Rebuilding an Athlete: UF Health Helps Elite Senior Athlete Cecil Cordell Return to Competitive Shape
“The sports thing, it just flows through my blood, you know?” — Cecil Cordell
In August 2022, with pain increasing in his hip, UF Health patient and decorated athlete Cecil Cordell, 66, medaled in nine events at the Alaska International Senior Games.
“Ninety-nine percent of patients who have such advanced disease in the hip, they are very limited and may have to use a cane or walker. It’s difficult to explain how Mr. Cordell was able to do what he did,” said Hernan Prieto, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon in the division of adult arthroplasty and joint reconstruction.
Cecil? He ran sprints the day before surgery.
Seven Decades of Sports Success
Cecil’s passion for sports and competition started over seven decades ago in Miami. At only 8 years old, Cecil was the goalkeeper at the state championships for the Opa-Locka Optimist Club AAU soccer team. Just a short time later for the same club, he went to the national championships for the 4x100 AAU boys relay race, where they won the national championship in 1965.
However, after all these years he continues to reflect on one moment that was especially impactful, not only on his love of sports but also on his insatiable determination to be the best he can be.
After moving to Ocala, Florida, at the age of 10, Cecil met a sports legend at the Sheraton Hotel pool, where his mother worked. New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris, famed for breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, noticed that Cecil wasn’t the best swimmer … yet. Maris took the time to teach Cecil to swim and encouraged him to keep practicing his strokes. The memory stuck and reminded Cecil to always keep pushing.
Cecil went on to play every sport he could, including baseball, basketball and track and field. He was a 9-time letterman at Vanguard High School in Ocala. While he was there, he was coached and inspired to continue in sports by Jim Haley, a legendary Florida high school basketball coach.
Although a successful business owner, Cecil never lost the itch to compete in sports. As an adult, Cecil bowled professionally for a year in the PBA Regional Tour, competing in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and West Palm Beach, Florida. Additionally, Cecil played competitive adult softball, winning five state championships with Ocala Elite, coached by the late Vince Murray – former sports writer and editor for the Ocala Star-Banner. As Cecil got older, he wanted to get into individual sports, leading him to return to one of his high school sports, track and field, after 38 years.
Finding His Calling at the Senior Games
Cecil found his true calling with track and field. At age 57, Cecil competed in his first senior games, the Gainesville Senior Games, which has historically been sponsored in part by UF Health. His first event was in the running long jump, where he not only took home a gold medal, but also a pulled groin.
After that first senior games, Cecil knew he wanted to keep going, and keep winning. He decided he needed to hire a trainer to help him advance, and that’s when his now longtime coach, Daniel Medley, known as “Coach Miami,” came into the picture. Medley, who worked under legendary coaches himself, has trained many top high school athletes. However, Cecil’s drive and athletic ability impressed him so much that he took Cecil on as the only adult he trains.
“I am coached by the best in the business,” Cecil said. “He just takes me to a whole new level.”
With training from Medley, Cecil continued to advance in senior games events at the local, state and national level. He also added several other track and field events to his already full roster, including sprints, decathlon hurdles, triple jump, pole vault, standing long jump, discus, javelin and shot put.
“I don’t know another man who can do what Cecil does,” Medley said.
In August 2019, Cecil competed at his most preeminent games yet, the Alaska International Senior Games, competing and winning in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter races as well as the long jump, standing long jump, triple jump, shot put and javelin. This showing continued to motivate Cecil, who continued to compete in local and national games until the pandemic shut down the competitions in 2020.
Cecil continued to train and went back to the Alaska games in 2022, but going into these games was different than before. Cecil knew he wasn’t in his best shape. His back and hip pain were increasing. Still, in just a few hours, Cecil competed in nine track and field events, coming away with five silvers and four golds while qualifying for the next National Senior Games in all nine events. One month later and still injured, Cecil competed in the Gainesville Senior Games. He walked — well, limped — away with one gold and six silvers. He knew he was deteriorating. Unknown to him at the time, Cecil was competing with what his orthopaedic surgeon would diagnose as bone-on-bone osteoarthritis in his right hip.
