|Injury: Multiple ACL Tears||Athletic Level: NCAA DIII Lacrosse|
My name is Georgia, and I play lacrosse.
I started playing when I was about 10, and I finished my final collegiate season at age 22. Unfortunately, hardly any of us make it through our sports careers without a few bumps in the road. For me, it was a torn ACL, an injury that has become very common amongst women athletes. My case is particularly significant because over the course of my high school and college career, I tore both my right and left ACL, and both injuries turned out to be pretty different. When I was a sophomore in high school, I tore the right ACL while at a king-of-the-hill prospect day at Yale University. I was lucky because it was an isolated tear, meaning there was no further damage to the knee and the surgery consisted of only an auto-graft patellar tendon repair. The tear occurred after a footrace to a ground ball. I gained position on the ball over my opponent, but she hadn’t slowed down her approach, intending to run through the ball as any good player would. As I was in the way, she ended up knocking me over from the back. There was that infamous pop!and that was that. At that time, contact injuries only accounted for only 20% of all ACL tears.
The second tear was in my left knee. It’s common that after you tear one ACL, you are likely (60% or so) to tear the other. That tear occurred my freshman season of college, and that injury is what most doctors call the unhappy triad. I tore my ACL, medial meniscus and partially tore my MCL. This was a non-contact tear; I had the ball and was doing a split dodge when I went down.
Both recovery processes had their own ups and downs. For the first injury, I had surgery in the fall, so I was recovering into the spring and early summer- prime recruiting time for Division I programs. So, needless to say, I was stressing. I was sixteen, flooded with emotion and a good amount of self-pity, and I was angry. I had a few schools I was talking to at the time of the tear that I visited after surgery as a recruit. Physically, I recovered very quickly, doing so in less then 6 months. I consistently went to physical therapy and walked, biked, or ran the days when I wasn’t at PT. I went after the recovery process with tenacity and was extremely anxious to get ready for the upcoming summer of recruiting.
The second injury was much more physically and emotionally taxing. The extent of the injury meant a longer recovery, and I had to do it far away from home at school. I had a meniscus repair, meaning I couldn’t bend my knee past 90 degrees for the first 6 weeks to let the repair heal properly. This contrasted the first injury vastly; the first time I tore my ACL, I was off crutches and walking in just 3 weeks. Now, I faced not being off crutches for about two months, on my college campus in New England in March, which meant there would still be snow on the ground for the next month or so. Because of the time I would be on crutches, I had to move out of my freshman year dorm where I lived on the third floor with one of my closest friends to a single in a dorm with mostly international students that I didn’t know. My mom had to take off from work and stay in a hotel nearby for the first few days to take care of me. After surgery, the incision site became infected and my leg swelled with cellulitis, which was very, very painful. It put physical therapy on pause, and I had to go back and forth from school in Connecticut to the doctor in New Jersey several times.
As I look back now, it’s easy to think that maybe those times weren’t as hard as I thought they were in the moment. But, when you first hear that pop!or the words spoken for the first time from your doctor, it feels like life is over, which realistically, its not. I didn’t just get a life-ending diagnosis, or find out I’d never walk again. But I did get some of my happiest happiness and my biggest passion in life stolen from me. The way I let loose, shrug off a bad day, and feel my most confident was gone for an indefinite amount of time. I did get the prediction from my doctor that things can go wrong, that I inevitably will never be the same player. My body- my trusted being that has always moved the way I’ve wanted and responded when I’ve told it to work harder and move faster, and made me feel strength I could never achieve off the field- failed me. In those moments, it’s hard to argue with yourself, especially as a sixteen year old, that life isn’t over.
After my first injury, most of my Division I prospects dropped me after seeing the tentative way I guarded myself when I returned to play. After struggling through the summer of tournaments and camps, I had lost a lot of confidence when I started the fall of my junior year. Seeing that I was losing my hope and my love for the game, my dad took it upon himself to sign me up for the Yale king-of-the-hill prospect day again. He told me we were going back up to Connecticut to finish what I had started. When I stepped onto the turf that day, something inside me turned back on. All the anger, frustration, and anxiety I had before turned into crazy energy. I can’t remember a single play that happened, I might have even blacked it all out. All I remember is that I played with a fire I hadn’t felt in a long time. Truly, it was like something inside me had changed. I finally hit my stride again, and everything fell back into place. I wasn’t the same player; I was smarter, more tactical and I was stronger like everyone said I would be.
