This week, Kyra Condie began her quest for gold in competitive rock climbing. The sport is new to the Olympics, but she has been competing since she was in elementary school. And while every Olympian’s journey is remarkable, Condie’s stands out because she has 10 fused vertebrae in her spine.
The fusions are the result of a 52-degree curvature in her spine that was discovered after she’d already advanced from her local gym’s youth climbing team and had competed nationally, with hopes of competing in the junior world championships. At that point she finally told her parents about the constant ache she’d been feeling in her back. When X-rays revealed her scoliosis and doctors told her parents that without surgery the situation would progress and she would end up with lung damage, her parents took her to three different spine physicians to find their best option.
While the first surgeon dismissed the importance of climbing and told her she would not be able to return to the sport for a minimum of nine months – and possibly not at all – the second, Dr. John Lonstein, said she could return to the sport in four months, and asked her to send him a photo of herself on the top of the competition’s podium. The several-hour surgery was performed at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Minnesota when she was just shy of her 14th birthday. Four days later Condie left the surgery with 10 fused vertebrae and a lot of pain. Her mother explains, “Basically, they break your back and put it back together. Just lots of nerve pain and healing and spasms, muscle spasms.” As soon as Condie was permitted to walk she started to do so, walking half a mile a day, swimming, and working to rehabilitate. She followed Lonstein’s instructions to the letter and was in the gym four months later. A year and a half after that she won the youth bouldering nationals and sent a photo of herself receiving her award to her surgeon. She won gold at the 2018 Pan American Championships, placed seventh in a 2019 qualifying event for the Olympics, and eleven years later will be one of 20 women competing in the Tokyo Olympics.
Remarking on his patient’s progress, the now-retired surgeon said, “It just shows that even if somebody has scoliosis and they have a fusion, they can achieve things and do what they want to do.” Condie admits that she still experiences aching in her back that she treats with a nightly heating pad. Her climbing style has also been affected by the fusion, forcing her to rely on her strength rather than the bending, twisting, and arching moves that other climbers employ, but she views it as less of an obstacle that she’s overcome then as what helped her make her way to the top of her sport. “To have climbing taken away from me at that point, with the back surgery, it made me really realize how much it meant to me. I then never lost any (excitement) after that.”