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After nearly a year resigned to the sidelines following my ACL tear, I was expecting my clearance to be a momentous occasion. Something along the lines of the heavens opening, a choir singing, all aches and pains immediately leaving my body, and a sudden ability to run a six-minute mile.
What happened was, well, literally none of that. With about as much zeal as you can expect from a guy who cuts into flesh for a living, the surgeon handed me my clearance papers and told me to come back after my lacrosse season ended. I walked back to my car and drove home with the same bodily discomfort I came in with. I thought I would be giddy and shedding happy tears, but I felt only a quiet apprehension and anxiety, buzzing beneath my skin like static from a television.
With returning to lacrosse, of course there was the fear that I was going to get hurt again. I wouldn’t wish an ACL tear on anyone. The surgery is painful, mobility is severely restricted, and recovery is long and tedious. But outweighing the fear of physical injury was fear of something less defined. Before I was injured, I was a starting defender—not a flashy, decorated player by any means, but I communicated well, was aggressive, and always dependable for a slide. My value as a player was highly contingent upon me roughing it up with reckless abandon. Following such a traumatic injury, there was the very real possibility I would come out slow or conservative, subconsciously shielding myself from further harm. In that case, what place did I have on the field? I was terrified of being a shadow of my previous talent.
During my first few days back to practice, my excitement returning to the field with my teammates immediately soured to frustration. My body seemed to lag across the field, accompanied by the perpetual clanking of a brace that encompassed the entire length of my leg. I was winded and in pain after only a few reps in the drills and got caught flat-footed in the critical scoring area. My attackers whizzed by with ease. I’ve been playing lacrosse since I was in second grade and had spent an entire season being “a student of the game.” I knew fundamentally what I needed to fix and implement. But there seemed to be a disconnect between my brain and my body. And I was hating myself for it.
My first game back came after a week and a half of practice. Originally, I was only to be capped at 30 minutes of total game time, but after a teammate got hurt, my coach had little choice but to play me for far longer. I had seen enough movies to see where this was headed: An unforeseen event gives an injured player an opportunity to prove herself and earn back her spot. She plays a standout game, leaving everyone in awe, and is a major factor in securing a long-awaited win. But just as it had been in that doctor’s office, things did not go as expected. I did not play terribly, but I’d argue I definitely played like someone who did not play in a year. At one point during the game, after drawing a foul from my opponent, I was given the ball by the ref and was positioned on the 8-meter. The field seemed to stretch on forever. My gaze desperately raked from one side to the next looking for the easy pass, but every white Arcadia jersey was flanked by Marymount black. The only option was for me to carry the ball.
It was then that I realized that I was terrified. Terrified of getting hit. Terrified of throwing a turnover. Terrified of humiliating myself.
In the end, I didn’t get my fairy tale, Hallmark movie comeback game. In that particular play, I lost the ball. My team ended up losing 15-11. But what I have to realize is that my expectation was exactly that: a fairy tale, a fantasy. Even professional athletes like Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (whose job is literally to get his knee into prime shape without the added burden of having to proofread 40-page Physician Assistant papers or reading literature anthologies thick enough to stop bullets) have periods of readjusting to game-speed situations. Although my doctor signed off on me integrating back into the lineup, I recognize recovery is an ongoing process and it might take several more months until I am at 100 percent.
Until then, I have to learn to be more patient and be kinder to myself. At the end of the day, lacrosse is supposed to be fun, not a constant source of stress and self-loathing. Months ago, I was not able to jog, jump, or even walk without crutches, let alone all the cutting, twisting, hitting, and sprinting I’m doing now. Though getting beat by a cutter or flubbing a transition can definitely cloud my judgment in the moment, I have to step back and realize how far I’ve come. Easier said than done sometimes, but with each day, I’m making more and more progress. And that itself is a victory.