Jo A. Hannafin, MD, PhD, (at top of photo), races in the 2009 Head of the Charles Regatta.
Courtesy of Ed Hewitt, row2k.com

AAOS Now

Published 3/1/2010
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Jennie McKee

Keeping an oar–or two–in the water

Rowing and orthopaedics are the dual passions of Jo A. Hannafin, MD, PhD

“After I die, they’re going to put me out on the water and set the boat on fire—that will be my last hurrah,” said Jo A. Hannafin, MD, PhD, jokingly. “I say that because it’s a reflection of what the sport of rowing means to me.”

Rowing has been a major part of Dr. Hannafin’s life for more than three decades. Her talent and determination propelled her to victories at national and world championship rowing competitions following her collegiate career. Now an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, Dr. Hannafin continues to be involved in rowing in many ways, including serving as a team physician for the U.S. Rowing Team and as a competitor in the Head of the Charles Regatta, a competition held on the Charles River in Massachusetts that ranks as the largest 2-day rowing event in the world.

Competing at a national and global level
Dr. Hannafin was a swimmer—not a rower—when she began her undergraduate studies at Brown University in 1973. A year earlier, Title IX—which prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded education programs or activities—began opening doors for female athletes.

“The junior varsity swimming coach at Brown started a women’s rowing program,” she said. “She asked a group of us who were swimming for her in the winter to think about rowing in the spring.”

From the beginning, Dr. Hannafin loved the sport and was challenged by the attention to detail and the high level of fitness it demands. “When you’re rowing in a team boat, everyone has to function in total synchrony,” she said. “Unlike many sports, where one person on a team can stand out and really draw the team along, there’s no superstar in a team rowing event.”

Rowers can race alone in a “single,” with a partner in a “double,” with three teammates in a “quad,” or with seven other rowers in an “eight.” In sculling, each rower has two oars, one in each hand. In sweep rowing, rowers have only one oar each, which they hold with both hands.

Dr. Hannafin often preferred to race in a double scull. “I could always push myself harder in a boat with someone else in it than I could in a boat by myself,” she said. “I could dig a little deeper.”

Dr. Hannafin graduated from Brown University in 1977 and then began 2 years of work in a research laboratory and postgraduate studies at Dartmouth College. She competed in her first U.S. National Rowing Championships as a member of the Dartmouth Rowing Club. “It was very different racing against athletes with national and international experience,” she said. “I could see what it would take to get to the next level.”

From 1979 to 1985, she earned her MD and PhD degrees at the Albert Einstein Medical College in the Bronx and continued to row. “Another female athlete and I rowed at the New York Athletic Club, which at the time was an all-male club,” she said. “We were allowed to train there because people respected the fact that our goal was to compete at national and international levels.”

While completing her studies, Dr. Hannafin twice won the Head of the Charles Regatta as a single sculler. She also trained hard for the U.S. National Rowing Championships in 1981 and 1983. She brought home three gold medals, winning the lightweight quad in 1981 as well as the lightweight double and quad in 1983.

“Winning at the national championships was terrific,” she said. “I came close a number of other times—I have a lot of second and third-place finishes.”

She also had an impressive victory at the World Rowing Championships in 1984 in a double scull with partner Annette Esben-Peterson. “It was the first year that lightweight women were included at the World Championships as well as the first year that women raced 2,000 meters, the same distance as men,” she said. “We won the silver medal. It was really fun to race with somebody else and share the success with her.”

That same year, Dr. Hannafin completed an elective rotation in orthopaedic surgery with I. Martin Levy, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon who served as her mentor and opened her eyes to the specialty. “Dr. Levy totally loved what he did, and he had an amazing group of patients,” she said. “Before, the athletic side of me had been very separate from the medical student. It was the first time in my life that I realized that both interests could be in the same person. I discovered that taking care of athletes is what drives me.”

Going to the Olympics
Dr. Hannafin has been one of the team physicians for the U.S. Rowing Team since 1994. She and head team physician Timothy M. Hosea, MD, traveled to Atlanta to act as venue physicians for the team during the 1996 Olympic Games.

In 2004, she traveled with the team to the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. “My strongest memory of the 2004 Olympic Games is watching the finals for the men’s and women’s eights,” she said. “Those are the premier racing events in the United States.” In their respective races, the men’s team brought home the gold, and the women captured the silver. It was wonderful to watch them have such incredible success,” she said.

It was also amazing, she said, to meet Olympic track-and-field champion Carl Lewis, who had come to wish the men good luck.

“As the rowers crossed the finish line, I was screaming, and tears of joy were streaming down my face,” said Dr. Hannafin. “Mr. Lewis saw my intense emotion and asked me whether one of the rowers was my child. I told him ‘no,’ even though I felt almost as if they were because we had lived and traveled together as a group and were together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 5 weeks. They really felt like family.”

Dr. Hannafin noted that serving as a team physician for rowers is highly rewarding but can present challenges. “Rowers are tough people to take care of,” she said. “They’re very driven and often have overuse injuries that have to be managed. It’s more exciting to stand on the sidelines of a football game, but there are orthopaedists all over the country who work with rowers, including Carol C. Teitz, MD, of the University of Washington, and Eric W. Carson, MD, who provides care for athletes at the University of Virginia. Dr. Carson will be going on his first national rowing team training trip this summer.”

An abiding dedication to rowing
Dr. Hannafin sits on the medical commission of the International Federation of Rowing Associations (FISA), which sets policy for medical and safety issues at international events such as World Cup and World Championship races. FISA medical commission members also provide medical oversight at rowing venues. She is also the vice president of the National Rowing Foundation (NRF), a nonprofit foundation that provides financial support for U.S. national team rowers to train, travel, and compete at international events.

According to Dr. Hannafin, her work to help raise funds for the rowers may be part of the reason why the NRF, U.S. Rowing, and the 2009 women’s eight recently honored her by christening their boat the Jo A. Hannafin, MD. The women’s eight competed in that boat at the World Championships, where they won the gold.

“I didn’t cover that event this year, so I had to go online to check the race results,” she said. “That’s when I saw a photo of the boat with my name on it. It was a surprise and an incredible honor.”

Dr. Hannafin recently competed in the 2009 Head of the Charles Regatta, her first race in 4 years. “Brown put together an alumni boat, and I was asked to be part of the alumni team,” she said. “Two women in our boat had recently recovered from breast cancer. They inspired everybody to train even harder.”

Dr. Hannafin and her teammates finished seventh, qualifying them to race again next year. Her husband and daughter—John Brisson and Caitlin Brisson—also raced in the regatta. “My husband raced in a single scull and also raced with my daughter in a double scull,” she said. “Three of the five members of our family raced on the same day, which was a lot of fun.”

When Dr. Hannafin walks along the shores of the Charles River, she often meets people she has known and formed bonds with through rowing.

“I might bump into an athlete I raced against in the 1970s, someone I spent time with at a rowing fundraiser, or a rower I’ve treated,” she said. “That’s one of the miraculous things about the sport. It creates very long-lasting communities. We have a bond based on the fact that, at some point in our lives, we’ve all gotten in a boat and pulled on an oar.”

Jennie McKee is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at mckee@aaos.org