All my life my dad has made my siblings and I recite “Life Rules” which would help us understand the meaning of life. There were many more, but at this point in life I only remember two. When things didn’t go our way my dad would simply ask us what Life Rule number one was. What are these inspiring rules you ask? They’re simple. Life rule number one: LIFE IS NOT FAIR. Life rule number two: Love your mom. haha no lie. They seem irrelevant but they were always applicable in my family… If you stormed into the house angry about something that was out of your control, you had to remember that life is not fair, and of course always remember your smiling, bubbly mom when you need a mood change.
I have been very blessed with the opportunities in my life, so when I finally had a life-altering experience, the lessons my parents taught me were constantly flowing through my mind.
In my last post I said that I would expand on the experience of tearing my ACL. It’s gonna be a long one haha so here goes…
I grew up playing every sport under the sun. If I wasn’t participating in an organized league, I was watching my brother and sister’s games or playing outside with the neighborhood kids. Needless to say, I was an active kid. So it’s surprising that I never had more serious injuries until October 2013.
We were mid-drill when my teammate Brittney was trucking down our practice field with the ball. I knew I had to get open for her because a middie was quickly catching up with her. So I checked away towards the goal, but as I hit the crease and sharply changed direction back toward ball, life as I knew it changed. My foot stayed planted in the sport turf, but the rest of my body kept checking back to ball. *POP* go the ligaments and I instantly knew something was wrong. My reaction was so cliche. Anyone who’s torn something (whether it’s their first time or fifth) tell you that they knew they tore it right away. I was no exception. Most of it is a blur, but I do remember my teammate Caileigh, who was the closest defender to me (but no one hit me in the process) trying to console me, asking “are you all alright?” All I could manage to answer was, “F*ck no, f*ck no…” over and over until the trainers helped me off the field. I roll my eyes at the reaction now. The pop was scary and an instant indicator, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I was still alive and I could still walk on it. The only thing that was clearly wrong was stability, so running/cutting was bizarre.
*Ironically, Brittney’s ACL would be the second to bite the dust*
Emily our trainer did a few tests and kept such a good poker face the whole time, that I thought I was just being a drama queen, and I was going to be totally fine. That was until she finished her tests and simply asked me to take a five yard jog. I was like a wobbly new born deer hahah I literally took three steps, realized something was not normal and just sat down where I was. Later she told me that she knew I had torn something, but that the poker face was part of her routine, because she couldn’t be sure until I got an MRI to confirm my injury. The next couple of days were the most agonizing. Not because of pain, but because of uncertainty! It’s protocol to wait three days (I think?) so the majority of the swelling can go down and the MRI is more clear. I was more antsy about knowing what was wrong than the actual injury itself.
I am very much a homebody, so it’s ironic that I chose to go to school 8 hours from home. I try to get a taste of home when I get the daily update by calling my parents every night. The phone call after practice that day was a rough one. My brother and sister have had a handful of serious injuries, but I hadn’t, so no one typically expects any bad news from my end of the wire. When my mom asked how practice was that day I just lost it. I had kept it together after that aggressive initial reaction on the field, but sitting on the back porch of our little house, I just let it all out: my fear of the unknown diagnosis, the scariness of the pop, the fear of my future lacrosse career. My mom was shocked by the news for sure, but my parents have always been my rock; they knew exactly what to say to calm me down. They acknowledged that there was a lot of unknown information, but that we’d take everything one step at a time, and that things would turn out great. Yeah sure, that’s what parents are supposed to say, but this time it was true. I’ve never truly understood how many people I had surrounding me until I felt the support of anyone and everyone who heard about my injury.
Doctors to trainers to family to teammates to teammates’ siblings — anyone I’ve ever met reached out to me in person or over Facebook to let me know they were thinking about me and that they were there if I needed support. That kind of community was truly special. I mean I always knew that I had a great support system, but the love exceeded my expectations. After a couple of days, I went back to the doctor (which would lead to a million more appointments) where she told me the damage: I ended up tearing my ACL, slightly tearing my meniscus and spraining my MCL.
