Rewriting The Script: Staying Focused After Early Injury
This guest article is written by Kellan Gibboney, a member of the Cincinnati ultimate community. Kellan has recently suffered a traumatic injury, yet they continue to be a positive light as they faces their rehabilitation. We asked Kellan to write about their injury, their rehabilitation, and what they do/are doing to stay focused and determined. Here's their story.
My body was a precisely tuned instrument. I took last fall off of ultimate in order to focus on lifting (captaining club, coaching YCC, and directing WUCC took its toll). I lifted, and more specifically I bulked, to (1) gain a better understanding of the way all of my muscles worked together and (2) to see what impact developing way more upper body strength would have on the way I play ultimate. From mid-September through February, I spent 6 or 7 days per week in the gym. My lifting sessions became my only personal time, and I loved every second of using weights to push my limits.
At the end of October 2018, I hurt my right knee while lifting. The injury wasn't bad enough to get an MRI, but the doctor thought it was a partially torn meniscus. I took a few weeks off from leg workouts and running and finished up PT mid-January. When Indy Red tryouts rolled around in mid-February, I was back at 100% with no weakness in my knee.
After I made the Indy Red roster, I continued to push myself at the gym and during the Strive & Uplift workouts once that partnership was established. I never wanted to be "good enough"; I wanted to continue building on my foundation and become the most explosive player in the PUL. Red practices and game preparation had me fully prepared for our season. I had made the starting D line and was also the primary puller. Every part of me was prepared to be as successful as possible. I felt great.
On April 27, Red traveled to New York to play NY Gridlock for our first game of the season - for our first game in the PUL. By the time the game started, the sun had set, and we were playing under the lights. A couple hundred fans joined us on that cool but dry night. I. Was. REDdy.
Red started on offense against Gridlock. We held. My defensive line was called on, and I was so excited to play my first point. We called our offense and our defense. Gridlock signaled ready. I held up the disc and got into position for my pull. Deep breath. Ultimate in 3, 2, 1. The disc went up, but I was down. My knee buckled on the final moments of my pull. I heard and felt a huge pop. There was no pain (yet), but I was unable to move my leg. I could no longer control bending my knee.
I hopped with assistance over to the trainer's table. She did the same movement evaluation I got during my meniscus injury. The cold made it difficult to be sure, but she thought it was just a meniscus injury (again). She encouraged me to keep weight on it and to move it as much as possible. For the rest of the game, I iced on and off. While I was icing, I sat on the bench with my leg propped up, silently crying in pure anguish. Knowing that I had done everything physically and mentally possible to be prepared for any situation but that the turf (and my body…?) had betrayed me in what felt like the worst possible way. When I wasn't icing, I was hobbling up and down the sideline trying to stay engaged - knowing that every second I spent yelling was holding back tears.
Halfway through the game, the pain had arrived. It was worse than when I tore my meniscus in the fall, and that injury took 2 months to come back from. Before our first game ended, I knew that there was no way I would get to play another point this season. My inaugural PUL season lasted for five steps and zero clock time.
I only got a couple hours of sleep that night because the pain had gotten so bad and because whenever I closed my eyes, I just kept seeing and feeling the accident happening over and over. I became way too familiar with panic attacks very quickly. The 12-hour van ride home the next day was made bearable only by my teammates, especially my buddy Emily Nadler, helping to take my mind off of my knee.
I managed to get an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon on Monday morning. They did the same movement evaluation there, now in a warm environment and with a swollen knee, and told me that my ACL was torn. I immediately started sobbing in their office. The only thing I was hanging onto was that the trainer told me that she did NOT think it was ACL, and that had just been stripped away from me. The MRI the next day confirmed the doctor's diagnosis. Out for an expected minimum of 6 months, so the entire club season as well as the PUL season.
Every second of this is terrible on a personal level. But the most important thing I tell myself as I'm trying to keep my head up is that I never want to play ultimate just for me. My favorite parts of ultimate are centered around the chances I get to prove to people that things they may have considered impossible can be possible after all. When I'm on the field, I try to play in a way that will make everyone else a better player. On defense, you can tell I run through everything. On offense, I throw to find space on the field in unconventional ways (cue Red captain Kate McInerney’s eye roll). Everything about me is unconventional, and I love bringing that energy and view onto the ultimate field.
When I'm not playing, I try to be an aggressively positive and very vocal sideline. Ultimate players have a tendency to hang their head, and it affects their playing. If I can communicate well enough to keep everyone in the right gear, then that's just a different type of success than on-field stuff. I never play ultimate just for me. I play for my teammates, the girls I coach, and now those who watch. When I shift the focus of my recovery away from myself to how I can use it to benefit others, it becomes much easier to do just about everything.
Pre-surgery, most of my pain was gone as long as I kept my knee wrapped and braced, so I didn't see a reason not to do upper body lifting. I figured out what lifts I could do without legs, and it was fine and kept me mentally and physically engaged.
While they were repairing my knee, they discovered that my meniscus was also completely detached from my bone. This didn't show up on the MRI and we have no idea if this is from the fall or if I made it worse when I tore my ACL. I'm still trying to figure out what implications this has on my recovery, but as soon as I can stand up and sit back down without crying from pain, you can count on me being back in the gym so that I can stay dialed in as sideline support for Red and as a coach for my high school team and for Cincinnati's girls' YCC team.
But let me be clear: everything about this REALLY sucks. Before surgery, one of the only things keeping me going was that it was only my ACL that was torn which meant a relatively easier recovery. Now that my meniscus has been repaired, I'll spend at least 2 full months completely non-weight-bearing on my right leg and likely other recovery consequences TBD. The main thing keeping me going right now is the hope that I will always be in less pain tomorrow. I'm also trying to focus even more than usual on the little things that go right (like not crying in pain when I get into the car or being able to use the toilet by myself). If I think about the "could/should have's" in my personal PUL season, depression hits fast. Focusing on the little things, on the ways I can still positively contribute to my ultimate community, and most of all remembering that I play ultimate for more than just myself, help keep me centered and determined to grind out this recovery.
Here's to hoping for a brighter future,