This story was named a National Winner in the Sports category of the 2009 American Society of Newspaper Editors, Quill and Scroll International Writing & Photo Contest.

Star athlete Rachel Hansen’s road to recovery

Note: This story was named a National Winner in the Sports category of the 2009 American Society of Newspaper Editors, Quill and Scroll International Writing & Photo Contest.

Published October 3, 2008

by Alana Patrick

Rachel Hansen saw the dull gold handle turn on the trainer’s room door. Looking up, she recognized the tall frame of her teammate and friend Sarah Peterson. Just who she had asked to see.

“Did you hear what happened,” Rachel asked. The pain in her eyes clouded, condensing into tiny, wet droplets on her eyelashes.

“Yeah,” Sarah answered softly, her own eyes filling. Words convulsed into cries and for a while the two girls’ shaky breaths and sobs spoke their anxieties for them.

“I don’t want this to happen,” Rachel said.

“I don’t want it to happen to you either.”

For junior point guard Rachel Hansen, this long-ago spring day marked the first on a long and gru- eling road to recovery. The talented soccer and two-time all-conference basketball player tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the March quarter-final game of the 2008 class 3A state basketball tournament. The injury forced her to the sidelines where she watched her team end with a fourth place finish.

Though her ACL was successfully reconstructed in intensive sur- gery, Hansen had months of taxing rehabilitation ahead of her if she ever wished to be back to the level of playing she was at. Today, after a summer of difficult and sometimes frustrating work, she is 90 to 95 percent there. Her plans for the winter? To rejoin the team, hopefully as the same type of player, but perhaps with a different outlook.

“[Rachel] learned from the un- fortunate things,” her father, Ron Hansen, said, “and is very grateful for what she has. She’s…determined to do the best she can without doubt- ing herself or feeling like a victim of things.”

Nothing going right

This willpower was key throughout Hansen’s recovery. But at one time it was difficult to have as posi- tive a point of view. In one moment, Hansen went from living the high school athlete’s dream of playing in the state tournament to lying injured and powerless on the floor. While going for a layup nine minutes into the game, Hansen felt her planted left knee buckle under her. She collapsed on the Target Center floor, feeling “sharp pain. It just ran up and down my leg,” she said.

Every other time she had fallen, she was quick to get back up, her father said. Not this time. As he hurried from his seat to get to his daughter, Hansen said he experienced “a flood of thoughts.” He added, “I feared for the worst.”

Coaches and medical staff surrounded her, while her teammates were told to give her space. At the time, the Redhawks were trailing 21-5 to a strong Fergus Falls team. “Nothing was going right at all,” said head coach Josh Thurow. “When she went down I was thinking, ‘what else could possibly go wrong right now?’ I didn’t realize at the time that it was as bad as it was.”

No one, in fact, seemed to realize the severity of the injury. The doctor on staff at the Target Center examined Hansen’s knee and concluded that there was no ligament damage. It was probably just a bone bruise, she said, and with a doctor’s clearance she could be jogging by the next day. Hansen, however, was skeptical.

“I thought it was more than just a bone bruise,” Hansen said. “It pretty much hurt when I did anything.”

Tears and crutches

The next morning, Hansen had an MRI. She then went to school, going through her schedule like any other day until her father showed up with the results. The news was devastating. As it turned out, she did have ligament damage and would need a total reconstruction of her ACL. Playing in the semi-finals against DeLaSalle was obviously out of the question. What was more frightening was the blurriness of Hansen’s remaining high school and future athletic career.

“That’s the one time I saw her cry about [the injury],” said senior forward Sarah Peterson, who comforted Hansen in the trainer’s room when they heard the news. “I’m pretty sure most of the team was crying or had tears in their eyes just ‘cause we were so sad.”

Two weeks later, Hansen successfully underwent a 21⁄2 hour arthroscopic surgery. Part of her patellar tendon was taken to make her new ACL, which accounts for the long scar left behind on her knee.

Meanwhile, her team finished fourth at state after losing two con- secutive games to DeLaSalle and Rogers. It was “very tough,” Thurow said, to play without their starting guard, who averaged 14.2 points per game, third on the team in scoring. Perhaps it was even tougher for Hansen, who could only watch from the bench.

“It was painful because we’d worked so hard to get there and then I wasn’t able to participate,” Hansen said. “I still got to be there and cheer them on, but I wanted to be out there playing with them.”

After the surgery, Hansen missed about 2 1⁄2 weeks of school. She began to deal with the injury emotionally, as well as physically. “The first two, three and four days after surgery there were some sleepless nights, pain and realization that it actually happened,” said her father. “All that was the toughest part as a parent because you always wish it could happen to you instead of them.”

When she did return to Minnehaha it was with crutches and a full, locked brace. Staircases and books made the days long, but her teammates and friends volunteered their assistance whenever possible.

