The first rule of Foot Club is that we talk about clubfoot!
My name is Elisabeth, and I was born with bilateral talipes equinovarus, better known as clubfoot on both feet. Neither of my parents, nor any of my older relatives that we knew of, had been born with the same condition, but clearly I started a trend, because my next two siblings were also born with clubfoot. My brothers and I went through a series of castings and surgeries in infancy and childhood, with varying success. This was about three decades ago, and the Ponseti method wasn’t as widespread as it is now, so it’s hard to say if today’s doctors would have made the same recommendations. At any rate, we were a fairly active family, often walking for transportation, and my brothers and I tried a variety of sports. Even when things were going pretty well for us we noticed our ankles began to hurt before other people’s did, and to this day none of us three clubbies have made a habit of engaging in high-impact activities.
Although in elementary and middle school I had done hockey, softball, swim team, and even a year of track, in high school I began to think of myself as someone who didn’t “do” sports. It was another dozen years or so before I began to really appreciate how it feels to be active and strong, and it has taken me still longer to explore the limits of what my wonky little feet can handle without reducing me to constant hobbling in my daily life. On this adventure I have found myself frequently looking for other clubfoot atheletes’ experiences online, for advice on doing squats with poor ankle mobility, or trying to gauge if my yoga balance issues are a clubfoot thing or just a get-in-better-shape thing. I found myself wishing that someone like me were blogging about their experiences, and after a while I realized that I should get going and just do it!
So who is someone like me?
I have fairly functional “corrected” clubfoot. On most days I do experience some limitation or pain that reminds me that I have to be a little more aware of my approach to physical activity than I might otherwise be, but if I am smart about my level of weightbearing and high-impact activity I am rarely forced to rest when I don’t want to. I have read accounts of clubbies who endure such pain and limitation to their movements that they are wheelchair-bound or seeking amputation, and I know that I am very fortunate not to be among their number at this point. I am very aware that aging and joint stress might take my current level of mobility away from me in the future (and I had one scare in 2011 that I’ll write about sometime), so it is important to me to appreciate what I can do now, as well as doing my best not to overtax my body and prematurely bring on anything like that.
I am not an elite athlete. In fact, in most categories I’m barely competitive, and in most events in which I participate I’m just competing with my own personal best times. I am always striving to improve, but I suspect I will never be a truly impressive competitor. There are some clubbies who truly are amazing elite athletes, so I don’t think we can chalk my mediocrity up to clubfoot alone. That said, maybe some of you may be in the same place as me, fitness-wise, whether you have clubfoot or not, and my journey may speak to you. Maybe my less-than-impressive swim times will be encouraging to you. Maybe we both fall over a lot when we try to do yoga. Maybe you, too, just can’t figure out how to do that Zumba or Bellyfit move, but you love going anyway. Fitness is for us just as much as it is for the pro triathletes and those with perfect achilles tendons, so let’s talk about it!
I am not a personal trainer or medical professional. I mean, wouldn’t it be cool if I were? I could really write with authority about muscles and bones, and I could even use specific medical terms. We would probably all learn a lot! But I should be very clear on this point: The only thing about this in which I am an expert is my own lived experience. And I do think that is a certain strength. I have spent a lot of time with doctors during my life trying to communicate about that experience, and, more recently, I have found myself trying to explain the peculiarities of my feet, ankles, and calves to the trainers that run group fitness classes I attend. The professionals I have spoken to have been mostly receptive, and I am fortunate to have close friends who are trainers and doctors who put up with my questions very kindly. In fact, one of my club-footed brothers is in medical school right now, and though it doesn’t look like orthopaedics will be his specialty, he may have something to add as this blog carries on.
Ultimately, I hope that this blog helps fellow clubbies communicate with the people in their lives that need to know about their clubfoot. Maybe there will be a blog post you want to show to your personal trainer, who hasn’t heard of clubfoot and isn’t sure if you can do squats, or maybe your spouse sees you in pain some days and worries about you, so you send them a link to my post about setting your own limits for yourself. We’re in this together, and if me talking about my experience helps you talk about yours, we’re all better off.