‘Gold-medal care’ for Olympians and neighbors alike

Whether athletes are competing at the X Games or running a 5K, Dr. Sunil Jani of the UCHealth Orthopedics Clinic in Longmont offers world-class care.
Feb. 23, 2018

As snowboarders and skiers soar, twist and spin upside down, far above the snow at the Olympics, Dr. Sunil Jani holds his breath just a little bit.

Dr. Sunil Jani offers gold-medal care at UCHealth Orthopedics Clinic-Longmont. Here he stands at the bottom of the halfpipe in Aspen where he tended to athletes during the X Games.
Dr. Sunil Jani (left) supported U.S. snowboarders at the X Games in Aspen in January. Photo courtesy of Dr. Sunil Jani.

Yes, he’s enjoying the beautiful tricks. But he’s also watching for safe landings.

“We’re all fans,” said Jani, an orthopedic sports medicine specialist at UCHealth’s Orthopedic Clinic in Longmont.

But he also knows what it’s like to be the medical expert waiting and watching at the bottom of the halfpipe.

“You are absolutely holding your breath and you’re on edge until they complete their run safely,” said Jani, who recently had a close-up view of many of the same athletes who have been dazzling the world at the Olympics.

Advanced care in the community and on the halfpipe

Jani served as the orthopedist covering halfpipe snowboarding for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association at the X Games in Aspen in January. He’s been keeping a close eye on the athletes at the Olympics while also providing “gold-medal care,” at home.

“I treat every single one of my patients the same, whether they want to get back to daily walks with the dog or they’re headed to the Olympics,” Jani said.

“At the Longmont Clinic, we treat everyone like family,” he said.

Dr. Jani offers gold-medal care as an orthopedist in Longmont. Here, he hikes with one of his daughters.
Dr. Sunil Jani hikes with one of his daughters. Photo courtesy of Dr. Sunil Jani.

The clinic offers patients a very well trained orthopedic surgeon who uses the newest and most beneficial treatments and techniques in a convenient location close to home.

“We’re right here in the community taking care of our friends and neighbors,” said Jani, who lives in Longmont with his wife and two daughters.

At the X Games, Jani was just feet away when the prior Olympic champion snowboarder known as I-Pod, Iouri Podladtchikov of Russia, crashed and slammed his head into the pipe, then lay motionless after his fall. The crowd gasped then went silent, waiting to see if I-Pod would be OK.

Jani was eager to race over and help I-Pod. He has received special training in all the types of accidents that snow athletes can suffer. But I-Pod had a separate team of doctors, so all Jani could do was stand by in case they asked for help.

Fortunately, I-Pod did not suffer any spinal damage. A severe concussion from the crash forced him to skip the Olympics this month. But he is recovering.

Big, devastating injuries rare 

Jani has been tuning in to the Olympics this month, rapt as he watches athletes with whom he feels a protective bond. And he’s also feeling for the doctors tending to them.

“It was awesome to be there, but it’s like a roller coaster ride. It’s simultaneously fun, busy and very stressful,” said Jani. “Fortunately, the big, devastating injuries are rare.”

Jani got to meet breakout teen star, Chloe Kim, and her family. He wasn’t the least bit surprised that she dominated the women’s competition and won the gold medal at the Olympics.

“She was extremely consistent,” Jani said.

He was on duty at the base of the halfpipe as Chloe and the other competitors practiced over and over again before the X Games.

“It’s not a fluke that she hits her tricks. She’s dialed in. She’s ready to springboard and take it up a couple of notches,” Jani said.

Chloe’s dad went out of his way to say hello to Jani and to thank him for being there. (All the doctors in the team pool volunteer their time.)

“It’s no coincidence that the athletes’ families are amazingly supportive. They’ve made significant commitments too.”

Supporting veterans and new kids alike

Jani also enjoyed meeting Kelly Clark, 34, a snowboarding trailblazer and now, a five-time Olympian. She hit the side of the pipe on her second run in Aspen. Together she and Jani decided to have Kelly skip her third run and save herself for the Olympics. While she would have loved taking the gold in South Korea, she placed a respectable 4th, just off the podium.

Among the men, Jani said Ben Ferguson was especially exuberant. In the Olympics, he dazzled the crowd with a huge air fakie—a trick where he hung, almost still, high in the air, before landing smoothly in the pipe.

“He rocked it during the preliminaries. He’s always having the most fun out there,” Jani said.

During the X Games, Ben took a fall on the last day of training. Fortunately, he did not suffer any serious injuries. He went on to place 4th in the halfpipe at the Olympics. Jani said to keep an eye out for both Ben and his younger brother, Gabe, in future competitions.

To prepare for work on the slopes or in the halfpipe, Jani does a 2 ½-day course in emergency management for skiing and snowboarding every four years. He and fellow specialists review the most common and severe pitfalls competitors can suffer. Then they get out on steep, icy slopes and practice techniques for stabilizing simulated injuries.

“The immediate worry for me is always the head or a spinal injury. When athletes hit their heads, they can be unconscious and you can’t do a good exam. The main thing is to get them stabilized, then safely off the halfpipe or off the slopes, and get them to either the medical tent, the nearest hospital or in a helicopter to a Level 1 Trauma Center depending on how severe the injury is,” Jani said.

Luckily, he didn’t have to deal with any of those types of serious injuries at the X Games.

A past as a footbag world champion

Jani knows well what it’s like to be a top-tier athlete. During college and graduate school, he competed in footbagging, also known as hacky sack. He rose to No. 2 in the world for three years in a row.

Jani attended Rutgers and University of Pennsylvania for his undergraduate degrees, then wanted to become a science writer. He was at graduate school at the University of California San Francisco when he had some knee injuries that limited his footbagging. He met a wonderful orthopedist, Dr. Mark Safran, who watched him play and helped Jani figure out what was wrong and how he could get him back to his sport as fast as possible.

Dr. Jani in a selfie at the Denver Broncos training facility.
Dr. Jani at the Broncos’ training facility. Photo courtesy of Dr. Sunil Jani.

Inspired by Safran, Jani decided to switch from a doctorate in science to a medical degree. He went to Rutgers for medical school, then trained at University of Pennsylvania for residency. At the University of Pennsylvania he served as part of the medical team to cover the Penn Relays, one of the premier world track and field events for Olympic athletes. He then went on to do an orthopedic sports medicine fellowship in Taos, N.M. The orthopedists in Taos worked closely with the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Team. That’s how Jani started working with athletes who compete in the snow.

Keeping athletes safer

Asked if snowboarding has become too dangerous, Jani said he thinks that Team USA is doing a great job of taking the best possible care of athletes.

They carefully track and monitor all concussions and make sure that doctors are always on hand at every competition.

“We ought to do everything we can to protect these athletes,” Jani said. “It can be an inherently dangerous sport.”

At the same time, he knows that young people are going to keep pushing their limits and will keep trying to do the newest, riskiest tricks.

Rather than telling people what they can and can’t do, Jani’s aim is to help both patients and pros stay in top form.

He got his own knee fixed many years ago so he could keep competing at the highest levels. These days, he loves kicking a footbag occasionally with his girls, skiing, hiking, trail running and riding his mountain bike.

“I want to help all my patients get back to doing what they love,” he said. “There are so many benefits of exercise for your body and mind. Just find what you love to do, get out there, and get as immersed in it as possible!”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.