Shefflin accentuates Hartmann's positive approach


ATHLETICS:Some people believe Ger Hartmann works minor miracles. But as Henry Shefflin’s remarkable recovery shows, the athlete must also buy into the treatment for it to work, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

FIRST TIME I interviewed Ger Hartmann he’d just flown in from Florida, having spent a couple of days in bed with John Travolta. They weren’t sleeping together, I hasten to add. The star of Saturday Night Fever had apparently thrown his back out so badly that he couldn’t get out of bed, so he flew Hartmann in – on his private jet, naturally – to help loosen him up.

Anyway, it was early November, 2002, and I spent a weekend with Hartmann in and around his sports injury clinic in Limerick, in the company of Paula Radcliffe, amongst others. A few weeks earlier, in Chicago, Radcliffe had broken the women’s world record for the marathon, running 2:17.18. (Exactly six months later she bettered it again to 2:15.25 – the record that still stands, and will do for a long time yet.)

It was clear from listening to the two of them that positive thinking was the key component to their success – whether it was Radcliffe’s ability to break through the pain barrier, or Hartmann’s ability to heal injuries, and get her in peak physical condition. No matter what obstacle stood in their way, they would overcome.

On the Saturday, Hartmann spoke at the Ceifin Conference in Ennis, and I started to understand a little more about where he was coming from. We are all born to be positive, he said, and conditioned to be negative.

But we all need encouragement. If we mix with people who are positive, cheerful, enthusiastic and expecting the best, we can all make a difference. He told us about the summer of 1991, when four days after winning his seventh Irish triathlon title, he was back training on his bike in America, hit an armadillo at 32 mph and went flying over the handlebars – smashing his right hip. X-rays showed it spliced like a diamond, and the doctors said he would never run again.

Hartmann was in hospital for nine days, and spent 14 weeks on crutches. “I’m down but not out,” he said to himself – and decided right there to abandon the family jewellery business in Limerick, and channel all the energy and enthusiasm he’d known as an athlete into becoming the best sports injury therapist in the world.

Exactly one year later he was at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, treating about a dozen medal winners, including Carl Lewis. For a few years after that he shifted his business between Florida, where he worked for himself, and London, where he worked with athletes under the agent Kim McDonald – before setting up base, for good, in his native Limerick, in 1998.

The Kenyan runners quickly christened him “Daktari” (Swahili for “doctor”) although Hartmann is no doctor, at least not in the medical sense. In fact he prefers to defy medical opinion – and over the years has often done exactly that. Towards the end of her career Kelly Holmes was told by doctors that she might be better off retiring due to her chronic Achilles injury. Hartmann had other ideas, putting her on an intensive rehab programme. A year later she won two gold medals at the Athens Olympics.

Inevitably, Hartmann’s reputation for working miracles on injured runners began to spread. Soon, footballers and hurlers were calling on his services, then rugby players, cyclists, swimmers, and later, even Hollywood actors.

All the while Hartmann just stuck to what he believed in: finding the source of the injury rather than just a cure, treating it with absolute positivity, and avoiding all scepticism. If the will is there, then so is the way – although it has to work both ways; the injured person believing they’ll get better as much as Hartmann does.

It helps considerably that Hartmann practises what he preaches. Five years ago, he returned to the Ironman triathlon in Hawaii, where he once finished fourth, and again completed the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run. Not bad for a man who was told he’d never run again.

Sometimes facts are stranger than fiction. Hartmann’s name has been doing the rounds a lot over the last few weeks, ever since Henry Shefflin arrived at the door of his clinic. It was two days after the Kilkenny star had torn the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee, when falling awkwardly in the All-Ireland hurling semi-final against Cork.

Shefflin to miss final! – ran the headlines, and there’s no doubt he would, had Kilkenny, on a tip-off from former rugby international Mick Galwey, not chanced bringing him to see Hartmann. Their medical team had effectively ruled Shefflin out for six to eight months, so they’d nothing to lose, had they?

What neither Kilkenny nor Shefflin realised was the chance couldn’t have been any more opportune. Recently, Hartmann had been helping Larry Mullen prepare for the latest leg of U2’s tour – although contrary to some reports, he’s not doing any physio work on Bono. (Two people larger than life, he says, who would never fit in the same room.)

Anyway, while spending a weekend with U2 in Nice, Hartmann slipped on some petrol in a garage, and broke two bones in his left hand. The doctors said he mightn’t work for six weeks, but Hartmann had the cast removed after three weeks – the day before Shefflin came knocking.

Straightaway Hartmann was struck by Shefflin’s willingness to try anything other than miss out on the All-Ireland final, and so set to work on blowing the myth that all cruciate knee injuries require surgery, or at least six to eight months rehab. That Hartmann managed to get Shefflin back playing in 14 days was no miracle.

It was simply Hartmann doing what he’s always done: defying medical opinion, much to the amazement, bafflement and inevitable scepticism of those who haven’t been through what he has.

Shefflin, naturally, still has to play 70 minutes of hurling tomorrow, but when you’re as positive as Hartmann is, failure is not an option.