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Friday, April 15, 2011 - Extreme sports enthusiast from Harriman turns to sports specialists at Methodist to get back in action

Don’t bother trying to tell Don Simon of Harriman, 71, that it’s too cold to water ski.  This year he waited until mid-March, when the water temperature was 57 degrees and the air temperature a balmy 80.

“That’s warm. I think I could have been out there in February,” he said. “I like the water cold, it doesn’t burn your feet.”


You see, Simon skis barefoot, no skis at all.

In cold weather he wears a wetsuit, but nothing on his feet. When it really is too cold to ski – for him that probably means the middle of a snow storm – Simon has been known to go barefoot anyway. A neighbor teased him recently about walking to the mailbox in the snow.

 “Hey, it keeps them ready year-round, it’s training,” Simon explained.

We’ll take his word for it.

The real reason Simon waited longer to go skiing is that he was recovering from knee surgery at Methodist Medical Center in Oak Ridge, performed by Dr. Sean P. Grace, an orthopaedic surgeon who is fellowship-trained in sports medicine.  Simon waited as long as he could stand it.

“Sean told me it would be a minimum of six months before skiing again,” said Simon, who had surgery to repair a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) on Dec. 3.

He waited three and a half months. “I put the brace on, duct taped the top and bottom,” he said. “I’ll use the brace awhile but I have no intention of using it the rest my life!”

"Don is the oldest ACL reconstruction patient I have had and one of the most active at the same time,” said Dr. Grace. “The all-inside technique that we used for him allowed a relatively pain-free and quick recovery as compared to traditional techniques. Don is a highly motivated individual and had excellent rehabilitation - all making for a speedy and complete return to his normal lifestyle. I was even surprised myself at how quickly he was able to regain his mobility and strength especially at his age. Then again, Don is the youngest 70-year-old I have ever met.”

Dr. Grace is the only orthopaedic surgeon in the greater Knoxville area performing this “all-inside” ACL reconstruction. 

Simon has had surgery at Methodist Medical Center several times. “I always go to the Oak Ridge hospital,” he said. “They do a great job.”

Before a back surgery several years ago, Simon showed Dr. Edward Kahn a video of himself water skiing barefoot, doing twists and turns on his feet going nearly 44 miles an hour.

“I wanted him to see what I had to be able to do afterward,” Simon explained.

That surgery went well, as did his recent knee surgery, he said. Simon injured his knee in a motorcycle accident in September, in which he flipped off his bike over the handlebars.

“I must have had to twist or jerked my leg out, the ACL didn’t do very well,” he said. “I knew the minute I was standing there, the right knee hurt immediately. But the new one is wonderful.

“Stephanie (Smith) was my anesthesiologist. I have low blood pressure and she keeps me alive, so that was good,” he said with a laugh.

“I showed up with a borrowed brace and a water cooled pad. I came home and could walk with the brace that night. I took it easy two days, then on Monday started therapy. I never had an ounce of pain, I never took any of that stuff, I don’t like it.”

Since finishing physical therapy, Simon says he works out on his own, plus he’s getting back to his activities, which also include racket ball, snow skiing and golf.

But barefoot water skiing is perhaps his biggest passion, something Simon has done for about 35 years. He used to be a slalom skier and the advisor to the water ski club at Ohio State University.

“Slalom is too hard on your back, it stretches your whole body,” said Simon. “So I finally gave that up because it was too hard on me. I started bare footing and developed a passion for it.”

 “We do have padding on, and yes, the backward falls still hurt. But there’s nothing worse than hitting a ski.”

Simon enters in nearly a dozen ski tournaments each year, doing figure eight competitions and endurance runs. He said competing is a little tougher on the feet.

 “My arches will be black and blue and a little bit sore on the first run out (of the season). The next day they’ll be fine.

“If you’re doing an endurance race your feet will burn. People get blisters and burn holes. The faster you go, the warmer the water, the more they burn. But in general if you look at a bare footer’s foot, they don’t look any different than anybody else’s.”

Simon is hosting a clinic with nationally known barefoot ski instructor Keith St. Onge in May on the Emory River. Then it’ll be a summer of regional and national tournaments for Simon.

“There’s no money in this sport so to speak, we do it for the passion and love of it,” he said.