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The Irish Midas

Published in Athletics Weekly Magazine UK 1999
For injured world athletics stars all roads lead to Gerard Hartmann, the Irish physical therapist, a man with a golden touch. When elite athletes are struck down by injury he is the one they all want to see. What is the magical formula of the man they all put their faith in? JASON HENDERSON travelled to his clinic, in Limerick, Ireland, to find out.

The top Kenyan runners call him daktari, or doctor in Swahili. It is a simple description of a remarkable man. For the doctor in question, Gerard Hartmann, is arguably the finest sports injury specialist in the world.

Over the past decade the 39-year-old Irishman has developed a reputation as someone who can cure injuries previously thought to be incurable. World record-holders and Olympic champions queue up to visit his clinic in Limerick. They take their place on a waiting list that currently extends into 2002.

His skilful hands were responsible for Kelly Holmes being in Sydney last September. More than that, as a key member of the UK Athletics medical team, he ensured that Great Britain fielded one of its fittest teams in history.

He has resurrected the careers of athletes such as Liz McColgan, Moses Kiptanui and Khalid Khannouchi. Others, such as Paula Radcliffe and Sonia O ' Sullivan, cannot, it seems, finish an interview without mentioning his name.

Athletes bombard Hartmann ' s office with thank you cards and gifts. Douglas Wakiihuri, the Kenyan who won world and London Marathon titles in the late 1980s, once sent a thank you message to his daktari, which read: " I will always run to your healing hands. "

The sceptics are soon converted, too. One of the most astounding examples of Hartmann ' s ability involved Steve Jones, the Welshman who smashed the world marathon record in 1984.

Around three years ago Jones turned to Hartmann after failing to find a cure for a calf problem that had prevented him running a step for six months.

Because Jones was initially dubious, Hartmann ' s assistant, Gerry Reilly, offered to pay for Jones ' s return flight from the United States if Hartmann failed to solve the problem. Jones planned a three-day visit, but after just one day of treatment he was able to run for 45 minutes and has never had the problem since.

Evidence such as this has confirmed Hartmann as the King Midas of the sports injury world. So when he decided to grant this magazine exclusive access to his clinic in Limerick last month, I hurriedly booked my flight from Luton to Shannon Airport and prepared myself for one of the most intriguing and inspirational days of my life.

Would I uncover the secrets of his success? Or would I return to England with little more than a few mysterious, semi-explanatory phrases such as ' golden touch ' and ' seventh sense ' ? The taxi driver who met me at Shannon Airport merely added to the intrigue.

" Kelly Holmes says that Gerard Hartmann literally pulls the skin from your bones, " he said with a grimace, before adding that Holmes and Colin Jackson were among his favourite customers on the airport-to-Limerick route.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I shook Hartmann ' s hand on arrival. But I was immediately put at ease, as all his visitors are, by his warm smile and infectious enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that radiates, like sunshine in the Sahara, around his clinic.

Within moments I was watching, agog, as Jackson was pulled limb from limb. Or at least that ' s the way it looked through my layman ' s eyes. Jackson screwed up his usually smiling face in agony as Hartmann ' s fingers probed his limbs for scar tissue. Meanwhile, in the next room, Reilly was giving Allison Curbishly a massage.

During the course of the day Hartmann juggled his time between Jackson and Currishly, sprinter Jason Gardener, marathoner Marian Sutton and 400m hurdler Anthony Borsumato. Two of Ireland ' s top middle-distance runners, Elaine Fitzgerald and Una English, were also present at what Curbishley described as a " warm weather training camp " . Minus the warmth, of course.

I asked Reilly, a former 29:15 10km runner, what Hartmann ' s secret was. Surely he would know? But he merely sighed and said: " You know, I honestly can ' t put my finger on it. "

So I asked Hartmann. " There ' s no magic, " he said. " I ' m here working 10 hours a day mostly and athletes get very good results out of me. If I had to pick on something it would be that I have energy, like a Duracell battery . the highest power you can get . and this energy is infectious and spreads to the athletes.

" On top of this I have knowledge and also a seventh sense which enables me to read an injury and know the best way to treat it. "

Hartmann, a religious man, is never guilty of overplaying this ' seventh sense ' angle. And you get the impression that a fear lurks in the back of his mind that if he brags about his obvious gift, then God might take it away.

Instead he emphasises his incredible capacity for work. " It ' s like the top cyclists, " he said, using famous Irish riders such as Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche as examples. " You only see the flashing wheels and bright jerseys. Similarly people see the Gerard Hartmann sign on the outside of this building, but they don ' t see the graft that goes on inside.

The front of the building, where we sat, used to house the precious metals, diamonds and pearls that were part of the Hartmann family ' s jewellery business. Since they arrived in Ireland from Germany in 1877, the business had been handed down from generation to generation. Until young Gerard arrived, that is.

" Frank O ' Mara (the famous Irish runner) said I ' d be like a big elephant in the jeweller ' s shop, " Hartmann remembered. " He ' s the one who identified my talents and to this day I ' m thankful to Frank for giving me that push.

