Alexandra Stevenson has been holding a tennis racket ever since she can remember. The decision to go pro at 18 took her from the relative comfort of a scholarship offer at UCLA and thrust her into the pressure cooker of competition. It also exposed her body to the kind of beating that mere mortals can only dream about.
Having suffered a number of injury-related setbacks over the ensuing years, Stevenson thought her career was through by 2010. But then, something changed. After being carried off a Sydney court with a foot injury in February of last year, she decided to try a new kind of training program called Foundation Roots, a regimen focused on lower back and posterior muscle movement. At age 30, she has managed to bring her professional tennis career back from the brink of what seemed sure to be its demise.
When her body seemed to be at its worst, Stevenson tried different trainers and workouts, but nothing seemed to keep her from getting injured. Between 1999 and 2004 she was consistently in the top 100, but had racked up a list of injuries, aches and pains. A groin pull, arm and neck pain, a stomach pull, tightness across her hips, and problems with her knee and wrist culminated in an injury to her right shoulder that, by 2004, required an invasive form of surgery called a type II labral repair. It's the type of problem encountered by professional baseball pitchers throwing 90-plus mile-per-hour balls. In 2003, Stevenson's serve speed of 123 mph was tied for ninth place in the world.
"When you look at how hard she was serving, it makes sense that this would happen," said Stevenson's mother, Samantha Stevenson.
Stevenson came back in 2007, but retired from 17 matches that year, even more in 2008, and in 2009, she was able to get through five rounds. Her ranking plummeted after she injured her foot in Sydney, and she returned home to Southern California in low spirits. She was unable to play for the next three months but went to see Tim Brown, a Los Angeles-based sports chiropractor.
"It was amazing that an athlete at that level, with all of the opportunities she had to see people about her injuries, was in that kind of shape," said Brown. "She couldn't do half a squat. She was ... uneven." He advised Stevenson to go see Peter Park, one of Foundation Roots' creators; Brown said he recommended Foundation Roots because it was just the kind of movement therapy Stevenson needed.
A mishmash of yoga, tai chi and a handful of unique moves and poses designed to increase strength and flexibility, Foundation seems to be part training and part treatment. Founders Park and Eric Goodman insist that for years, everyone from professional athletes to weekend handball players have labored under the misconception that abdominal muscles are the core muscles of the body. Focused on strengthening and loosening the chain of muscles running from the lower back to the hamstrings, the duo proselytize to people about thinking differently and retraining the way they move their bodies.
"That's why we see so many injuries, because people's posterior chain muscles don't know how to move," said Goodman, a former body builder and self-described "anatomy dork" who went to chiropractor school after he had suffered a number of his own injuries.
Goodman's detailed study of how body parts moved went hand in hand with what he had learned as a body builder and chiropractor, honing in on form as a way to increase strength and flexibility throughout various parts' ranges of motion. Lance Armstong's personal trainer and himself a top-five finisher in a handful of ironman triathlons, Park partnered with Goodman two and a half years ago. Since then, they have accumulated a list of professional athletes and celebrities on the rolls of people they've worked with, including L.A. Laker Luke Walton, 10-time Association of Surfing Professionals world champion Kelly Slater and film stars such as Jeff Bridges and Rob Lowe.
There are a number of other organizations using movement as therapy for pain and injury, and each has its own method. What they all have in common is the final goal of pain-free movement, and their founders tend to have personal histories of athletic injury.
Brown and Pete Egoscue --a former Marine who caught the therapy bug after returning from Vietnam with a war injury--are priests of posture. (Egoscue, who started a chain of pain-relief clinics, calls himself The Posture Guy.) Esther Gokhale hurt her back during her first pregnancy and has dedicated her life to teaching people how to turn every movement into a way to increase flexibility and strength. While she doesn’t like some facets of Foundation Roots--Gokhale thinks the back arching they teach will ultimately strain spinal nerves and discs, and that they should focus more on abdominal and back muscles equally--she says its many yoga-derived full body poses are very effective.
But Goodman and Park are sticking to their back-is-front mantra. In addition to the growing list of celebrities they’ve worked with, they reach out to non-celebrities and occupational athletes, too. For a while, they offered classes (for a suggested $10 donation) at a little outdoor gym in a seaside hamlet called Summerland, Calif., near Santa Barbara. Twice a week, a dozen or so people from nearby locales gathered in a semicircle on colorful foam mats in the gym's sun-dappled courtyard. Striking poses that felt unnatural to first-timers, rear ends protruded into the air at odd angles and arms were held aloft in line with stiffened backs. They held positions that sent burning sensations up and down leg and back muscles. People continued to return week after week, so it must have been the good kind of burn.
Time has been scarce recently though, as Goodman and Park attempt to spread the word about Foundation through the auspices of a nascent nonprofit — the Foundation Foundation. They also released a book in May, Foundation: Redefine Your Core, Conquer Back Pain, and Move With Confidence, with a forward by Lance Armstrong), and hope to educate as many people as possible about the benefits of their way of thinking. "Basically, what we're trying to do is to change people's belief system — redefine what the core is," explained Goodman. "We're not trying to make a huge business out of this, we just want to get the word out."
So far, the reception in the field has been good. "We do not have detractors at this point," Goodman said (and some digging tends to confirm). "We may at some point, but this is pretty basic science."
For her part, Stevenson has managed to pull her world ranking from the dregs of her career — by June 2010, it had sank to 390th — to 239th. She's still a long way from the No. 18 ranking she achieved in 2002, but as of press time, she hadn't sustained any injuries since beginning Foundation and reported feeling much better overall. "It's not just Foundation, it's (weight and performance) training, too, but when I was 21 or 22, I'd get out of bed feeling like an old person," she said. "Now, even when I'm tired from a workout, I feel better after I do all the Foundation exercises."
Maybe, as Jay Z points out in his song, "30 Something," 30 is the new 20. Stevenson sounds optimistic: "As long as I reach my goals, I'll keep playing. There are no rules about your age."