“I am not telling you it’s going to be easy; I am telling you it’s going to be worth it.” I came across this quote recently as I was preparing for this speech. It resonated with me because I am sure every athlete in this room has experienced some kind of setback on their athletic journey, be it an injury, illness, or a general obstacle of life. I am also sure that every one of you can recall the people who helped you overcome this obstacle and get you where you are today. “I am not telling you it’s going to be easy; I am telling you it’s going to be worth it.”
Seven years ago, I was lifted by the careful hands of camp counselors from the hard pavement onto a surfboard, then placed into the back of a minivan and driven an hour to the nearest emergency room. My leg was completely distorted; my kneecap was dislocated to the side of my leg for two agonizing hours. Nevertheless, I was optimistic that I would be back swimming in the lake and playing rugby with the other campers the next day. In reality, I was crutch-bound for the next eight weeks. As I started middle school, I was still under the assumption that I would be recovered in time for soccer season.
Well, soccer season came and went. I was able to swim that winter, but didn’t come close to any PRs. The spring came around and I was still unable to walk normally, let alone run. This meant I couldn’t play softball either. A friend asked if I would join the rowing team with her. And I reluctantly agreed.
The many hours I spent in rehab after the initial dislocation felt like they were for nothing when I had to spend another 10 weeks on crutches after I had major surgery on my right knee that summer. More hours of rehab followed. When my physical therapist, Hunter, unstrapped my knee brace and revealed my pale, scrawny leg, I could not believe my eyes; my quad had disappeared. The first instructions Hunter gave me were to flex the nonexistent muscle. I would stare down at both of my legs, flex my good, left quad, as if trying to remember how to do it, and then I would try to flex my right. I concentrated hard on that one muscle, but it was like my brain had lost contact with it. No matter how hard I willed my quad to flex, the muscle was just too weak.
There were days I was discouraged. All of my friends were getting stronger, faster, and better at what they did, and there I was, breaking a sweat trying to lift my leg off the table. The day I did one single leg lift felt like breaking a record, but the hardest part about it was that after I got my leg six inches into the air, I had to do it again, and again, and again.
I had to learn how to walk, but I didn’t trust my own leg — an appendage that looked more like my arm — to support me. Every step I took I clung onto the railing and prayed my leg didn’t buckle underneath me. My knee brace had been there to support me for a year and a half at this point; not having it on petrified me. Tears running down my face, I limped a few steps. I felt like a toddler; everyone watched me and cheered me on, as if I had never walked before.
In eighth grade, I continued with rowing in the fall, swam in the winter, and rowed again in the spring. At first I was convinced that these activities were just to keep me in shape until I got back on the playing fields. But as it turned out, I didn’t really mind rowing; in fact, I kind of liked it.
I was able to compete and do well for Pioneer’s team. And as my focus shifted to NMH, where I would be attending the following year, I thought I might choose to stay on the water instead of returning to the soccer pitch. But before I could take that step, I had to endure another major surgery, this time on my left knee. And thus began three more months of bending, flexing, and lifting; and for the third time in my life, I learned how to walk.
That was four years ago.
Today, I signed my national letter of intent to a Division I school for rowing, the sport that I love. This could not have happened if I had allowed my frustration and anger to outweigh my motivation to get back to full strength. I can’t say that I enjoyed the countless hours in rehab, but I can say that without them, I would not be the athlete I am now. I learned that you need to work hard every day, regardless of whether you’re struggling to take a few steps or training for New Englands at Exeter. I learned to see the bright side of things, and always to look for the open door when one closes on you. On the most basic level, I might never have discovered crew, or had any of the amazing opportunities that it has brought me, had I not dislocated my knee at summer camp seven years ago.
The great things I have experienced in athletics also could not have happened without the encouragement and direction from my coaches, the expertise (and kinesio tape) from the trainers, and the unconditional support of my teammates. Kate and Eleanor, my coaches, helped me to understand that sitting out of a workout when my body was in pain was not a form of letting myself and my teammates down, but rather a decision of a “mature athlete” that would allow my body — and my team — to be stronger in the long run. Hunter and Wendy always demanded that I do one more set of reps beyond what I thought I was capable of. And every time I felt like my body had betrayed me, my teammates have been there with an encouraging word, a sympathetic hand on my shoulder, or a simple look that assured me that I would be back in the boat soon.
Temple University, where I will attend next year, has an athletic slogan that captures perfectly what defines so many NMH athletes: Greatness doesn’t quit. I would also say that greatness doesn’t come without struggle, and it certainly doesn’t come alone.
Photo by Glenn Minshall