Steadman’s star-studded knees-up

THE small town of Vail, Colorado, is an unlikely place to find one of the key figures in world sport.

Nestled high in the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, the resort is home to only 5,000 inhabitants and seems a world away from such sporting crucibles as Old Trafford or St James Park.

But in the middle of this ski-mad town is a gleaming, hi-tech complex where sporting hopes sometimes rest.

It is here that Dr Richard Steadman, the most famous knee surgeon in the world, saved Alan Shearer’s career in 2000 and carried out the operation on Newcastle striker Michael Owen.

The 26-year-old, who resumed running on Monday, revealed: “When I came round after surgery, the surgeon told me ‘whatever makes you retire from football it won’t be your knee’.

“Coming from a man as respected as Dr Richard Steadman, that was the perfect way to wake up.

“Perhaps it was seeing his office full of signed shirts and thank-you letters from dozens of grateful sportsmen.”

Owen is in illustrious company, with the likes of former England striker Shearer, ex-Sweden forward Henrik Larsson and Real Madrid’s former Manchester United star Ruud van Nistelrooy also having gone under Steadman’s knife.

Steadman’s laid-back demeanour gives little hint of his lofty status, but his office, which is lined with photographs, posters and shirts signed by some of the most famous sportsmen in the world, certainly does.

A photograph of Shearer bears the message “Just when I was getting frustrated with the pain, you took it away. Many, many thanks”.

A van Nistelrooy shirt has the words “Thank you for giving me back my dream” inked on the front.

And a framed message from Martina Navratilova reads “Thanks for putting a smile on my face, my heart and my knees”.

Steadman, 68, also claims the remarkable record of having operated on every US skier to have won an Olympic medal since 1978.

Yet he is modest when explaining why so many sporting luminaries have sought his help over the years.

“The success rate is the thing that makes people choose a physician,” he said. “We do have a very good success rate, and with recognisable patients. It’s not to say I’m a better surgeon, it’s to do with the system we’ve created here.

“We have a good situation for surgery, an excellent rehabilitation area and there’s some advantage to the fact we’re fairly remote.

“The only interest when a famous athlete is here is in their recovery. There aren’t people bothering them because of their status. We also have a major research foundation that has a tie-in to our clinic. So, not only do we do the surgery, we also do the follow-up.

“If someone has a problem, we’re able to say what their chances of success with surgery are, relying on the data we build up.”

Steadman’s involvement with the world’s sporting elite began in the 1970s, when he worked with the US ski team.

“I lived in Lake Tahoe, California, and was taking care of the US ski team. I started to take care of them and built a reputation from that.

“Over the years it built to NFL football and other sports and in 1990 I moved to Vail, Colorado, and had the opportunity to take care of European footballers and athletes from almost every sport.

“It was a progression, not an overnight success. Word of mouth made others want to come here.”

He has developed numerous techniques for knee surgery and rehabilitation that have been adopted worldwide for the treatment of various knee disorders. He has also limited his practice to the surgical and conservative treatment of knee disorders.

Professor Nicola Massulli, one of Britain’s leading sports surgeons, has said the income enjoyed by US surgeons like Steadman is “like winning the lottery every year”.

Yet Steadman insists it is not only wealthy sports stars who are able to afford his services. “The percentage of people I work with who are athletic is almost 100%, but only 20% of them are major athletes,” he said.

“It’s important to not just operate on people who are famous, but also people who are trying to maintain their lifestyle.

“Our goal is to keep people active through research and education. I get a lot of ‘regular people’ coming here from all over the world.”

Steadman is a frequent visitor to England, where he catches up with patients such as Owen, who he says will return at “the very highest level”.

Owen has made only 11 appearances since his £17m switch from Real Madrid in August 2005 but his seven goals underlines why manager Glenn Roeder is so keen to have him back at his disposal.

Roeder was able to use Owen for less than half an hour as a substitute in the penultimate game of last season as he attempted to prove his fitness ahead of the World Cup finals after fracturing a metatarsal in a collision with international team-mate Paul Robinson.

That injury had sidelined him for five months, but disaster struck once again during England’s clash with Sweden in June when he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament.

Two bouts of surgery carried out by Steadman left him facing a long haul to recovery, although his appearance on the training pitch yesterday, albeit for a limited and solitary session, represented a watershed.

Owen said: “I did quite a lot of running at the end of last week as well, but the pitches were frozen so we did most of it indoors.

“I feel strong and I am happy with the way things are going. I now want to continue running and ball work and things like that. I presume I will be doing that for at least a month.

“After that, it is ball work and stepping things up in training. Then it will be match practice and possibly organising a game between us or against somebody else. That, though, is a little bit down the line.”

However, Owen is in no danger of getting ahead of himself. “I enjoyed it for the first 10 minutes, but after that I was thinking to myself, ‘This isn’t all it is cracked up to be’.

“But seriously, each step you take is a step in the right direction and it is all going great at the moment.”

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