As (mostly) unpaid athletes, we sure put our bodies through the ringer for a sport that still lacks significant coverage, understanding, and support. We spend year after year pouring our time, effort, and dollars into perfecting a craft that most people will never watch. But we do it because we love this sport. It doesn’t matter if the sideline is packed with fans, or just a bunch of backpacks and a shade tent: ultimate means everything, and nothing will stop us from playing…until that one moment when something horrible happens. In a truly devastating fashion, the dreaded injury monster rears it’s ugly head and the only thing we can do is start the long five stage process of recovery.
I am currently going through these five stages of recovery. As much as I preached about injury prevention, adequate recovery time, and body awareness, five weeks ago I failed miserably at taking my own advice. Five weeks ago I continued to push myself over and over again because I wasn’t about to show weakness while trying out for one of the most decorated teams in the country. I wasn’t about to walk away, foolishly believing that “taking it easy” was the right thing to do because I was in pain. Five weeks ago, I started Stage One: Denial.
The first day of closed Fury tryouts I walked away knowing that something was wrong. It wasn’t the usual muscle stiffness, fatigue, or dull pain I usually felt after a tough tournament running around on an ultimate field. This was something else, something terrifying. It was a sharp, stabbing pain, deep within my hip that just didn’t feel right. When I called my husband to come pick me up, I immediately cried out “pick up some ice because my hips are about to explode.” That was the only way I could describe the pain: exploding. After an ice bath, ibuprofen, and stretching, I returned the following morning believing that little lie I kept telling myself over and over again the night before: I’ll be fine. It’s nothing, you’re being a wimp, just power through and everything will be okay. I told myself that the rest of the week, and into the following second tryout weekend. Even squirming in horrible pain while trying to walk to the fields, I still believed that “everything would be fine.” But running full force on my already injured hip for seven more hours only made it worse, and by the second week, I moved quickly into Stage Two: Desperation.
After being cut from Fury, I quickly focused my attention on the next goal: making Nightlock. I had three weeks until the first closed tryout to properly heal myself, and I stopped at nothing to make it feel better: daily ice baths, handfuls of ibuprofen, massage, heat packs, and foolishly praying to magically wake up the following morning without pain. I was so desperate to continue my ultimate quest of making an elite team that I started using crutches, as it was the only way I could get around the house without falling over. But I would not go to a doctor, that was simply out of the question. When people asked what was wrong I responded “Oh, I just probably strained something, I’ll be fine in a couple of days.” Days passed into weeks, and I found myself at Nightlock tryouts in continued pain. As much as I tried to hide it, it was so blatantly obvious that I couldn’t run, I was told to take it easy and stay on the sidelines. I promised I would visit a doctor when I got home, and find out what was wrong. Three weeks with little improvement meant that I did more than just “strain something”.
Two doctor’s visits, an X-Ray and an MRI later, I found out the results: a stress fracture in my femoral head. I ran myself so hard that my bones started to crack. After this realization, I immediately entered Stage Three: Decline. I went home that day, plonked myself on the couch and started watching endless hours of cartoons. I got hungry and instead of eating a piece of fruit, or some veggies and hummus, I made a decadent dessert burrito stuffed with peanut butter and bananas and doused in maple syrup. I wasn’t really hungry, but I thought “what’s the point anymore?” and gobbled up a piece of toast smothered in chocolate hazelnut spread. Ice cream? Sure! A giant bowl of pasta? Of course! I thought about doing my usual rehab routine later that evening, but I started watching another TV episode instead. As much as I tried to be self-motivating, I kept thinking that I just didn’t care anymore. If I wanted to wallow in my own self pity, then so be it! I’ll just end up fat and slow and really good at TV trivia, and who cares about ultimate anyway?
As much as I consider Stage Three horrible laziness, it was actually really good for me. A huge part of recovering from a stress fracture is not doing anything: no weight-bearing, no exercising, just plonking myself on the couch and watching TV. Now, I feel a lot less pain walking around, especially after my daily dose of anti-inflammatory meds and kinesio tape. Finally, I left the horrible third stage and entered into Stage Four: Determination. I started rehab. I talked to my doctor about what I can do to get stronger. I asked him when I could start playing ultimate again, to which he rolled his eyes and said, “If this was a professional sport there would be your name, and the words ‘six weeks, hip injury’ next to them.” I started thinking about ways to improve my training regiment for next year so something like this won’t happen again. I got over my self pity and thought about the future: a future where I am healed.
That healing represents Stage Five: Done. Although I am far away from reaching it, this stage is the end of my injury and the beginning of my normal ultimate routine: working hard, playing hard, and winning games. Being able to run around on a field and throw that plastic disc outweighs any pain I feel now or from past injuries. But Stage Five has it’s downside too. We are so relieved to be back to “normal” that we forget about why we got injured in the first place. I should’ve remembered my own advice and stopped before I did all this damage. In the future, I should remember what I feel like right now and promise to never put myself through this pain again. I should learn from my mistakes. I already told myself to try my best at this.
These five stages of recovery are not universal, but it is certainly something I have experienced far too many times, and witnessed in other ultimate athletes. As much as we want to blast through the emotional turmoil of a ruined season or tournament, I think it’s important to recognize and accept these feeling of vulnerability, of weakness, and of maddening defeat. We should not only learn from our mistakes, but remember them: it’s this last piece that enables us to grow and become better.