" When I turned my back on the family business it was very serious. My father (Patrick) didn ' t talk to me for a year. "

Hartmann had excelled at middle-distance running as a teenager. He made the Irish junior team for the World Cross Country Championships held on home mud at Limerick in 1979, but was unable to run due to flu.

The blend of physical talent and intelligence earned him a scholarship to the University of Arkansas, where he studied business. On his return to Ireland he got himself a National Certificate in Exercise and Fitness at the University of Limerick, much to Patrick ' s anger.

In 1989 he returned to the United States and completed his post-graduate course at the Florida Institute of Natural Health where he qualified as a physical therapist. He did his practical experience at the University of Florida in Gainesville where he worked with the swim and track teams. His first experience in treating Olympic champions was with swimming gold medallists. But US Olympic track athletes Denis Mitchell, Mark Everett and Joetta Clarke were students at the university and soon Hartmann ' s career mushroomed and he was treating some of the world ' s top athletes.

Meanwhile, during this prolonged period of study, he was making a name for himself as a triathlete. In 1984 he entered his first triathlon and won the Irish Championships by a full nine minutes. It was the first of seven national titles he won during a career where he also placed 14 th in the Hawaii Ironman. His triathlon career ended when an armadillo got caught in the spokes of his bike while he was riding in the States. The subsequent crash broke his hip bone.

From then on Hartmann ' s progress in the field of sports injury treatment was rapid. His clinic in Florida prospered and in 1992 he worked with the US relay squad at the Barcelona Olympics along with his private patients which included Scotland ' s Liz McColgan and Ireland ' s Frank O ' Mara, Marcus O ' Sullivan and Sonia O ' Sullivan.

In Ireland Hartmann is a member of the Irish Association of Physical Therapists and in 1996 he served as physical therapist to the Irish Olympic team in Atlanta. In 1997 he returned to Limerick, bought the old jewellery premises and turned it into his clinic.

No matter how disapproving he was of his son, Patrick had reason to be eternally grateful a few weeks later. " After one month of being home I noticed my father had a dark mark on the back of his ear, " said Hartmann. " The doctors gave him four months to live with a very serious cancer. He had a seven-hour operation and seven weeks of radiation but he is still alive three years later. "

Listening to Hartmann talk is a fascinating experience. Most interviews can be tied up in a couple of hours. Some in less than 20 minutes. With Hartmann a full day was still nowhere near enough.

Charismatic, fast talking and slightly eccentric (He doesn ' t have a television in his house), he attacks his work, as his great friend Noel Carroll once wrote, with almost missionary zeal. He is not short of a few strong opinions either, being, for example, highly critical of many top coaches. " There ' s more to coaching than simply writing programmes and calling out splits, " he said. " There are really only a handful of really good coaches in Britain, " he added. " And the problem is the same in the USA. "

His colleagues in the injury treatment and prevention game also come under fire. Hartmann refers scathingly to what he calls ' band-aid therapy ' where treatments such as ultrasound are preferred to the more difficult and skilled task of trying to identify the source of the athlete ' s problem.

Frustrating experiences in Hartmann ' s past have much to do with this. " I was never given a plan of care when I was injured, " he said. " I was never managed through an injury - and that ' s the most important thing for an athlete. "

The great distance runner Grete Waitz said: " Many other therapists just put you on a machine. Gerard goes in very hard with his hands and doesn ' t give up. If he knows something there is wrong he works on it for as long as he needs to. "

During my day with Hartmann I had witnessed him practising exactly what he preached. His whole-hearted pursuit of excellence does not waver for a second. The half a dozen to a dozen champion athletes who permanently reside in the upper floors of this former jewellery shop are given 100 per cent attention, 100 per cent of the time. He has their complete and utter trust. If he says they can do something, they believe him. If he gives them advice, they take it. If he tells them they will get better, they do.

Hartmann drove me to the airport (the only thing he seems to do at less than 100 miles per hour), and on the plane home I asked myself if I had solved this medical mystery.

The answer was: probably not. Gerard Hartmann remains an enigma and in the end I agreed with his opinion that the Portuguese distance runner, Domingos Castro, has come closest to explaining the phenomenon.

" Domingos puts it perfectly, " Hartmann said. " He says, ' When I arrive in Shannon and know I ' m seeing Gerard, I ' m getting better already. "

Daktari is a simple word, I thought. Now I ' m convinced there is a little more to it.

What they say about Hartmann .

PAULA RADCLIFFE: " I believe he has a special gift or sense that enables him to identify and treat injuries and problems. A bigger strength though, is his ability to treat the person as a whole. Ger understands people, and he can make you believe that the problem will get better and develops enormous levels of trust in short spaces of time. "

MARCUS O ' SULLIVAN, former world indoor 1500m champion from Ireland: " It is not just the knowledge he has accumulated. It is in the hands. I am convinced he has a healing power. He has a gift. "

NOEL CARROLL, former European indoor 800m champion (who sadly died recently), said: " Ger inspires trust. He has an almost missionary zeal for what he is doing. Where the average medic sees figures, Ger Hartmann sees an athlete. He has been through it himself and that makes a difference. "

EAMONN COGHLAN, Ireland ' s 1983 world 5000m champion and world indoor mile record-holder. " It ' s not just his knowledge, it ' s the enthusiasm and positiveness that infects you. "