Currently, Cecil’s medal collection includes 155 golds, 45 silvers and nine bronze medals. In over 230 events, he has only missed the podium five times. While proud of his success, it was bittersweet. Cecil knew that he couldn’t continue to compete in the shape that he was in. His next race was the race to heal.
Healing With UF Health
Competing at the level Cecil has for seven decades inevitably put a strain on his body. Around 2016, Cecil came to UF Health for the first time to see Thomas Wright, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon in the division of hand and upper extremity surgery, for shoulder problems that include a 2 centimeter tear in his rotator cuff. The treatment Cecil received from Dr. Wright instilled in him a sense of trust in UF Health.
“Cecil is an outstanding overachiever despite his musculoskeletal injuries,” said Dr. Wright when asked about Cecil’s success.
Since then, Cecil has been treated by a slate of UF Health expert physicians across multiple specialties for a range of issues, including neurosurgeon Nohra Chalouhi, MD, and physiatrist Michael Sein, MD, for spinal stenosis; orthopaedic surgeon Robert Matthias, MD, for carpal tunnel syndrome; and, most recently, physiatrist Kevin Vincent, MD, and orthopaedic surgeon Hernan Prieto, MD, for back and hip pain.
Multiple physicians were involved in determining that Cecil would benefit from joint replacement surgery. Dr. Prieto performed Cecil’s most life-changing procedure yet, a hip joint replacement surgery in February 2023. Dr. Prieto found that the joint space in Cecil’s right hip was completely lost, and there was no natural soft tissue left. During surgery, there was also a secondary finding of a complete labrum tear that likely also contributed to Cecil’s pain.
“I mean, it was advanced stage osteoarthritis,” Dr. Prieto said. “It is definitely difficult to explain how someone like him with this much deterioration was able to do what he was doing.”
“With this type of operation, we help patients to reestablish their function and improve their function, and actually in the long term because the outcomes after a hip replacement can be maintained for decades,” Dr. Prieto said.
He expects that with postsurgical recovery and proper physical therapy, Cecil will be back to full competitive shape.
“Well, the recovery doesn’t rely on just one factor. One factor is the surgery and the entire health team, including the anesthesiologist, nurses, physician assistants, therapists, etc. But I would say another big factor is about the patient himself. Knowing Mr. Cordell, he is a very determined, motivated patient. I’m confident that he will help in his own recovery, and he will make the life of the therapist much easier.”
On his doctors, Cecil says, “None of my athletic success in the senior games would be possible without the tremendous team of medical professionals I have at UF Health. Everyone from the schedulers, physical therapists, physician assistants, they moved mountains and got me in right away.”
In addition to his recent hip surgery, after falling at a damaged house he was inspecting, Cecil tore his rotator cuff further than it was already torn and, in the spring, will be having shoulder surgery with Dr. Wright.
“I hope to get him back to the competition shape that he desires,” said Dr. Wright on his goals for Cecil.
Even after two surgeries in quick succession, Cecil isn’t stopping.
“I'll be working out on my Peloton, just to get my leg stronger while my shoulder is in a sling, and then I’ll be back training as soon as possible.”
Cecil’s Story on the Screen
Cecil is currently turning his story into a documentary with the goal of inspiring others, especially in the sports world, to go after their dreams. During his hip surgery, the documentary team filmed the process, including before and after surgery, as well as interviews with Cecil’s UF Health physicians.
The documentary is being produced by The Big Picture, an entertainment collective created by Cecil, his best friend and personal doctor Sid Clevinger, MD, and others. Jordan Frost, who is also a part of the collective, is filming and directing the documentary. The goal of The Big Picture is to produce leading-edge film, TV and sports projects while also creating mentorship opportunities for young athletes throughout their careers. In addition to Cecil’s story, they are working on a number of other projects with promising athletes.
Looking Toward His Next Win
Cecil, while qualified for nine events at the National Senior Games in Pittsburgh this summer, will miss the event to focus on healing and training for his next goal, the next Alaska International Senior Games in August.
“I have a lot of hard training to do, and I will get it done. I won’t be traveling 10,000 miles roundtrip for nothing. The goal is simple: WIN. The filming of my documentary ends there, and I am not planning on a disappointing performance. It would be a perfect ending.”