With my first competition since COVID-19 approaching in two months, the butterflies, moths, and what felt like a whole swarm of insects in my stomach were reaching uncomfortable levels.
So like any reasonable athlete would do, I decided to exert my excess energy exercising. Though unlike any reasonable athlete, I opted against running on my treadmill and instead came to the conclusion that practicing huge gymnastics kicks in my very small, very cluttered room would be a better idea.
Surprise: It wasn’t.
At around 10:30 PM, this 16-year old rhythmic gymnast swung her left leg and slammed her knee against the side of her desk with enough force to cause her to collapse.
That’s when I glanced down, dazed, to see my leg sprawled oddly beneath me with my kneecap jutting out.
From here on, the memories get fuzzy. What I do recall are the questions burning in my mind during the panicked drive to the emergency room: Is my knee supposed to look this puffy? Why, oh why couldn’t I just go running?
And possibly the worst of all:
How in the world am I going to heal before competition?
I had dislocated my kneecap, meaning the blow to my leg was violent enough to knock my patella bone out of its position in the trochlear groove. As this occurred, the connective tissues holding my knee in place stretched as my patellar slipped to one side, damaging the surrounding structures in my ligament, and depending on how severe it was, the rehabilitation process could take as long as nine months to a year.
My competition was in two months. So it’s a bit of an understatement to say that explaining the situation to my team proved difficult.
We were meant to perform a group routine, a term which, in my case, is a routine that involves five members passing apparatuses to each other, so if I can’t be there to catch a ball, the group will look more like four girls and five balls flying randomly across the room.
I began by contacting my closest friend in the group. While she immediately texted back demanding if I was okay, her disappointment began to sink in, and she later confessed that when she heard the news, she had no hope we would make it.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god… our chances at competition are ruined.’”
Even without her outwardly saying that, I could sense it in our conversation and it felt like I’d hit rock-bottom. How on earth could I come back from this moment?
Things were looking pretty low for me. But while I didn’t know it yet, I possessed the one thing that kicks off any personal journey of healing or growth: a desire to change. Knowing that changing means adopting an open attitude to the idea of a world of discomfort, uncertainty and pain is the first step into coming out in a higher place than you already are.
From my point of view, I was already very uncomfortable, uncertain and my knee was throbbing constantly. Why not jump right in?
Metaphorically, of course, as I couldn’t even stand yet.
The path to recovery often challenges things that keep you comfortable. I wish I could write that I switched to a stay-at-home lifestyle with ease and grace. In reality, though, I was suddenly faced with food confusion, a ruined daily routine, and guilt for my team, resulting in a very grumpy, irritable, not-pleasant-to-talk-to me.
The first week was torture. Without being able to leave the house, I felt like I was stuck falling behind in something; I just wasn’t sure what.
That’s when I learned the secret to adjusting to something new: compromise.
In the early stages of recovery, since I only get hungry when I move, I wasn’t sure what I should be eating— or when, or how much, due to a lack of movement. When I couldn’t go for my morning or evening jog, I would snap at people who tried to talk to me. I found myself holed up in my room just from the sheer frustration of being unable to breathe the fresh air.
In order to heal, I had to learn to acclimate: I had to let go of this fear of going with the flow, something I’ve always been deeply unsure of.
So when I found myself not as hungry as I used to be, I tried letting it happen, telling myself I would gain my energy back later. Instead of jogging, I would do light arm workouts as a replacement. And when I wanted to leave the house, I would open as many windows in the house as I could, letting the spring wind breeze over me from the outside. I found myself perkier and my mood improved overtime, up to the point where I would be comfortable asking my family members where they were going and helping with chores around the house. I learned how to keep a healthy balance, and looking back, I’m surprised at how the slightest change would bother me.
Whatever I was expecting recovery to look like, this wasn’t it. This process was turning out to be personal, with me learning to rid my uncertainties of, well, uncertainty— which honestly took me by surprise. I thought I was only trying to fix my knee here, not change as a person. I didn’t sign up for some self-improvement boot camp. What was happening here?
In any case, I knew I would have to undergo physiotherapy as part of my rehabilitation process. However, I hadn’t bent my leg in weeks, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
So I had, quite literally, braced myself before physiotherapy.
And somehow managed not to blow out my knee again. Over the next few weeks, my physiotherapist, brought me through several training regiments: most of which helped to strengthen the muscles around my kneecap, holding it in place. He made sure to work on other parts such as the muscles responsible for external hip rotation, as well as the quads and calves, through exercises such as squat jumps, knee extensions with resistance bands, all of which I definitely felt the burn from— as my knee had not had any pressure on it for the previous few weeks, any weight, like a single leg balance, would cause it to tremble way more strongly than the right leg.
“Muscles are absolutely the protectors of bones and ligaments,” he had told me. “Strong muscles means you won’t injure yourself as easily.”
He also informed me that I would have to end up with a higher range of motion, flexibility, and strength than an ordinary person’s.
“Your ceiling of recovery is much higher than the average person who dislocates their knee,” he explained. “How quickly you heal all depends on whatever routine you’re trying to get back into.”
While going from hobbling on crutches, to waddling with a knee brace, to careful strides using a kneepad, I noticed I wasn’t just changing physically. I was getting better control over emotions like frustration, developing an open mindset, and generally becoming more positive.
For instance, when I returned to gymnastics for the competition we decided to try for, I came in bearing positive news rather than explaining the bad situation. I told my team my physiotherapist deemed me ready for the routine and that I was eager to get back into it.
The moment I was able to run across the gym carpet and leap into the air, my legs flying into a splits, I realized that I wanted to come out stronger than I was before.
I never even considered strength-building as an option. I’ve solely focused on flexibility in the past. But my physiotherapist informed me, “I think you would be a good fit for weightlifting, since you’re so flexible. And just in general, weightlifting would be a good idea. What a lot of professional athletes do is build muscle after the season’s over.”
That sounded like a perfect plan, but it came with one problem. I had to finish my season.
Luckily, that turned out to be less of a problem than I expected: my friends and I performed a solid group ball routine, and the next day, they texted saying we won first place: scoring a 10.9 to the second-place team’s 4.3.
I couldn’t believe it. There couldn’t have been a better first gold medal win at this rhythmic gymnastics competition.
Looking back on that biggest burning question that stemmed from that panicked drive to the hospital— How in the world am I going to heal before competition?— I realized I hadn’t only answered that question. Through pain, therapy and a huge reliance on Advil, I managed to transform one of my lowest moments into an opportunity for self-growth; I focused on my mental inflexibility and found ways to gradually work on those aspects of myself.
Healing and growth aren’t so different. Learning to adapt to this confined situation, then shedding my cast and picking up a newfound interest in weightlifting, is proof of this point. In order to heal, or grow, you have to be willing to take that first risky step out of your comfort zone and do things that make you uncomfortable. Then you can develop your skills, or discover new ones.
Discomfort amounts to growth. Growth amounts to fulfillment, new experiences, and may even give you purpose, but only if you’re open to the idea that change never has an end goal.
Knowing this, I’m getting comfortable with the idea of striving to learn more about myself and grow, personally as well as physically.
“As long as you don’t subject your knee to any more extreme trauma, like how you slammed your knee against your desk, you’ll be fine,” my physiotherapist assured me.
Now, I can’t vouch for past me. But current me is perfectly content with no more slamming of my knee against desks.
Cover image: Pexels