My surgeon can fix Nastia Liukin but he can’t fix me.
Sitting in the waiting room and staring at an autographed thank-you poster of the Olympic gymnastics champion, I couldn’t help the bitter feeling building in my stomach. It was fall of 2013. I already had two surgeries on my left knee in 2012.
“Yikes,” Dr. Daniel Cooper, head orthopedic for the Dallas Cowboys, said as he looked at my MRI. He then went into a deluge of medical jargon that I tuned out. I knew the outcome. Surgery.
I have played soccer since I was 4 years old. Most players can’t say they walked away from the game unscathed. But most players can also still walk away from the game without like feeling a knife is stabbing the underside of their kneecap every single step. And that’s three knee surgeries later.
I was in my prime as a junior in high school. It was my first year on varsity at Central High School in Keller, Texas. I had just joined the Dallas-Fort Worth Tornados club soccer team and the college recruiting process had begun. It was the peak of my soccer career.
I always had nagging pains. Being a power rather than finesse player, I liked to knock girls down and make them not want to get back up. I would rather shoot from the 40-yard line over faking out the entire defense. I powered through. It was who I was then. It’s who I am still.
The first time I felt the sharp pain below my left kneecap, I was mid-squat during high school weight training. I let it slide a few weeks thinking it was nothing. The pain persisted. A few weeks later, I went to my coach.
“You can go to the trainer or sit out and ice it I guess,” Ray Martinez said.
His blank expression said all I needed to know. Going to the trainer was not an option. I could sit out or I could play through it. I played through it.
My mother was not so nonchalant about my pain. As a former gymnast, she was nervous about knee problems. Three doctors, two MRIs, and two years later, I finally had a diagnosis.
The cartilage in my dominant left knee was deteriorating. Squats with too much weight and of 14 years of soccer seemed to be the culprit. If I had paid attention to my body and not my coach, I could have been fine. It was too late for that.
We scheduled my first surgery with Cooper for April 26, 2012, directly after my senior season. I needed a scope to clean away damaged cartilage, and I would be good for college. I didn’t anticipate how my situation would deteriorate over the next few years.
Despite a Division I opportunity and acceptance to the University of Texas, I committed to play soccer at Centenary College of Louisiana – a NCAA Division III school that had just recently transitioned from Division I. I didn’t want to sit the bench my freshman year, but still wanted to play for a competitive team. I loved Glen Evans, Centenary’s coach, and the campus was inviting. After receiving a generous academic scholarship, Centenary seemed like an easy choice.
“I really thought you would be there all four years,” My mother, Christine Atwell, said two years after I had left the institution. After my initial operation, she was optimistic about my future as a student-athlete at Centenary. “I never anticipated you needing more than one.” Cooper was a prominent Dallas orthopedic surgeon and we were convinced he could solve the problem easily.
Six games into my freshman season, I had a bad collision. The
season wasn’t going as well – multiple seniors opted out of playing leaving us short on experienced players, and wins. We were 2-3-1. I felt like I was needed on the field. I kept playing and kept starting – ignoring the fact that my knee was the size of softball. Draining of the swelling, a knee brace and cortisone shots held me through season until the inevitable.
Cooper was less optimistic this time. Knee surgery was necessary if I wanted to play, but I was now looking at the long-term effects of multiple surgeries on one joint. Arthritis – a word I had only heard when my grandmother talked about her swollen and painful knuckles – was brought up. I was 19 years old.
Cartilage had deteriorated more severely in my knee. I had a second scope along with a
lateral release – a membrane was snipped to release the pressure of the kneecap on the knee joint to prevent further deterioration. It was Dec. 21, 2012, my second surgery of the year.
I had high hopes entering my sophomore season.
“I expect you to make first team all-conference next year,” Evans said in my exit meeting at the end of my freshman year. “It should be a big season for you, if you can stay healthy.”
Healthy. I found this word arbitrary. I didn’t feel like the player I was coming into college. Recovery was harder. Constant physical therapy had my motivation dwindling. Being a good player on a team that couldn’t seem to figure out how to win didn’t help.
I filled out an application to transfer to the University of Texas for the spring of my sophomore year. At first, it was a precaution – in case something happened, I had a backup plan. One week into my 2013 season, I found myself praying for acceptance to UT.
After our first three games, I was awarded Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference offensive player of the week and Centenary Athlete of the week. I scored three goals in three games, two of them game-winners. On paper it looked like I was on track to live up to my coach’s expectations. In the third game, I had collided with the opposing team’s goalie and was taken out. My season deteriorated from there.
Through 14 years of soccer I never found myself wanting to quit – until this year. This season made me resent the game I had loved. My knee no longer fully extended due to constant swelling. I had to rip off my knee brace mid-game due to what felt like a knife piercing my left femur. I doubled over with nausea constantly because my stomach started to reject the prescription level Ibuprofen and Naproxen I took to help with pain. Our 5-14 record didn’t make me feel much better.
By orders of Evans I had been sitting out practices to attempt to reduce swelling between games. This upset my team. One day after practice they let me know in a less-than-pleasant team meeting. I knew physical therapy and ice couldn’t heal me at this point, but I didn’t want to call it quits on what might be my last season. They didn’t understand.
I played sparingly the rest of the season – my coach always saving me for when he needed someone most. I didn’t make an All-Conference Team. I accepted admission wholeheartedly into the University of Texas in November to follow my cast-aside dream of becoming a sports reporter.
“After you recover from this surgery, you should probably avoid running,” Cooper said in my seemingly annual December appointment. “Try swimming – it’s easier on your knee.”
I hate swimming.
A large chunk of cartilage had become detached from my knee bringing a piece of my femur with it. I was playing with a small bone floating around in my joint all season.
On Dec. 17, 2013, Cooper performed a microfracture, which involved drilling into my bone to stimulate cartilage regrowth where I had none left. I was on crutches for two months following my surgery, my first two months at UT.
The 40 acres wasn’t so easy on crutches. I had to lay my leg in a Continuous Passive Motion machine for six hours each day, a machine that slowly bent my leg back and forth to prevent stiffness. Physical therapy was constant. I just wanted to walk again.
Spring of 2014 was rough. I went through physical therapy with a dangerous bitterness. I just wanted off my crutches and out of my room. After my second knee surgery, my mom wanted me to consider quitting. After my third, she was anti-soccer, indefinitely.
I couldn’t give it up. I started running again in June, playing soccer again in August and I tried to join the UT club soccer team in September.
I couldn’t walk to class the day after practices. I started physical therapy two weeks into the season. I quit after four weeks.
My knee still sounds like gravel crunching every bend I take. My
pain is no longer stagnating. I lie in bed aching some nights from a source I can’t seem to pinpoint. I went hopelessly back to Cooper in November 2015.
“You have a bone spur there and there,” he said as he pointed to my MRI. My bones looked sharp on ends where soft curves should have been. Two years of not doing what the doctor said did damage. “Do you have pain in you right knee as well?” he asked. I responded yes. I had tried to ignore it.
“Well you have a few developing bone spurs here too. It looks like you have the beginning stages of osteoarthritis in both knees.”
I would wish that five years ago I listened to my body instead of my coach. I would wish that I hung up my cleats after my second surgery. I would wish I listened to my doctor and not played again. But I don’t. I have arthritis at 22 and am OK with that.
Because I know I pulled every ounce of time out of the game I loved that I possibly could. It’s who I am.