On February 24th, 2017, I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life. If you worry too much about the little things, you might miss the big picture. I just wish I hadn’t learned it in such a literal way.
The belt test had just barely begun, we ‘d gotten through a light warm up. I had already failed my push-up requirement, that re-do lingered around the edges of my mind. The group was progressing through fundamental movements, and we had moved on to flying side kick, a technique several ranks below mine. I prepared for the jump, crossing the distance between me and the pad holder with a few running steps.
I tucked my knees as I left the ground, chambered my right leg, and kicked—wrong. A quick flash of dread hit me as I realized my foot was in the wrong position, toes pointed up instead of down. Stupid, I thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid. So early in the test and still making so many mistakes. My mind had been so caught up in berating myself for that error that I forgot one crucial thing.
I was still in the air.
Suddenly, I was on the floor and not entirely certain how I’d gotten there.
Okay. I fell. No big deal. I fall a lot. One of the lesser down-sides to having a Chiari malformation. The bigger issue was that I wasn’t getting back up. Concerning, really, because I know my brain wanted me to get up and keep going, but my leg just was not responding.
Two of the black belts ended up basket carrying me off the floor, setting me down on a pile of mats while my instructor came to examine my leg.
“Did you hear a pop?” Master A asked. “That’s not good.”
After about ten minutes with an ice pack, I still struggled to bear any weight on the leg. He dismissed me from the test and I limped home, still in deep denial about how bad the injury was.
Sometime around 3 in the morning when I couldn’t sleep due to the pain, I realized I should probably go to the hospital in the morning. The ER referred me to an orthopedic surgeon, who I finally saw a few days later. The ortho sent me for an MRI, but unfortunately, I was about to leave town for two weeks, and he refused to tell me the results over the phone. (Needless to say, I did not stick with this doctor for very long.)
Cue me, in Hawaii, in a leg brace, wondering what I had done to my body.
Finally, when I returned to the mainland, I was able to get an official answer: I had ruptured my ACL. It was never going to heal on its own, which left me with only one option.
ACL Reconstruction Surgery
I’m not a stranger to surgery. I’ve had two laparoscopies for endometriosis, but each of those had a short recovery time which had me back to normal life pretty quickly. This surgery was going to be different. My surgeon had given me a timeline — 3 months before I could run again, 6 before I could go back to taekwondo, and a year before I could spar or compete in any tournaments.
Considering I had been planning on 2017 being my Spartan Trifecta year this was a huge blow. Everything I had been planning on, all the goals I had set up in my mind were completely off the table. But, if I did not have the surgery, many more things would be off the table permanently.
So I booked the surgery date and set off on one of the most daunting adventures of my life.
I wanted to do everything I could to set myself up for success, which was a bizarre new mindset for me. I met with a personal trainer to work on pre-hab, getting the muscles that would be most affected by the surgery as strong as possible. One of my best friends is a physical therapy aide and she provided me with a list of early exercises her practice uses ACL surgery patients. My insurance also covered a Continuous Passive Motion machine — which would bend my knee for me to improve the range of motion after surgery.
Throughout high school and college, my default state had always been maximum results with minimal effort. (It worked too, for the most part. I went to a great school, graduated with a good GPA, though now I can’t help but wonder what I could have done if I’d actually applied myself!)
Lying in bed all day got very boring, very quickly; getting out of bed hurt like heck. I would avoid drinking so I didn’t have to get up to use the bathroom. But my surgeon wanted me on my feet, working on bearing weight ASAP, so I did.
Fourteen days after my surgery, I was back to being a commuter in New York City and started going to physical therapy twice a week. Being so limited became a major eye-opener for me. I had never really been put in a position where I simply could not for a long period of time. It was the most exhausting, frustrating, humbling experience of my life.
But, it made me realize something.
Our bodies can do amazing things. I was Wolverine in slow-motion. My body was adapting to a piece of my hamstring tendon being moved and used to stabilize my knee. Can you think of anything cooler than that? I didn’t think so.
The desire to take care of my body intensified. I wanted to be stronger, do more.
Return to Taekwon-Do
Going back to the dojang in November felt like being a white belt all over again. I had to relearn several years of training that my body had forgotten — and not even high-level technique, either. I had to bring back all the muscle memory for things like chambering blocks and the motion for a proper punch.
Again, this was a very humbling experience. Use it or lose it. Again, I reminded myself that any kind of physical endeavor requires constant upkeep, constant practice, and it only made me more determined.
Finally, in December, 10 months after I started that fateful belt test, I got the opportunity to complete it. The most satisfying part of the test was breaking. It was an actual, physical representation of my strength returning. And, being able to break with the same kick that injured me felt like a very satisfying conclusion to the story.
Right now, I feel like I am on track. I have a solid foundation to build on. 2017 was a wild ride, and I’m hoping that 2018 won’t throw me for some other kind of crazy loop. We can’t control the future, but I can control myself.
And I’m ready to kick some ass in 2018.
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