AUSTIN — Trey Hardee still thinks there was more to it than emotion.
If his stomach hadn’t been empty, or if the time he’d just spent in that terrible MRI machine hadn’t been so grueling, or if he hadn’t still been fatigued from winning the world championship in the decathlon the week before, he might have kept it together.
But when a doctor looked into his eyes last September and gave him the unthinkable news — that less than a year before the London Olympics, the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow had been torn completely from his humerus bone — Hardee passed out.
“I was already woozy,” he said of that visit to the Texas Center for Athletes in San Antonio. “And then I hit the floor.”
Somehow, though, Hardee’s hopes of winning an Olympic gold medal never fell quite that hard, or that far.
Tommy John-style reconstructive surgery usually requires at least a year of recovery time. But just nine months after undergoing that procedure, Hardee will compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials this week hoping to secure a trip to London and reassert his claim as the best athlete in the world.
“I saw it as a challenge, as just a part of life,” said Hardee, 28, who set an NCAA decathlon record at Texas before twice winning the world championships. “In the long run, it’s going to be nonexistent. My elbow’s going to be stronger than ever.”
His elbow was fine until the latter stages of the world championships last August, when he unleashed a personal-best javelin throw of 226 feet, 41/2 inches. He said he heard a pop when he made the throw and immediately felt pain, but trainers simply wrapped up the injury and let him head to the final event, the 1,500-meter run.
With his elbow bent, Hardee said, he “just kind of ran like a robot,” but his time was good enough to win the title. Less than a month later, he was in Birmingham, Ala., being operated on by famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews.
Andrews has performed Tommy John surgery — the reconstructive elbow procedure named for the former major league pitcher who underwent it in 1974 — thousands of times. None have pulled off what Hardee is trying to do.
“If Trey makes it to the Olympics, he would certainly break the record for recovery from surgery on the Tommy John ligament,” Andrews told Sports Illustrated. “But for a once-every-four-years event, it’s worth the risk.”
But Hardee, who lives and trains in Austin, doesn’t see his task as trying to pull off the impossible. He said the elbow mainly just affects him in a couple of events, the javelin and the pole vault, and he has steadily improved in the others during the past year.
Pole vaulting was one of his first track and field loves, one that he said is “like riding the bike.” In late April, when he attempted his first vault since the surgery, it was as if he’d never stopped.
Returning to the javelin was a bigger deal, because that was the event that caused the injury. His first post-injury throw came in early May.
“When I came back and did that, it was rejuvenating,” Hardee said.
Now, Hardee finds himself in the unique position of being a favorite and an underdog, both at once. Ordinarily, the two-time defending world champion would be the popular pick to win the gold medal. But because of his injury, Hardee isn’t even a sure-fire bet to get beyond this week’s trials.
“I could wake up tomorrow, and I could be pain-free,” he said. “Or I could wake up and be in pieces again. I’m the wild card. I don’t think anybody knows what I can do yet.”

By Mike Finger
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