Often a question I would ask myself throughout that first process was “why me?” I am pretty spiritual, and I was driven and dedicated; I thought I worked hard and didn’t deserve this. Why me? Why did I have to go through this? Those questions tore me apart every time there was a bump in the road with recovery, or a doctor’s appointment where I was told I would have to wait just a little bit longer. I would leave those places and feel sorry for myself. In the end, I believed that there was a greater purpose, that this injury led me to a different opportunity at a very successful DIII program. Someone out there had a different and better plan for me.
When I sustained my second injury, it was hard to believe in that justification. I was a freshman in college, and had been working very hard all year on my fitness. I was playing midfield, but didn’t think I would get any playing time with the starting lineup we had. My sister, a junior at Franklin & Marshall College, was about to have the one of the best seasons of her life. Being older and a three-year starter at that time, my parents were prioritizing her games, as I probably wouldn’t see much of the field. But then we played our first game against Colby, and ten minutes into the game, my name was called. And I rotated in the whole game. Then the second game came, and I played even more. So the third game, our first Saturday home game, my parents drove to Connecticut to see me play. After five minutes, I went in. And after two more minutes, I was carried off the field.
A lot of what transpired over the next few weeks was a blur. I was trying to stay very positive, but after the diagnosis I had to go home for a few days to stiffen the blow. There is a part of you that can get sucked into so much negativity, it’s almost difficult to articulate. I was just so defeated; I had already done my time in my mind. Now, I had to start from scratch again and build myself back up. My family was devastated. My mom actually sat me down and told me I didn’t have to play lacrosse anymore if I didn’t want to.
Hearing that, I knew I had to change my mindset if I wanted this recovery to be different. I wanted to have the same physical success, but not endure the emotional ride it took to get there. I couldn’t allow myself to look back at anything. I couldn’t ask myself why me, what did I do to deserve this? I could only ask myself what’s next. What can I do better this time? How can I improve? How can I change this circumstance into an opportunity to get better? I gave myself time every day to remind myself of that. I talked myself through with only positives, actively smiled more and did not think about what I was missing out on. My dad and I told ourselves we would not allow ourselves to think about why. Why wasn’t a question we entertained, because it wasn’t a question that had an answer. The only question we asked was “what’s next?” Front-sight focus, as the Navy Seals would say.
Along with my parents and siblings, I was also extremely lucky to have the support of my amazing teammates and best friends. They were the best distractions I could ask for. There are moments in my mind that are etched there forever of my friends being there for me and supporting me whenever I needed them. I am so lucky for all of their love, and even now as I write, I get teary-eyed thinking about it.
So, fast forward to now. I have finished a career as a three-year contributor for a National Championship level team. I came back my sophomore year and even though I had ups and downs, I ended my senior year season as a starter and key piece to our team’s success. I am grateful for every minute I got to spend on the field, but even more so for all the connections I got to make, all the love that lacrosse has brought into my life, and all that I have learned about myself.
Truthfully, it’s not as bad as it seems in the moment. It’s humbling, it’s rewarding, and it’s an opportunity. It is the ultimate challenge to build and create yourself. You have the power to make yourself into whoever and whatever you wish to be. As sad and disappointing an injury like this is, it isn’t life-ending; it’s life-changing. Only your efforts and your actions can determine whether that change is for the better or for the worse. Don’t let yourself be filled with self-pity. It’s okay to be sad, and there are times when that’s all you can feel.
But you can’t feel sorry for yourself. That isn’t what competitors do. Competitors do what they do best- they compete. In these moments, you must compete against yourself. You must compete against negativity. You must compete to make the most of the opportunity that has been created for you. By fostering the love, positivity and strength of my teammates and family, I was able to get through each recovery with a little more humility and a lot more perseverance. I was able to create the best version of myself, player and person, that I could be. I made the most I could of circumstance.
What will you do?
A four year member of the Varsity Women’s Lacrosse team, Georgia Mergner graduated from Trinity College in 2018 with a degree in Neuroscience. She is currently a research assistant with The Kessler Foundation, working in the Center for Neuropyschological and Neuroscience Research and Center for Traumatic Brain Injury Research. She hopes to make a difference in the lives of those suffering from traumatic brain injuries.