Chad D Back in Action

My progress continued, and I regained my ability to swim, bike and, most Importantly, actively play with and carry my small children.

Triathlete Chad DeBolt, a former Division I football and lacrosse player at Notre Dame, is no stranger to pain. But when he injured his back after a day of heavy lifting in fall 2020, he was in a kind of agony he’d never experienced before. Eventually he could hardly stand and needed a cane to walk due to a severely herniated disc, which caused intense back and leg pain.

Chad, 41, who works in private equity real estate, lived in Gillette and now lives in Texas, saw no less than six medical specialists and received multiple epidural injections, but the treatments didn’t touch his pain. All of the doctors recommended surgery. “Not one of them suggested physical therapy as a viable option,” he says.

The week before he was scheduled to have surgery, however, Chad spoke with another former Notre Dame football player who had been able to eliminate his pain from several herniated discs through intensive physical therapy. Another friend recommended the “McKenzie Method,” a system of assessment and management for spinal and extremity musculoskeletal disorders.

Chad proactively emailed a handful of certified practitioners from a website dedicated to the McKenzie Method of Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy to see if he was a candidate. Only one responded: Edison Au, PT, the Center Coordinator of Clinical Education at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Somerset’s Sports Physical Therapy and Performance Center at TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater. “Ed was my guardian angel,” says Chad. “He took the time to reply to an unsolicited email and followed up with a call the next day.”

Nonsurgical Goals

Chad DeBolt playing football for Notre Dame against Rutgers“Chad told me, ‘I can take pain, but I can’t live like this forever,’” Au says. After they spoke, just two days before his scheduled spinal surgery, Chad decided to cancel it and give therapy a try. “Despite its severity, this was something that could be fixed through physical therapy,” says Au. “I couldn’t guarantee I would fix him, but I could guarantee that I would try my best to find a nonsurgical solution.” Au was able to get Chad in for his first appointment at the clinic within a couple of days.

Au’s training and background made him the ideal therapist for Chad. In addition to his credentials, he had significant experience getting athletes back in the game. Au has helped college, professional and even Olympic and Paralympic athletes regain their physical conditioning and competitive edge, and was selected as a team physical therapist for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Au had also played a varsity sport (rugby) in college and through therapy was able to avoid surgery himself for a herniated disc.

Au strives to understand every patient’s expectations and objectives. “The challenge is finding out what inspires the athlete and setting optimized goals,” he says. “If you don’t, the patient’s not going to be motivated to do what it takes to get better.”

Chad’s first priority was getting relief from his debilitating pain and resuming normal daily activities. Eventually, he wanted to return to competing in endurance events such as marathons, triathlons and Ironman competitions. Other goals were just as close to his heart. “One of his main objectives was: improve enough to get through a planned weeklong Disney World trip with his wife and four children,” says Au. “He said, ‘I don’t want to cancel this trip; I have to get better for my family.’”

Suite of Treatments

Over the next few months, Au used standard techniques like sports massage, stretching and resistance training, but also drew from a repertoire of more advanced therapies like the McKenzie Method, in which practitioners create individualized treatment plans involving specific exercises to address patients’ orthopedic pain.

Au also used myofascial release, in which practitioners manually relieve the tension and tightness in painful trigger points in the body’s fascia, a dense layer of tissue surrounding muscles and bones. With Graston Technique therapy, Au used special instruments to release painful restrictions in soft tissue. Mulligan Concept techniques were used to address joint dysfunctions and restore optimal joint mobility, while Muscle Energy Techniques (MET) helped rebalance and normalize spinal and pelvic alignment.

Chad threw himself into treatment. “He was very focused and engaged,” Au says. The center allows for therapists to block off extra time for more complex patient cases, and Chad made the most of each of his therapy sessions. His execution was methodical and his progress steady. “As tough as Chad is, he wanted to do it the right way, avoiding any setbacks or long-term issues by rushing through things,” Au says.Chad DeBolt playing lacrosse for Notre Dame

The work started paying off right from the beginning. After one session with Au, Chad was already feeling better. “After a week, he was walking without his cane,” Au says. “After a few more days, he was able to get up and down stairs normally again,” which Chad hadn’t been able to do for one to two months due to leg pain and fear of a relapse.

Within two months of his first session, Chad ran his first mile. “My progress continued, and I regained my ability to swim, bike and, most importantly, actively play with and carry my small children,” Chad says. He also made it to Disney World with his wife and children, and survived the week. “He actually tracked his 30- plus miles with a pedometer and was able to keep his back healthy without encountering any contingencies that we had game-planned for,” Au says.

“Ed is, bar none, the best physical therapist I have ever worked with at any level of competition,” Chad says. “I was willing to take the longer, tough road to recovery as long as I believed it was in the right direction, and I would never have been able to reach the finish line without him. For that, I am forever grateful.”

Physical Therapy in Your Backyard

No matter where you live, there’s an RWJUH Somerset Physical Therapy facility near you:

To learn more about RWJUH Somerset’s Sports Physical Therapy and Performance Center at TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater, call 908-203-5972 or visit