‘Worried he might never be the same,’ Georgia runner now No. 1 in his division

Innovative orthopedic surgery got Armuchee High’s Ben Owens back on his feet
Ben Owens suffered a severe injury in 2021 but has made a remarkable recovery. 

Credit: cust

Credit: cust

Ben Owens suffered a severe injury in 2021 but has made a remarkable recovery. Contributed

During the winter of 2021, Ben Owens sprinted up a field during a soccer match when his right knee slid out of place. He collapsed in excruciating pain.

Medical imaging revealed the Rome, Georgia, teen had torn a piece of cartilage on his right knee. The tear in his “articular cartilage” was an unusually serious injury for a young athlete.

Ben’s injury could be repaired, but it was going to be tricky.

That’s where Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. Cliff Willimon at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta comes in. He performed an innovative operation.

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Articular cartilage is a white shiny cartilage that caps the ends of our bones to make the knee joint glide and function well. It’s thin and once damaged can’t heal on its own due to a lack of blood vessels, lymph, and nerves.

Damaged cartilage typically comes with short-term symptoms such as pain, swelling and locking in the joint. It can lead to early onset of osteoarthritis, commonly known as “wear and tear” arthritis.

Before the injury, Ben was an elite athlete, playing baseball, soccer and running for his middle school team.

“I tried to be very positive, but after the surgery, I was like, ‘He is never going to be the same in sports again,” said Katie Owens, Ben’s mother.

The surgery was a success, and Ben was not only motivated to get better — but to take his athletic prowess to new heights. His steely determination has paid off. He’s currently ranked No. 1 in cross country in Georgia for his division with a personal record for a 5K cross country race of 15 minutes, 52 seconds.

The 17-year-old is a junior at Armuchee High School with one more season of cross country running ahead of him. He ranks 58th out of the roughly 1,000 high school male runners ranked in the state.

After the injury in middle school, “I was devastated. I was hurt. I really couldn’t do anything but I had to get over it,” Ben said. “It almost helps you become stronger when you come back. And it just proves if you were hurt last year, you can come back better the next year.”

Willimon described the difficulties faced with repairing Ben’s injured knee, and a pioneering method he has helped develop to repair tears in the articular cartilage.

If a person’s cartilage is broken, it’s sometimes attached to a piece of bone where it can be repaired using special screws, according to Willimon. But the cartilage is so thin, there traditionally hasn’t been a good way to hold the cartilage in place while the bone healed, making it difficult and even impossible to repair especially with a large cartilage injury like Ben’s.

Willimon used a newer strategy, sewing a suture over Ben’s torn cartilage in a spider-web pattern. His method kept the cartilage against the bone while it healed.

“I tried this technique because there was really no other good option and it worked quite well,” said Willimon, who has used the technique for about six years. “I am sure other surgeons have used this technique before, but I do feel strongly I have helped advance the understanding and use of this to treat cartilage injuries in young people such as Ben’s that in the past may not be repairable, but now they are.”

The recovery process was intense, but Ben’s competitive drive kicked in. His rehab regimen included physical therapy and strength training at least two times a week for over a year.

At first, he had a special motion machine that moved his right leg just a couple inches each day to slowly regain his mobility. He mostly got around on crutches. His right leg had atrophied during the recovery, shrinking to about half the size of his left leg.

“I think his competitive drive was key to all of this,” said his mom. “He’s the oldest of three boys. We live on a farm and are used to being outside all the time. A month into the recovery, my other sons were outside throwing a baseball and he hobbled out there on crutches and was like, ‘Can I play?’”

Ben Owens has made a remarkable recovery after a serious injury and is now a top runner in the state.  family provided.

Credit: cust

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Credit: cust

By August of 2021, Ben, who by then was a freshman, got the OK to start running again — albeit very slowly, gradually running longer distances and at a faster speed.

Ben said by his sophomore year he reached a new PR or personal record of 17 minutes, five seconds for the 5K cross country race; he felt energized and confident he could keep getting better and running faster — faster than ever before.

“When you train all the time, you run and feel free and you think about whatever you want. You just feel like you are in your own world,” said Ben whose favorite place to run is around the Berry College campus in Rome.

“And then when it’s race day, you hit a new PR, you’re like, ‘All my work just paid off.’”

It’s also been gratifying for Willimon.

“He’s clearly a talented athlete,” said Willimon. “And it’s wonderful to have a small role in someone’s life and help them have the opportunity to help them reach their full potential.”

This summer, Ben will head to Arizona for a month of high-altitude training to help give him a competitive edge.

Ben has not decided whether to run at a college level. He said he is leaning towards getting a commercial pilot’s license after graduating high school next year.

No matter what, he will keep running.