Alvarez fights through agony to experience ecstacyMiami native finds success on World Cup circuit
The waves of pain come daily, enough for Eddy Alvarez to take notice. His surgically repaired knees allow him to chase his short track speed skating dreams of reaching the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
But not a day of training or competition goes by without a reminder of the physical toll of his goals. The gnawing pain isn't debilitating but rather a constant companion on his journey.
The balm keeping the pain in check is simple: Alvarez is one of the best short track skaters in the world again, during this critical Olympic season.
He has exceeded his own expectations so far this season, being part of a gold medal-winning U.S. 5,000-meter relay and posting a personal best to take the bronze in the 500 in the Shanghai World Cup stop.
"I am extremely grateful for everything I have and everything I can do," Alvarez said from his training base in Salt Lake City. "If you had told me two years ago that I would be on the World Cup podium, I probably would have said you are crazy.
"I go through the pain, I am putting in the work, so when this is over, I can honestly say I have no regrets. And I won't."
Alvarez, a former inline skater who hails from Miami, Fla., has been pushing his body, and psyche, hard to get to the Olympics. And the journey has been challenging and complicated.
His recent successes surprised him, as he was hoping to use the early Grand Prix events as progress checks. It's one thing to be training well and quite another to see how your speed stacks up against the best in the world when the pressure is on.
He is a World Cup newbie, only having four events at that level in his career so far. The top skaters in the World Cup can have a couple dozen competitions on their résumés.
Alvarez's next World Cup is this week in Torino, Italy.
"I thought I had prepared myself well -- I was definitely feeling good -- but to see all of that come together in the World Cup circuit, wow," Alvarez, 23, said. "I feel like I am starting over in a way, so I feel very new to the World Cup circuit. I was surprised how I felt because, in a way, just getting back on my feet was the accomplishment.
"Now I feel I have the right to dream bigger, not just to get to Sochi but to get on the podium, too. I want to win. I am seeing more for myself."
Over the past few years, rigors of an elite career progressively destroyed his knees, leading to pain on the scale of "having a hundred knives stab you, over and over."
If he wanted to keep going, with his eye on Sochi, he needed to have major repairs. He is now skating on rebuilt knees, having multiple tears to his patellar tendons mended during a five-hour surgery in April 2012.
The recovery was grueling, taking Alvarez to his lowest point. He progressed from re-learning how to walk to running and, finally, to skating. He leaned on his family and friends for support.
"I felt broken sometimes, just wondering if any of this would ever be possible again," Alvarez said. "I realized that I still had goals, things unfinished that I wanted out of my career. I had to get through it. And I get through the pain every day."
The lingering pain Alvarez deals with, officially termed chronic tendonitis, isn't fun -- but it's not yet sharp or debilitating. He describes it as like having somebody kick a bad bruise one time too many.
He's training, 6-8 hours a day, six days a week, under coach Guy Thibault. Alvarez said he's the first skater on the ice warming up, and the last to leave after cool-down, in order to best care for his knees.
Thibault said he wasn't too surprised by Alvarez's season-opening performances.
"We aren't really changing expectations at all," Thibault said. "The focus remains on becoming the best skater he can be and being prepared physically, mentally and tactically for the events. The results will take care of themselves."
Alvarez feels getting through the fear of nearly ending his career, coming back from the knee surgeries and seeing his hard work now pay off has given him a new perspective.
He is not going to hold back. But he's not cocky enough to guarantee reaching Sochi, or winning a medal, knowing how quickly everything can be taken away by fate or fragile knees.
Alvarez and Thibault walk a delicate road together, pushing his training as far as they can. But going too far can inflame his knees, to the point where skating through the pain would be unwise.
Thibault said the bonds of communication and trust are essential to managing Alvarez's situation.
"For me, this is very simple: I listen to him and trust him," Thibault said. "He is extremely driven and diligent with his training, as well as his recovery, and he does everything he needs to do to manage his knees.
"When he says something is off or not right, we back down. This hasn't happened very often this year, and he is really pushing his limits this season."
Alvarez is excited about the rest of the World Cup events and the subsequent U.S. Olympic trials.
"I have learned I am capable of making 'A' finals; I have the strength and speed," Alvarez said. "I need to keep testing myself against the top guys and pushing myself to get even faster. Being in the World Cups shows you that by far, speed-wise, it's a different game out there. The best guys around the world want it. They go for it. I need to stay calm, not get anxious and be smart to keep it together.
"I want this, too, and I am doing everything I can to get there. If I give my all, no matter what happens, I won't complain."