21 surgeries won't stop veteran badminton champion

Labelled 'miracle madman' by docs, winner of international veterans' badminton titles braves 21 operations, including a second knee replacement; hopes to bounce back for the 2017 World Championship

Where most people would take months to just get back on their feet after a knee replacement surgery, badminton ace Shirish Nadkarni can’t wait to get back on court, never mind that he underwent his 21st surgical procedure to replace his left knee just last week.

Last week, Shirish Nadkarni (65) had his left knee replaced for the second time after the previous implant broke off during a match in Dharamshala. Pic/Sameer Markande
Shirish Nadkarni (65) at his residence in Mumbai. Pic/Sameer Markande

"I've already been away from the game for eight months now. Six months is the recovery period for a knee replacement; I think I'll be back on the court two days before my birthday," said Nadkarni, who will turn 66 on April 22 next year.

A file picture of veteran badminton champ Shirish Nadkarni, who never quit his game despite a series of medical problems and surgeries on his back, knees, elbow, ankle, eye and heart
A file picture of veteran badminton champ Shirish Nadkarni, who never quit his game despite a series of medical problems and surgeries on his back, knees, elbow, ankle, eye and heart

But this is nothing new for the former sports journalist and winner of over 60 titles at local, district, state, national and international level in badminton, who has faced an astonishing series of medical problems and surgeries in the past four decades, but has managed to bounce back each time (see graphic).

Each time, his doctors feared it would be the end of his badminton career, but Nadkarni defied all expectations. Even the massive heart attack he suffered in 2005, barely a month after winning the world championship, did not stop him. Amongst doctors and the badminton circuit, he has been given nicknames such as 'miracle madman' and a medical marvel.

In fact, Nadkarni is the holder of another title that shows just how rare a creature he is: in 2007, four years after his first knee replacement, the Guinness Book of World Records recognised him as the only world champion with a replaced knee to continue playing a competitive sport involving a lot of movement on court.

As doctors kept drilling holes in his body and reconstructing his joints in the years to follow, he continued to participate in the Veterans National Championships winning eight of them from his entry into 11 finals.

"Doctors would tell me that it would be near impossible for me to keep playing badminton. I kept reassuring them that not only would I continue to play, but I would take part in competitive badminton and win," said Nadkarni who kept making headlines for his achievements in newspapers.

21st surgery
The veteran baddie champ himself laughs it off, saying he has single-handedly supported the retirement plans of a generation of orthopaedic surgeons with the series of operations he has had on his back, knees, elbows and ankle.

But it is his left knee that has given him the most trouble, ever since he first had to have it replaced in 2003, followed by 10 more procedures on the same joint. The same knee had to be replaced a second time last week, because the femoral implant had become loose and 'rocking' inside the knee, causing severe pain during a match at Dharamshala in March.

"We were playing our first match for the national games in Dharamshala. I couldn't move and the pain was unbearable. The X-Ray later showed that my knee implant had finally given up after 12 years. The femoral prosthesis was jarred loose within the knee during the match and made it very difficult for me to put any weight at all on the knee. I was a virtual passenger from that point onwards," Nadkarni recalled.

Several attempts had earlier been made to repair damage to the knee caused by the displacement of the patellar implant, but they failed to work. Even attempts at anchoring the ruptured patellar tendon by drilling a hole in the tibia met with limited success. Finally, when the correct diagnosis of the loosened femoral implant was made by Dr. Manoj Shah, the 12 year old implant was replaced with a modern, lighter, stronger prosthesis.

"The implant serves for 20 years, but since he was putting excessive pressure on it, the implant worked itself loose. There was no other way but to remove the implant and fit a new implant. It’s made of a lighter material and will serve him for at least a decade. But it’s still a miracle how he was able to play with the previous implant for so many years,” said the surgeon.

He could try telling Nadkarni to slow down, but, true to form, Nadkarni is already excited about playing – and winning – the 2017 world championship. "Looking forward to getting on my feet by April 20. Then I will think about practice. I will miss the veterans’ nationals to be held in Chennai in January 2016. The next major event I am looking forward to is the World Championship in Kochi in 2017," he said.

"The next major event I am looking forward to will be the 2017 Indian Veterans Nationals, followed by the World Senior Championships in Trivandrum (not Kochi). I think my partner Hubert Miranda and I would have a decent shot at the 65+ world doubles title", said a visibly upbeat Nadkarni.

‘Not a quitter’
Dr Anant Joshi, Nadkarni’s friend and the first specialist to treat his notorious knee said the 65-year-old isn’t like most other sportsmen. “Over a period of time, the muscles and joints experience wear and tear due to excessive pressure and this starts giving sleepless nights to the sportsman.

When the injuries continue, many of them change their sports and shift to another sport which is less stressful and puts less pressure on their joints. But Nadkarni is not one of them. Even decades ago, when we performed the first few surgeries and removed a few loose sections, the knee was looking pretty bad.

But he kept going ahead. Unlike other sportsmen, who would quit a competitive sport rather than suffering from painful injuries and multiple surgeries, he kept getting the necessary surgeries done to repair the defects. He is an animal,” said Joshi, who had even hung an X-Ray of Nadkarni’s knee to show to other patients.

— Inputs by Sundari Iyer

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