I had epic dreams when I stepped onto the Wake Forest campus in the summer of 2017. With plans of becoming an All-American volleyball player, the star of the show, I didn’t expect any other plan for me. In high school, a day didn’t go by without me hearing that playing Division One sports would become one of the most challenging points in my life.
A total understatement.
During my first freshman season, I got little to no playtime. Going into my sophomore year, I felt as though I got a fresh start. This seemed like my year—except for my rising knee pain. My nights became restless, as it kept me tossing and turning. Secretly avoiding every staircase in my path became a game, and I just played through the pain. I decided that I would keep quiet about the debilitating knee pain and just keep pushing.
I soon learned my lesson: Pain will always win.
When August of 2018 rolled around, I couldn’t even walk up a flight of stairs. My knees began to give out while I played, and I spent two hours after every practice icing with tears in my eyes. I could barely make it back to my room once the hours of training had finished. After a few weeks of this, my athletic trainer had seen enough and sent me to get my knees scanned.
I later got the news that crushes every athletes heart: I wouldn’t play for my entire sophomore season. I had torn my patella tendons in both knees, which shifted the kneecaps out of their sockets. If my patella tendon had torn completely, I may have never played again. I began to stare down the barrel of double knee surgery and seven months of recovery time. The hospital walls became all too familiar.
On September 14, 2018, the doctors operated on my right knee. My surgeon had to sever the muscle on the outside of my thigh to relocate my kneecap and remove bone marrow from my shin in order to aid the healing of my tendon. The pain ran deep and seemed as though it would never leave.
My leg felt like a dead weight, wrapped in thick bandages and a metal brace, dragging behind me every step I took. Being treated like fragile cargo did not sit well with me. Everyone approached me with immediate pity. As a girl who grew up finding her identity in her strength and toughness, having everyone see me in this time of weakness ate away at me each day.
As the weeks went by, I tried to do it all on my own. Never asking for help when in reality, I slowly lost my composure. Seven weeks after my first surgery the second wave of news came. My left knee would need the same operation the following week.
Realizing that I had faked my whole persona throughout this time, my emotions seemed anything but real. I didn’t want to do this again. I would have done anything to not go through this again. I didn’t want all of the pain, the hours of physical therapy and the ten minutes it took me to get into bed every night. Yet I had no choice.
The days leading up to the second surgery felt worthless and empty. Everyday in physical therapy seemed like taking one step forward just to soon go a mile backwards. I knew that God would use this incredibly dark time in my life for something greater. But in the moment I couldn’t help but think, why me? I couldn’t understand why I had to endure this pain. This tedious life from operating table to operating table made me hope for the day I would see the light at the end of this tunnel.
November 9, 2018, the same doctors operated on my left knee. The pain from the first surgery felt unbearable, but it could not compare to this one. A blood vessel had gotten nicked by one of my incisions, and it continued to bleed throughout the weekend. My leg turned lovely shades of purples and blues, and back to the crutches I went. The tears began to stream down my face as my mom helped me begin the long process of getting up into my bed that night. Back to step one, with a long road ahead.
The physical therapy training center became my new home. I strengthened my right leg, while my physical therapist held my left leg, bandaged and bloody. The pain during therapy seemed bearable because I saw a purpose. Now I worked towards the court, not another surgery. But that only did so much.
I found myself caught in this cycle of therapy, attending my classes on Percocet and spending my nights alone while my teammates traveled to games. The season that I envisioned for myself did not line up with my reality. Every morning when I opened my eyes, I told myself to just make it through the day. If I could make it one day at a time, I eventually had to make it to the end, right?
January came with a fresh start. With no more surgeries ahead, I found a will to get to lift, get to practice, continue my rehab and keep up with my classes.
Finally, I had a renewed focus on the court.
Seven months after my first surgery, entering March of 2019, I returned to the court again, getting to play the sport that I love. Thinking the hard part ended, I thought I saw the finish line in the tunnel. Little did I know, the surgeries would become the easier task. Getting back to playing how I used to challenged me the most. I had not jumped, ran or touched a volleyball in months, but in my mind I could flawlessly do it all. Telling myself that I would pick up right where I left off consumed my mind daily, but my body had other ideas.
I found myself doubting myself daily, and questioned the worth of the work that I put in. I worked tirelessly everyday just to become the old me. In the eyes of my peers, I made progress, running and jumping again. Still, I could only see that I mainly finished last.
After many open conversations with those around me, I realized that I couldn’t let my competitiveness distract me from my progress. Blessed with the opportunity to step onto the court again, I got the second chance that most don’t. Through this experience, I learned that this season of life has no end. The tunnel may get brighter but it does not have an opening. Part of me always sees myself in last place due to my injuries, and I torment myself with the thought, what if?
Today, I know I made it through and that I get stronger everyday because of my surgeries. I can say that I made it to the other side, but these scars won’t ever leave me. Looking down at my knees daily, I see the two inch incisions across my knee caps. Remembering what I went through, and most importantly, I am reminded daily of what I am made of.
As I finish out my sophomore year and the months grow closer to my junior season I wonder: Can this reminder sustain me?