Take a knee
The moment of truth came and went without me even realizing it. To this day, I cannot tell you how I hurt myself. I only know the tally of the damage: my right knee was shredded, with torn meniscus and an ACL snapped like a frayed rope. I still remember the look on horror and concern on my doubles partner Sherylle's face as we tried to see if I could get up and walk, much less continue playing.
Let's go back to the start of this adventure, 20 months ago, when I was playing in a USTA state playoff tournament with my team. I ran back, jumped to crush an overhead and landed in a heap. Sherylle and I were undefeated that amazing summer, but it all unexpectedly ended with me lying on the sun-baked court, screaming and writhing in brain-scrambling pain.
Game, set, match, season and, possibly, career, over. My knee felt as stable as hamburger meat and I felt emotionally numb.
I've been an athlete all my life, doing everything from competitive softball and soccer to tennis and swimming. Tennis was my first love, and I took my game all the way to college. These days I played for fun ... but without a stable knee, I was out of the game.
Ever since that day -- August 2, 2009 -- I've been focused on returning to my old self, somebody who plays fearlessly and goes for the win. There have been two surgeries, including a full ACL reconstruction and nine months of grueling rehab. I also have many souvenirs: a three-inch scar on my right leg, three smaller surgical scars, two titanium screws and a new the ACL that the surgeon "made" for me by stringing a piece of my patella tendon through my knee and securing it with the screws.
All scars, screws and rehab sessions led to a strange day: May 26, 2011. My surgeon had cleared me in March to start slowly working my way back to tennis. It was strange because I was originally told the chances of comeback for me were 50-50. But there I was, back.
My team's first match of the USTA season was that night, and I decided to try to play. Sherylle, who had not played since I went down, was at my side. I put on my big, sparkly purple knee brace and we walked out to the court. My heart nestled into my stomach.
What if I got hurt again? Could I play like I wanted to? Would tennis still be as fun?
No way was I hitting an overhead, I thought, especially if it required jumping or back-pedaling. Safety first. Nothing stupid.
I started tentatively, more hyper-aware of danger instead of the play. After a few games, I forgot about everything scary -- even the awkward brace disappeared that became part of my knee. I was running, moving toward the net, looking to rip some forehands. My timing was off a bit, but enough was going right to put us in the lead. It wasn't pretty, but we were getting it done. The true victory was just being out there and doing my best.
And then it happened. I was at net, and my opponents threw a lob over my head. I moved on instinct, shuffled back, jumped and hit the overhead. I drove the ball hard and low, winning the point.
I soon noticed Sherylle looking at me. Her eyes were wide with shock. "Are you OK?" she said.
Of course I was OK. We won the point, right?
Then the real meaning of her wide-eyed expression it hit me. I just hit the same overhead on which I got hurt -- the evil, dreaded shot that gave me nightmares for months. But this time I was fine. No pain, no doubts.
It was a huge hurdle crossed, one of many both behind and ahead of me, in my journey back from the ACL injury. We played hard for two-plus hours and won the match 7-6, 7-6.
At end, I wanted to cry -- out of fear, relief, exhaustion and, most important, happiness. Sherylle and I hugged. She'd been with me from start: from carrying me off the court when I was hurt to helping me see a movie when I was in a leg immobilizer and on crutches fresh after ACL surgery.
The journey back to full strength is still ongoing. They tell me it takes at least a year. I recently "graduated" from physical therapy, and now I am on my own to continue recovering.
At least now I know tennis will still be part of my life.