This week's row2k Interview checks in with Iona senior Kyle Daly, who has big goals for himself and the Gaels this spring, now that he has finally bested a knee problem that confounded 6 doctors and took a cadaver and a machine 'worse than an erg' to set straight, literally. Read about how he trained and raced through years of pain before getting the right diagnosis and how excited he is to be back as a part of an Iona squad that has been setting new standards of success for the program.
row2k - How did you get your start in rowing and why did you decide to row for Iona?
Kyle Daly - I had played multiple sports in grammar school: soccer, baseball, and basketball. I was accepted into St. Anthony’s High School, which is renowned as a sports school, so I knew my chances of making it on the soccer, baseball, and basketball teams were pretty slim. Also, I had been drifting away from those sports for a while anyway. St. Anthony’s offered rowing as a walk on sport, so I walked on and loved it right off the bat.
My top choices for college were Northeastern University or Boston University, and I applied to Iona College as a back-up school. As it turned out, though, Iona College was the right fit for me. When I started rowing as a freshman, the people on the team wanted to do the work to bring Iona to the top because Iona was seen as the underdogs at every race. This was the first time I had ever been around a group of people that worked so hard in my life. This past year, one of our rowers, Frank Petrucci, was able to get onto the United States National Team, in the Pan Am Light Four, and tried out for this year’s Olympic Games. He came up just short for rowing in the lightweight 4.
row2k - You've had to deal with a recurring knee injury, what was the problem with your knee and how did it affect your rowing?
Kyle Daly - The real problem was just doctors not doing their jobs. When I was around 7 or so and I would get my check-up, I had always complained about my knee. Every time I had done anything physical with my knee, it just swelled up but I was told it was just “growing pains”.
Then as I started to become a more efficient and powerful rower, the problems started coming into play. My freshman year at Iona, shortly after we had finished out the fall season and I had just taken my last final, I decided to do a 30 minute steady state on the erg. I was probably pulling a whopping 2:00 split and my knee made a nice crunchy snap and I knew I had problems immediately. I went up to the trainers and they had never heard of anything like this, especially with rowing being a non-impact sport, so they told me I pulled my IT-band. I knew that was definitely not the case, so I went back home to see my doctor there to give me a better diagnosis. Turned out that I cracked about 10% of the lateral meniscus off in my right knee. A human explanation of the previous sentence is that there are 2 “shock absorbers” (meniscus) in your knees, and I tore the outside “shock absorber”. It was explained to me that it was going to be a quick surgery, in January 2009. My doctor was just going to clean up the torn meniscus, and I had to take 3 months off of rowing. Adding insult to injury, my brother had smashed me with a snowtube the day before knee surgery and I had cracked my front tooth in half.
So, I recovered extremely fast and was able to row 2 months after the surgery, in time for the spring season my freshman year. Coach Tom Scifres ended up putting out an 8 that year, and it was the best 8 that Iona had put out in years: 4th at New York States, and we made it to the semi-finals at Dad Vails. Things were looking pretty good, except that my knee was still swelling every single day. I think I made it a week into the fall season my sophomore year and I rolled my ankle on a run, which turned out to be a fourth degree sprain. As soon as I was allowed to row again (1 week later), during a nice steady state, my knee made the loudest snap I had ever heard in my life. I had my headphones on, and heard the snap clear as day, almost like if you had earplugs in and you shot a handgun. I went up to the trainers again and they said, “IT-band?” So, I again went to my doctor at home and told him a pretty similar story as I had the last time. I made it clear that I wanted to row as soon as possible, and we took a risk. No X-Ray or MRI, we just scheduled surgery in September 2009, banking on it being the same injury. Luckily, it was, except I snapped off another 40% of my lateral meniscus, so a total of 50%. After surgery, the doc came up to me and explained to me I should stay away from this injury reoccurring and that I was definitely looking at getting arthritis in 5-10 years and probably a knee replacement later down the road, especially if I was going to be as active as I am.
So, with doctor’s words playing in my head, I thought maybe I should see another doctor to grab a second opinion on rowing again. I went to see a specialist in New Jersey. I explained to him my situation and he had a puzzled look on his face. Then he told me, “I tell people with your injury to start rowing…” So, that sounded good to me and instead of taking 3 months off, I took 4 months off just to make sure everything healed and missed the fall season completely. Coach Tom decided to put a lightweight 4 out that spring that year with me in it, and we bettered our results at Dad Vails from last time I was there. We missed finals by .6 seconds.
Even with all these injuries I had been having, I had always bettered myself year to year, but as usual my knee was still swelling up every single day. I made it through my fall season my junior year, and placed 20th at the Head of the Charles. Everything was looking really good for the Spring season, until I decided to play hacky-sack with my friend after my Theoretical Mechanics class. It wasn’t a snap this time, but my meniscus had popped out of place and was bulging outside my knee. I went up to the trainers, and they told me a different story. They said, “How about you take a ride down to the Hospital for Special Surgery in NYC and go see Dr. Williams...” So, that's what I did.
I had an MRI done and met with Dr. Williams. He explained to me that I had popped my lateral meniscus out of my joint line and asked me to tell him the story I am telling you. He really took the time to listen to me, looked really puzzled, and said, “Your story makes no sense!” Took maybe 15 seconds to think and said, “Lay back on the table.” He took a step back and immediately grabbed my dad and said, “Look, your son's leg is crooked…” Dr. Williams was extremely excited, but I had never seen my dad look so miserable in my whole life. He immediately blamed himself for not noticing I had a crooked leg my entire life. To reassure my father, Dr. Williams said that we would have never known something was wrong because it is my leg. Also, this was something that should have been caught when I was a child: no surgeries would have been necessary then, just braces on my legs so they would correct themselves as I grew. If we go by what Dr. Williams said, I was misdiagnosed 6 times, and only 1 of 7 doctors I have seen through my life got it right.
