Jan. 13, 2014
Flashback: Feb. 17, 2013. John Paul Jones Arena is bathed in a sea of pink with players and fans honoring the annual tradition of the Play4Kay game.
On the court, No. 7 Maryland held a 12-7 lead a little over five minutes into the game. Kelsey Wolfe, the Cavaliers' second leading-scorer who was averaging 10.6 points per game, was racing down the court with the rest of her teammates.
"I remember that it was a fast break," Wolfe said. "I was coming down with the ball. I was around the three-point line. Katie Rutan was guarding me. I think I was going to go for an in-and-out and maybe a crossover to get by her. I stepped with my right and it just totally collapsed."
The "it" was Wolfe's right knee. The then-junior guard collapsed on the court, having to be helped off by the team's athletic trainer, Stephanie Aronson.
"It was a weird feeling, something that I have never felt before," Wolfe said, recalling the injury. "It was almost like an explosion in my knee. As soon as it happened, I knew what it was. The whole time I was on the floor, I just kept saying `No. No. No' because I knew at that point it was my ACL."
It wasn't just blind guessing or jumping to the worst-possible conclusions that made her suspect that she had suffered a devastating, season-ending injury to her anterior cruciate ligament. The kinesiology major had been taking a biomechanics class going through the knee, how it moves, what the ligaments are supposed to do and what happens when the knee doesn't do what it is supposed to do and what happens to those ligaments.
Days before going down with the injury, the class had learned specifically about ACL injuries, so when she was being examined that night, it left little doubt.
"I don't know whether it was a blessing or not, but shortly before I tore my ACL, we had learned in class the different tests to see the stability of the ACL and to see the different ligaments in your knee," Wolfe explained. "I knew the test [the doctor] was doing and I could see the difference. I think that kind of solidified my knowledge of whether my ACL was intact or not."
A couple of days after the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, Wolfe had surgery to repair her knee and as soon as she was able, she started the long trek back to recovery.
"I just took it day-by-day," Wolfe said of her rehab. "I listened to [Aronson]. I was really eager to get through each step. She did a good job slowing me down when I needed to be slowed down and keeping me on track.
"The first couple of weeks I worked on getting the muscle tone back in my quad and getting flexibility back," Wolfe recalled. "That was probably the toughest period, the first month and half, just trying to get that flexion and extension. And then you move on to balancing and just getting that knee back to what it is supposed to do. From there, I worked on adding strength and so on. And then back on the court it begins with skipping patterns. You start with low volume, low intensity skipping patterns. Then you gradually move up to jogging and sprinting."
Wolfe was cleared after missing the first couple of weeks of fall practice and was back on the court in time for the Cavaliers' season-opener at James Madison. She has started every game this season, averaging 9.7 points per game. The real turning point in her recovery, however, was the ACC opener.
"The first time I really felt like my old self was last weekend against Pitt," Wolfe said. "I didn't have anything on my knee other than a knee pad, which was only there for comfort. I went from the ACL brace to another brace that had some protection and I gradually progressed out of that. I think that moving out of the brace has really helped, mentally and physically."
Wolfe's journey back to the court is an experience that she feels is going to help her later in life. She plans on applying to graduate programs to become a physical therapist. She wants to practice PT in a clinical setting, but wants to work with athletes, helping them to recover from their injuries.
"Helping people get healthy again is the most appealing part for me of becoming a physical therapist," Wolfe said. "I think that, after my knee, I have a different perspective as to where the patient would be coming from and I understand where their head is at and I can help them through that part and also help them get back physically."
Since taking that biomechanics class last year, Wolfe has continued to progress in her studies of kinesiology. This fall, she took a cadaver lab where she was able to look at muscles and ligaments up close.
"It was really cool," Wolfe said. "I just really dove into it, not really seeing it as a body, but as an instrument for learning. What really got me was looking at the hands and fingernails. That was what really put it in perspective that this is a body. But I learned so much in that class.
"Our instructor was very hands-on and did a lot of things. One of our cadavers had a total knee replacement, so we could actually see that and all the different parts in a total knee replacement. One time, our instructor took out the synovial fluid, which is the fluid in between your joints. You could see how oily it is and how it lubricates the joint. That was really cool."
The class also included a computer program which built a body up from the skeleton from nerves to blood vessels to muscles and everything in between.
In addition to classroom experience, Wolfe also spent last summer doing a practicum in a physical therapist's office.
"The PT I worked with included sports medicine and his knowledge of athletic training with his physical therapy, so that was really cool," Wolfe said. "He let me do some hands-on things, like some of the stretching techniques that he learned. He let me do that on a couple of patients. I was really watching and taking notes on why he did certain exercises for different things."
Though her internship and cadaver class have helped solidify her resolve about her future plans, Wolfe is very focused right now on her short-term plans.
"This is my senior season and we are getting into ACC play," Wolfe said. "We have to lay it all out on the floor and just come at every game like it is our last. I think that if we have that mentality, we will do very well."