The next day, Mahre was flown to Dr. Steadman’s medical facility in California to repair three breaks above his left ankle and start intensive rehabilitation with the 1980 Winter Olympics less than a year away. “We thought in terms of making him able to return to skiing,” said Dr. Steadman at the time.
Mahre was awarded a silver medal at the Lake Placid Games in slalom. For Dr. Steadman, who died Jan. 20 at 85 at his home in Vail, Colo., Mahre’s rebound further burnished his reputation as a medical virtuoso.
Dr. Steadman’s techniques in surgery and recovery helped extend the careers of scores of top athletes since the 1970s as the chief medical overseer for the U.S. Alpine Ski Team and the go-to doctor for the elite in many other sports.
The Steadman Clinic in Vail — founded by Dr. Steadman in 1990 after moving from South Lake Tahoe, Calif. — became a top destination for injured athletes still at the top of their game and hoping to squeeze out some more years of performance. The list includes skiers such as Picabo Street and Luxembourg’s Marc Girardelli; tennis stars Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles; NBA standouts such as Amar’e Stoudemire and Jason Kidd; and football greats including Hall of Fame defensive player Bruce Smith.
“Really all the greatness at the end of my career, I owe to him because he was the one who kept me together,” said Olympic skier Cindy Nelson, who was among the first group of U.S. national team skiers treated by Dr. Steadman in the 1970s. Nelson won a bronze in downhill at Innsbruck’s 1976 Winter Olympics. She fractured her ankle in the next year. She competed in the 1984 Olympics.
Among Dr. Steadman’s advances in the 1980s was a knee surgery known as microfracture that sought to harness the body’s regenerative powers and avoid more invasive procedures to repair worn or damaged cartilage. To remove any calcified areas, the cartilage affected is scraped. Next, tiny holes will be punched in the bone.
This allows stem cells from the bone marrow to be released, which can stimulate the growth of cartilage. Although many medical studies support the effectiveness of this treatment, some papers indicate that the regenerated cartilage may be fibrous and not as durable as the original.
According to the Steadman Clinic in New York, the procedure is used on more than 500,000 people each year. It has also been expanded to include other areas like the hip, ankles, shoulders and ankles.
“[The] goal,” said Dr. Steadman in 2000, “is to recreate the structures of the knee.”
Dr. Steadman’s stamp also is seen in the fast timetable from surgery to rehabilitation steps, particularly for athletes seeking an accelerated return to competition. When Dr. Steadman started working with the U.S. in the 1970s, Ski Team was a common procedure that required weeks of rehabilitation after knee surgery.
“That kind of rehabilitation allowed the muscle and joint to deteriorate and left the patient with no chance of a full recovery,” he told the Denver Post.
Dr. Steadman encouraged the use of knee flexors and other exercises right away after surgery. He gradually increased resistance to the knee. He even suggested that skiers include water skiing in their rehabilitation programs.
“The thing that separates success from failure is the way rehabilitation is done. It was hard. It wasn’t just convincing the patients, but the doctors as well,” Dr. Steadman said of his early years advocating early physical therapy. “Very few people agreed with that technology.”
John Richard Steadman, a Texas native, was born in Sherman on June 4, 1937. He graduated in 1959 from Texas A&M University, where he played football for coach Paul “Bear” Bryant during his freshman and sophomore years.
Dr. Steadman graduated from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School (Dallas) in 1963 and served in the Army in West Germany.
In 1970, he joined an orthopedics clinic in South Lake Tahoe and was a member of the U.S. medical pool. Ski Team, often traveling for events all around the globe. In 1976, he was named the team’s chief physician. He was there until the 2006 Winter Games in Turin.
Dr. Steadman established a research group in sport medicine in 1988. It is now the Steadman Philippon Research Institute. This institute has one of the most extensive databases on patient outcomes, cases and details.
Dr. Steadman is also known for creating many surgical instruments that were necessary to perform his new procedures. He was also involved in research on topical anesthetics as well as collagen meniscus knee implant work. Dr. Steadman was a consultant to the Denver Broncos in the NFL and baseball’s Colorado Rockies.
Dr. Steadman did not often boast about his close relationships with elite athletes. He could write essays for Newsweek that he was just as interested in weekend warriors pulling muscle and sidewalk tumbles.
He married Gay Lyon Weber in 1961. His survivors included his wife Gay Lyon Weber, two children, Lyon Steadman, and Liddy Lind, a sister, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. The Steadman Clinic reported the death but did not provide any details.
Dr. Steadman, despite all his accolades in the operating rooms, said that one of his most rewarding moments was not taking up a scalpel. Bode Miller, a skier, tore his left knee ligaments in 2001 during a downhill race held in Austria. An operation would have jeopardized Miller’s chances of competing in the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.
Dr. Steadman noted the ACL — one of the critical structures to stabilize the knee — was not completely ruptured. Dr. Steadman decided to perform a minimal surgical procedure to remove the damaged cartilage and allow the ACL to heal naturally.
Miller won two silver medals at Salt Lake City’s giant slalom or Alpine combined.
“This was the best surgery I’ve never done,” Dr. Steadman said.