night to do the operation Sunday due to covid regulations. His quality of life was so affected he knew he had to do the surgery with no time to prepare.
The surgery was successful, and they survived 60% of his cartilage. However, “my recovery was really difficult”, says Alexander. It was not even the hip that was the problem now. Climbing is predominantly an upper-body sport. Therefore, when he hit rehab with the same intensity as his training, all his lower body and tendons “just exploded, it was although they were saying 'no, we do not like this amount of work you are forcing us through'” explains Alexander.
Photo: Alexander Lemel, Band Of Birds
He poured everything into recovery and surrounded himself with all the right people on his journey. It took Alexander a year and a half to walk up the stairs without wobbling. Alexander states “I spent most of the time on the floor, just trying to lift my leg that would not move. I would lie there thinking, why has this happened to me? What is happening?” Reflecting, Alexander was so weak after surgery that he couldn't even walk.
I felt like people completely wrote me off. I lost my identity through that."
WATCH: BMC Routesetting Workshop on BMC TV
Now back to a level where he can train as much as he wants. Alexander explains that at one point he could not even step up onto the mats, so the level of work he had to put in to get back to his previous level was immense. “The mental effect was the hardest barrier to overcome,” says Alexander. The mental side of trying to climb again was heartbreaking. He still gets frozen on the wall. Before the surgery, he could flick about with dynamic movements, and now his brain shuts off.
"Going to a gym and strengthening a muscle is a hell of a lot easier than trying to work and strengthen your mind."
It is not a straightforward path and can be very frustrating. That is where the support of other people is so important. Nevertheless, psychological support is not always there. You have your family and friends, and he had incredible support from everyone at the Lewin Clinic, “but it is those times where you're on your own. When you're alone, that is hard”, Alexander explains.
It gets to a point where you have to be able to pull yourself out of whatever hole you are in, which is hard, but it is possible. It's possible to get through the strenuous journey of recovery and get back up.
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