Sixteen years ago, David Kruse was just inches away from achieving what would have amounted to the be-all and end-all for a competitive gymnast: a chance to compete at the 2000 summer Olympic Games in Sydney.
It was a goal that Kruse, now 41, had set his sights on as a 10-year-old when he decided to forgo all other sports to focus on gymnastics, having had two years of getting his feet wet. While attending UC Berkeley, Kruse was an All-American and national champion gymnast determined to compete at the highest level.
However, a torn ligament in his wrist a week before the Olympic trials prevented him from competing and meant an early end to his athletic hopes.
After the disappointment of the Games, the Huntington Beach resident planned to retire from gymnastics and enroll in medical school to become a sports doctor.
And now it has come full circle. The athlete denied his Olympic dream is helping to fulfill the dreams of others.
A month after the injury ended his own Olympic ambitions, Kruse was enrolled in medical school at UC San Diego and for the past five years he has been working as a sports medicine doctor at Hoag Orthopedic Institute, based in Irvine. In his practice he sees a variety of injuries and patients ranging from a young kid just getting into sports to elderly patients and, sometimes, athletes whose injuries keep them sidelined just as he was years ago.
And this summer, Kruse will get the chance to further impart the wisdom of his experience as an athlete to a new generation as a doctor for the U.S. gymnastics teams, which will be competing in Rio de Janeiro for the summer Olympic Games.
“It’s such an honor to be able to go down there and help these athletes,” he said.
The Games officially run from Aug. 5 to 21, but Kruse is already in Brazil preparing the teams for competition. The process leading up to the Games consists of his daily check-ins with about 10 athletes, injury prevention and coming up with treatment plans in case an athlete gets injured, he said.
Dr. Cindy Chang, an associate professor at UC San Francisco in the department of orthopedic, family and community medicine, was the head team physician at UC Berkeley while Kruse was on the gymnastics team. She said he was thoughtful, mature and intelligent and that his passion for his sport was evident.
Years later, Kruse did his rotations as a medical student with Chang in Berkeley. The two have kept in touch since. When Kruse found out he was going to the Olympics as a team doctor, he reached out for advice to Chang, who has been to several Olympic Games as a medical professional.
Chang was on the medical staff in 1998 for the Winter Paralympics in Japan and in 2002 for the winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. She also served as the chief medical officer during the 2007 Pan American Games, the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and the 2012 summer Olympics in London.
“You have to be a very good physician that has a broad base of knowledge in everything that can affect athletes ability to perform mentally, physically and emotionally,” she said. “He has that background being a former athlete. He’s able to understand the demands on their time and they challenges they have.”
Kruse says he can relate to having lofty goals, and he understands that these may remain unfulfilled for many. He knows the consequences for an athlete of having to miss a competition, or even just a single game.
“I think I draw from that a lot,” he said. “It gives me a lot of empathy with patient care. Even if it’s a minor injury it can be a big deal for a competitive athlete. I’ve shed some tears with athletes because you relive it a little bit with them.”