"Not for one second did I think if I have this surgery my career is over. My mentality has always been, 'Do what I need to do to get back to the Games in 2016.'"
Kyle Kasperbauer’s workouts are tougher than they’ve ever been.
On a weekday afternoon in January at CrossFit Omaha, he squatted 5 sets of 15 at 385 lb., rowed a bit, and then lifted the heaviest he could overhead—a 33-lb. barbell.
Rep after rep, he pressed the empty barbell slowly overhead. It’s not exactly what you’d expect to see from a guy who used to be able to split jerk 365 lb.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” the 33-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, said. “I just want to move some weight. It’s a mental battle I deal with every day and it’s tough.”
On Oct. 23, the six-time CrossFit Games athlete and three-time regional champion had surgery to repair a torn labrum and torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
Though he’ll scale and modify most of the Open workouts, his mental game remains strong, keeping his focus on returning to the Games in 2016.
Rewind to the plane ride home from the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games and Kasperbauer was letting his 13th-place finish set in. He was also already thinking about how to get back on the podium.
He jotted down his goals for the 2015 Games season and was back in the gym a few days later for recovery workouts with lighter weights and less volume and intensity.
“After the 2014 Games, I was feeling younger and better than I had felt since I was 21 in regards to fitness, strength and recovery,” he said. “I had a lot of confidence. Though I was frustrated with 13th place, it was an improvement from 20th the year before, so I know my training program is headed in the right direction.”
Then came the day Kasperbauer said he’d never forget. It was late August and he was doing double Russian kettlebell swings with 53 lb. in each hand. His shoulder slipped out of place and back in. Kasperbauer finished the workout, and was hoping it was only a strain that would heal with rest.
He continued to train for weeks, but wasn’t the same. He couldn’t push press or push jerk without pain. Muscle-ups and ring dips were unbearable.
“It felt like a knife cutting me,” he said of the pain. “It was sharp and quick. My other muscles started to compensate for it and spasms would start.”
Kasperbauer, who holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s in sports medicine and athletic training, finally relented and decided to see a doctor.
He made an appointment with a surgeon and an MRI showed a torn labrum, a bone spur on the acromion and a 75 percent tear in his rotator cuff—likely stemming from an old football injury in college that never healed. Surgery was the only option. That hit him hard.
“I knew I was cutting into my 2015 Games season,” Kasperbauer said. "From that moment on I was grieving. When they say there are seven stages of grief, I went through them all."
Kasperbauer encouraged athletes to “know their bodies” and get checked out by a doctor when things don’t feel right.
“If something is not right, fix it,” he said. “Don’t wait around and hope it will get better. An injury doesn’t mean your career is over. It just means you may be out for a bit.”
He believes if he had not waited until September to see a surgeon, he would be competing in the Open at 100 percent.
“I regret putting it off as long as I did,” he said. “I can’t even take part in the Open prescribed now, but I will do the best I can and do what’s safe for me.”
Now 15 weeks post-op, Kasperbauer’s physical therapist says he’s months ahead of schedule in his recovery, which he attributes solely to CrossFit and how fit he was going into surgery.
He’s still competitive as hell, too. A day before surgery, he snatched 285 lb.—a personal best. Snatching never bothered his injury, so he worked on that often before surgery. Three days post-op, he was back at CrossFit Omaha.
“I needed to get my mind and body right after surgery and being on pain medicine,” he said. “That meant just getting in the gym and sweating.”
This injury has had a bright side, though.
“I’m AMRAPing family time,” he said. “I’m taking advantage of lost time because I know I’ll be back next year.”
When he’s not spending time with his wife and two children, Kasperbauer is working with his coach, physical therapist, masseuse, chiropractor and orthopedic surgeon to ensure a full recovery.
He’s in the gym twice a day strengthening his shoulder—he can press 95 lb. for multiple reps with no problems. He's even back playing on the rings a bit.
“This is something I’ve committed my life to and my family has committed to,” Kasperbauer said. “Athletes are going to get injured. It happens in the NFL, NBA and NHL, but they come back. Not for one second did I think if I have this surgery my career is over. My mentality has always been, ‘Do what I need to do to get back to the Games in 2016.’”