So we were excited that we figured out the problem and that Dr. Williams could fix it. He explained what he was going to do so nonchalantly: “I’m going to have to cut your femur in half, cut out a wedge shaped piece of a donor cadaver femur bone and stick it your femur; plate, screws, and you're good to go…” Well, in May of 2011, 5 days after school ended that is exactly what happened. I had my femur cut in half, than had a donor bone in the shape of a doorstop to correct the angle of my leg put in my femur, and a plate was screwed in to ensure it would heal straight.
row2k - What has the rehabilitation process been like and did you ever doubt your rowing future?
Kyle Daly - The rehab for the lower femoral osteotomy was very painful. I had to stay in the hospital for 2 days after surgery. For the first day, I was loaded up on morphine, which took some of the pain away, but I was still gritting my teeth if I had to do even the slightest movements. The next day, they took the morphine away and the nurses got me out of bed to practice crutching around. With the donor bone in my leg, it actually made my leg about 1 centimeter longer. Because of this, all my tendons and ligaments were incredibly tight, so they gave me this leg-bending machine, which is the most painful machine ever. (Way worse than the erg!). They just strapped my leg in and set the degrees for how much it would bend my leg and off it went. I went home on the third day and I had to strap into this leg machine for 8 hours a day and ice another 4 hours a day, every single day for 2 weeks. I started out only being able to bend my knee from 0 degrees (leg straight) to 15 degrees (1/16th slide?). From week 3-4 I was only in the machine for 6 hours a day and icing 3 hours a day. After that, it was physical therapy every single day.
I absolutely doubted my rowing career. The first surgery wasn’t that bad, but the second surgery I was just really afraid to row again. I just thought how weird it was that the same thing happened again and the consequences of having the same injury happening another time could really affect my future, just being able to walk around. Following the femoral surgery, I didn’t plan on rowing again. After being in so much pain for so long, I could not fathom the idea of being able to row again. Dr. Williams did say that this recovery would take a full year for my leg to be completely 100%, but after the four months of therapy and how fast I healed, I could maybe row in four month's time, which would start me in the beginning of the fall season. Sure enough at the four month mark I had my check-up with Dr. Williams, he told me to walk around and do a few single leg squats, then told me that I was good to go. He also said that, so far, I had the fastest healing time from this surgery that he had ever seen. So, after that check-up, I thought I would give rowing a shot, and if it didn’t work out in my favor I would drop my NCAA eligibility and volunteer my time as an assistant coach. Turned out I made it into my school's A four and was able to race the Head of the Charles, where we placed 11th (compared to the previous year’s 20th!).
row2k - What are your strengths as both a student and an athlete?
Kyle Daly - For me, being a Physics major here at Iona College and rowing actually fit pretty nicely together. With my school work, I have to really sit down and work hard to get decent grades and, with rowing being as time consuming as it is, I’ve learned to budget my time appropriately. Also, when rowing and all my injuries are factored into the equation, my mental boundaries are pretty much non-existent. So, I think my three best strengths from school and rowing is that I’m confident in myself, I work hard, and I budget my time appropriately.
row2k - How has this season gone so far and what are your goals for the spring?
Kyle Daly - This past fall season has been really great for us. We took our first-ever medals at the Head of the Housatonic. We finished 3rd in the Non-IRA Varsity 8, then we split up into two Non-IRA 4’s and placed 2nd and 4th. At the Head of the Charles, we took 11th, which is only four places worse than our best finish there. So, all in all, a great season.
The goals I have for the Spring depend on what boat I’m mainly in. We have a bit of a small team, so we are going to row tons of different boats and line-ups, especially when we go to the MAAC Championships. All of us here have worked extremely hard this winter season and we all want to beat Marist in at least one race to get the ball rolling. I would like to be in a pair, to hopefully better our bronze Dad Vail medal from last year, or make it to finals at Dad Vails if I’m in a Lightweight 4 or Varsity 4. One thing is for sure though: we have such a young squad and I want to keep them as motivated as possible because those guys either have a natural rowing talent or natural brute strength. If I can help piece together their weaknesses, I think Iona College will be looked at as a threat by next year.
row2k - What do you like most about the sport of rowing?
Kyle Daly - I love rowing and being out on the water, but I think the reason I stayed even after all of those injuries is the rowing atmosphere. I think all rowers make the sport what it is, and from my experience, it is filled with crazy, hard working individuals that can push their limits further than anyone else. That's also why I love the team I’m on right now. Like I said before, they are such a young group of guys that work and push each other so hard I can’t explain it. I’m so happy I came back not only for me to race again, but I’ve had so much fun watching these guys get stronger at an incredibly fast pace.
row2k - What are you studying at Iona and do you have any plans yet for after graduation?
Kyle Daly - I’m studying Physics and I’m not sure what my plans are. I applied to graduate school to maybe become a high school physics teacher, but as another option I took the New York Police Department test two years ago and it sounds like I may get called soon. So, it would be great if I could be an officer and go on to graduate school to get my masters in physics. Then, I could possibly apply to the FBI to be a special agent with critical skills. I also am taking the New York Fire Department test, so I have a few options, thankfully, and I just need to wait and see how my cards unfold.