Stay in the Game: Innovative Arthrex Products, Technique Help Star Javelin Thrower Return to Competition
How does a former high school basketball star from Natchitoches, Louisiana discover both a unique talent and a passion for the ancient Greek sport of throwing the javelin? For Maria Bienvenu, it was purely by happenstance. Coming from a graduating class of 32, her athletic skills were legendary in her hometown. But it wasn’t until a friend of her dad’s - a college track coach - saw her pitch a basketball overhand all the way down the court that something clicked.
“Because of my arm strength, he told my dad he thought I was a natural to throw the javelin, and my parents pushed me to try it,” Maria said. “I had no idea how technical throwing the javelin really is.” She started out throwing the 600-gram (just over 1.3 pounds) spear in her front yard. “The very first time, it was ‘oh my goodness, this is not good’ -- it’s tough to get it to fly straight.” With the help of her high school track and field coach, she quickly discovered her aptitude for the sport and got busy making plans to compete in college at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she threw the javelin in her first meet.
“They took a chance on me; there were no official records to show I’d be good at it.”
In fact, Maria was so good at it, she qualified for the NCAA Championships. “I love it so much—I thought I liked basketball and softball, but I’ve never loved something more than javelin,” Maria said.
That made it even more devastating when she was injured at a college invitational meet last year. “I threw it, and I felt a pop. It was really painful, but I thought it just needed to be rubbed out; I’ve never had arm issues like this before.”
An MRI later showed that that she had torn her ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in her elbow, “I definitely side-armed it, instead of going over the top like we’re supposed to, and I was trying to throw it as hard as I could.”
Maria was referred to surgeon Jeffrey R. Dugas, MD* at Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center in Birmingham, Alabama, who performed a variation on the Tommy John surgery that has saved countless throwing careers in different sports at all levels.
“This repair is different from a UCL repair in a baseball player,” Dr. Dugas explained.
“Javelin throwers have a different elbow mechanics that create increased stress on the UCL. And they are giving their max effort every time - running and throwing as hard as they can.”
Dr. Dugas said he had several options for Maria’s surgery but made his decision when he was able to see the quality of the tissue in Maria’s elbow. He used the Arthrex UCL repair kit with the InternalBrace™ ligament augmentation procedure. In the right patient, he says, it allows for a more aggressive rehabilitation protocol and helps athletes return to competition more quickly than they would with a conventional Tommy John reconstruction.¹
“If there is a ligament tear away from bone and good ligament tissue to work with, it works very well,“ he said. “And this type of repair is not negatively affected by how hard you throw, which is good for Maria because she throws at maximum effort.”
Maria says she put her complete faith in Dr. Dugas and his experience. “In the Tommy John world, he’s one of the names everyone knows,” she said. “I could not be happier with my decision, I am confident in my recovery, because of how well he explained everything to me.”
After months of physical therapy and nearly a year after her injury, Maria not only worked her way back to competition, she dominated the field at her first event, despite a cold and rainy day.
“I had to throw in a jacket for the first time ever. My arm didn’t hurt, but my number one worry was that I hadn’t worked hard enough in rehab to still compete,” she said. Not only was she strong enough to compete, she threw the javelin 168 feet, beating the next best throw by 21 feet - and falling just seven feet of her own all-time record. “As soon as I threw it, I turned and looked at my coach and said, ‘Alright, we’re back.’”
With renewed confidence and strength, Maria has her eye on big goals in college — and the Olympics. “I definitely want to take this as far as I can and compete against the best of the best,” Maria said. And Dr. Dugas agrees that with how well she’s recovered, there’s nothing that should hold her back from her dreams. “He told me, you didn’t come this far only to come this far.”
Walters BL, Cain EL, Emblom BA, Frantz JT, Dugas JR. Ulnar collateral ligament repair with InternalBrace augmentation: a novel UCL repair technique in the young adolescent. Orthop J Sports Med. 2016;4(3)(suppl3):2325967116S00071. doi:10.1177/2325967116S00071