“The Minnehaha students showed the true character of Minnehaha by helping her out a lot,” said Hansen’s father. Senior teammate AnnaMarie Martino was especially helpful, he said; she met Hansen at her car every morning and helped her get to class.

The rehab process

Meanwhile, Hansen began physical therapy two to three times per week at Knewtson Health Group in Excelsior, Minn. She worked and continues to work with Andy Masis, a physical therapist and certified athletic trainer, who was formerly trainer for the Costa Rica women’s national soccer team and whom Hansen’s father calls “very professional and helpful.”

In each half-hour session, Hansen worked on various exercises that involved strength-building, mobility and range of motion. Sometimes, she admitted, things were mentally frustrating.

“Right away in the very beginning it was very difficult for Rachel, just in the sense of it was so overwhelming,” said Masis. “You take a young girl that’s been just a spectacular athlete in multiple sports, and she’s used to being in practice every day of the year… and all of a sudden you take her and you sit her down and you put a big brace on her knee and you say, ‘you can’t do any of that.’”

In order to progress, Hansen also needed to train at home.

“Because she’s so motivated she’s able to do a lot more of the rehab on her own than what would typically be expected out of a lot of people,” Masis said. “The reason she’s gotten to the point she is at is because she’s so committed to doing all the work on her own between visits.”

One inch at a time

She progressed quickly, but Hansen said her rehab process involved both “ups and downs.” Even after two to three months, she was having difficulty stepping onto a one-inch step. Also frustrating was the fact that it was summer and she was not able to do many regular, day-to-day activities.

“I’d be hanging out with friends and then they would run or something and I’d be like, ‘wait up, I can’t run guys,’” Hansen said. “It was a lot harder. I just had to be cautious of what I did.”

She kept in contact with coach Thurow, sending him updates on her progress. Thurow, who went through the same injury the summer he was 17, realized the kind of frustration she was facing.

“I knew that it’s painful, it’s not any fun, and it’s really tough to see that the future’s going to be bright,” Thurow said. “Everybody else is running around playing, having a great summer and you’re crutching around. I knew that was going to be tough on her because it was tough on me.”

However, Thurow was confident that the rehab would make Hansen stronger – as an athlete, yes, but also as a person.

“You have to have a real maturity to work hard through that rehab stuff because nobody sees you,” he said. “When you’re an athlete everybody’s watching…but there’s none of that in rehab. It’s all you. I’m sure she’s become more driven and more mature because of that.”

Slowly but surely, Hansen has been getting closer and closer to being back 100 percent. She was cleared to practice with the soccer team this fall and will likely be able to play in games later this month.

“She’s made really, really tremendous strides,” said Masis. “Because she’s so motivated and so determined at getting better and getting back on the field, she’s worked very hard on regaining her range of motion and improving her strength…The toughest thing honestly for me has been holding her back.”

A year older, a year better

Today Hansen can step onto a 16-inch step. She can perform a squat on one leg without feeling any pain. Masis calls her “an absolute model patient.” The true tests, however, will come when she takes to the field and later the court.

“I’m glad she’s progressing toward being able to participate again,” said her father. “I’m just nervous. I’ll be nervous when that first player… runs into her and she falls hard on the floor.”

The most important thing for people to realize is that Hansen will not be more at risk for suffering the same injury, Masis stressed. Because of the rehab process, athletes most often come back stronger, more agile and more stable than they ever were before. Masis predicts Hansen will be able to perform at 110 to 115 percent of her previous level.

Thurow, too, anticipates that Hansen, who is a year older, “will be a year better.” He added, “She’s got a chance to be an all-state caliber player, so we’re excited about her.”

Her teammates are also looking forward to her return. “She just makes everyone on the team better,” said senior forward AnnaMarie Martino. “It’s a lot of fun to play with her.”

Coaches and teammates have obviously not forgotten Hansen’s skill, and neither has the state of Min- nesota. The Breakdown Sports Preview – the biggest basketball preview organization in Minnesota – recently ranked Hansen as one of the top 30 high school juniors in the state.

“I don’t take it as pressure,” she said. “It’s the sport I love so I will just go out there and play it.”

Until she reaches that point, Hansen will continue the rehab process, eagerly waiting the day she will be cleared to play. The injury has not only affected her but nearly everyone around her. Teammates, coaches and parents alike agree that their perspectives have changed because of the incident and what Hansen went through.

“Being successful and winning won’t have nearly as much importance to me anymore, because you know that’s not really what it is about,” said Hansen’s father. “It’s having fun, enjoying what you’re do- ing, taking the ups and the downs and taking all the lessons you can from just participating. When she goes back to playing I’ll just be thankful she’s out there and enjoying, whatever happens.”

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