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January 22, 1998

Pitt professor to get 1st medal of Nagano Olympics

First came John Woodruff, in 1936. Then Roger Kingdom, in 1984 and 1988. Last week, Savio Lau-Yuen Woo joined the ranks of Pitt Olympic gold medalists.

But the Shanghai-born Woo, 56, didn't have to run or clear any hurdles, except for emigrating from Hong Kong with a shaky command of English, going on to earn a doctorate in bioengineering, and pioneering a new approach to treating knee ligament injuries.

Woo, a Pitt professor of orthopaedic surgery and vice chairperson of research in orthopaedic surgery at the UPMC Health System, was awarded the 1998 International Olympic Committee (IOC) Olympic Prize for Sports Science — the highest honor in the field, and second in monetary value only to the Nobel Prize — at a black tie ceremony Jan. 13 at New York City's Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

Woo will receive a specially designed medal Feb. 2 at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. The IOC prize will be the first medal awarded at the Olympic Games, and the only one given to a non-athlete.

The prize includes $250,000. Woo plans to donate the money to what he called "institutions that are devoted to educating future bright stars in sports medicine." Woo said he has never kept prize money he's won during his 28-year career. "In this," he said, "I was inspired by my father-in-law, who was a government official and once solved a big problem for the Portuguese government in Macao. The government asked him what he wanted as a reward. My father-in-law replied that he wanted nothing for himself, but asked the Portuguese to elevate the Chinese Affairs Division of Macao to a department." "Do I live well?" repeated Woo, a Fox Chapel resident. "I live extremely well, and I work very hard for that. But anybody can use another $250,000!" he said, with a laugh.

"After I'd said I planned to put the prize money back into research," Woo continued, "I joked with my son, who attended the awards dinner, 'Well, there goes that Lamborghini….'" Woo's father-in-law, now 83, and his son Jonathan, a Villanova University freshman, were among the dozens of people Woo thanked in his acceptance speech at the IOC dinner. Others included his wife, Patricia; daughter Kristin, a recent graduate of Brown University; his brothers and sisters; his students; his research team at UPMC's Musculoskeletal Research Center, which Woo directs; Pitt professor Freddie Fu, UPMC chairperson of orthopaedic surgery, who nominated Woo for the IOC prize; and his research mentor Yuan Cheng Fung of the orthopaedics department at the University of California in San Diego, where Woo was a professor before coming to Pitt in 1990.

"Although the prize was given to me and the check has my name on it," Woo emphasized, "I think it really represents the recognition of the very young, emerging field of sports medicine and the work done by all of the people at the Musculoskeletal Research Center." In spreading around credit, Woo was imitating his mother, he said. "My mother had nine children. I was the seventh. To me, she was nearly a saint. Also, she was probably the best psychologist ever — never went to school, illiterate, but she was able to make her children feel that each one of us was loved, and each one of us was the most important to her. It was with that spirit that I made my speech." With an uncharacteristic lack of modesty, Woo added, chuckling: "It was the best acknowledgment speech I've ever given. I was kind of in my element that night." The IOC honored Woo for his in-depth investigation of the complex function of knee ligaments and his research in joint biomechanics. His work showed that, contrary to previous practice, surgery is not required for tears of the medial collateral ligament (MCL), which runs along the inner side of the knee.

"The work of Dr. Woo's research team in recent years has led the sports medicine community, including orthopaedic surgeons, to a better understanding of the recovery of knee ligament injuries," his colleague Freddie Fu said in a written statement. "His research has encouraged alternative and better non-surgical and surgical treatment and rehabilitation methods for these injuries, which has led to vastly safer and quicker return to activity and sport." Sports medicine researchers have made "significant strides" but have barely scratched the surface in understanding the workings of human joints, Woo said. "In the future, I want particularly to learn more about how normal ligaments, tendons, muscles, cartilage and bones function together in our joints. I feel that the more we know about normal tissue function, the more we can give insights to orthopaedic surgeons and physical therapists so they can apply these data to patients, and patients can return to sports activity quicker and more safely." Woo was chosen from among more than 30 nominees through a process involving a selection committee of researchers and experts in the biological, medical, psychological and physical sciences. The first IOC Olympic Prize was awarded at the 1996 Atlanta games to Jeremy Norris and Ralph Paffenbarger for their pioneering demonstrations of how exercise reduces heart disease risk.

In a TV interview last week, Woo quipped that he planned to wear his Olympic medal around his neck "for a while" following the Feb. 2 ceremony. "Then I'll give it to my grandchildren," he said — the joke being that Woo has no grandchildren, so he could wear the medal for as long as he liked.

"Actually," Woo said, "I want to put the medal on display somewhere at the Musculoskeletal Research Center, so everybody there can enjoy it.

"Besides, it's a very heavy medal. I would get neck pain wearing it for very long!"

— Bruce Steele

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