I was the injury that kicked off a chain reaction of ACL tears: we had FIVE players with torn ACLs by the end of our 2014 season. Yikes. That’s unheard of. Our poor athletic training staff — we sure kept them busy (shout out to Chris, Em and “bad girl Laur Laur”). It’s typical for a women’s lacrosse team to have about one tear per year, but five was just ridiculous. Everyone tried to find a pattern, but it there really wasn’t one! Some girls were starters, some didn’t see a lot of time, some were tall, some were short, some tore their right knee, others tore their left, some were upperclassmen, some were freshmen! There were no key factors that made sense as to why we were plagued with so many ACL injuries by the end of the season, but I was certainly the pioneer for that year. I had torn mine in October, and had reconstruction surgery November 1 (ugh yes the day after Halloween, the biggest annual event in Chapel Hill). So I did all of my “pre-hab” and rehab by myself while all the others tore theirs during the spring season and pretty much had buddies on the same path to do exercises with.
The rehab experience made me a stronger person in all realms of my life. It literally made my muscles stronger than where they were before my injury, but it also made me mentally tougher. As I stated in the last post, I was timid coming in as a freshman. I had gained a little more confidence throughout my freshman and sophomore years, but it took me until the beginning of my junior year to figure out was “confidence” truly meant for me. I knew I had finally improved significantly enough to shine alongside my teammates and be a big threat to our opponents. It only took a few weeks before this epiphany was stripped by my injury, and it has taken me until just now, my senior spring, to get it back. I worked harder than I ever have to be able to get back on the field as soon as I could. I earned my teammates respect with how hard I was pushing to the point where I was elected captain this year when I had not stepped foot on the field at all in the prior season. Yet, no matter how hard I worked and how ready I thought I was mentally, I wasn’t really ready when I tried to get back for the playoffs in our 2014 season. I still had the brace and was thinking about my mechanics too much to be fluid with the combination of footwork and lacrosse.
The hardest part was not being able to control my muscles after surgery. No one tells you this before you go into surgery. I mean duh they’re cutting through muscle to fix a severed ligament, but literally not being able to lift your leg no matter how hard you try is surreal for an athlete who hasn’t had to think twice about her legs moving all her life. Moving your leg is simpler than breathing until suddenly you’re strapped into a machine that is designed to bend your leg for you, and you can barely bend it past 20 degrees. It’s a lengthy process, but optimism is the name of the game. The more optimistic you are, the faster your progression it seems. The more pessimistic you are, the slower your rehab progresses and the more painstaking the process. At the end of the day I knew I would not be ready for 2014 season, but it was my goal and I was sticking to it. Post-season was my trophy for the pain, dedication, and patience it took to complete the long journey of rehabbing an ACL tear.
Because I pushed the boundaries of what my athletic trainers allowed, I was rewarded with a quicker recovery path than normal, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have my dark days. I honestly have to look back at it now and laugh though. It so wasn’t funny at the time, but I’d be crutching around campus in the rain at negative two miles an hour and a complete stranger would pass me and say, “ooooh ACL? I’m sorry hang in there.” It was both strange and angering at the time because I didn’t want to be seen as a cripple, but he always gave a look of optimism that overrode the pity in his voice. Pity pissed me off. It gave me grit to work harder. Don’t look at me and think, “aw poor kel.” No. I’m putting my work in to get back out there. You focus on yourself. What did you do to make yourself better today? because I am working every day to be a better athlete than I was before I was in this stupid brace. And that’s exactly what I did. I always complained that I was too lanky to be successful in the weight room (push-ups and pull-ups were never my forte), but now I didn’t want to have any excuses. While my team was maintaining muscle in season, I would be grinding to be the most fit I have ever been.
The self-sufficiency, toughness and drive I taught myself throughout the rehab process is an incredible reminder any time that I get complacent in lacrosse or life. I kept a journal of junior year about anything from fun nights out on the town, to frustrations that I just can’t stand. Any time I need a kick in the butt, I just look back on those frustrations coupled with my incredible support system, and I am reminded of how lucky I am to be where I am right this minute.
My parents have taught me infinite meaningful lessons in my life (What’s Life Rule number one friends??) So I’ll leave you with one more tidbit of wisdom. There are way too many things that are uncontrollable in life, so focus on one thing that you can control: your attitude. I obviously never wanted have an injury like this, but I am extremely thankful for the lessons and perspective it gave me. ACL rehab can be a long, painful experience, but it boils down to how you let it affect you. You can let it dictate your attitude, or you can inflict a positive attitude on the challenge itself. Learn to choose the latter whenever you are willing to truly embrace a challenge in life. The outcome will most likely lend you benefits that you never even thought of.
Shout out to anyone dealing with an ACL out there. Explore the limits of your mental and physical toughness. Keep grinding.
“Nobody said it’d be easy, they just promised it’d be worth it.”