Ostap Choliy, a shooting guard for the men's basketball team, tore his ACL in the summer of 2013. PHOTO: MARISSA DEDERER

From the clinic to the court

In Features /

Some injuries are to be expected when pursuing the life of an athlete. But some can pose a major risk to careers.
Marissa Dederer explores what it takes to get back on your feet.

The day Katrina Gonyea broke her cheekbone started the same as any game day: a breakfast of oatmeal and a green smoothie. It was a cloudy day, but not too cold — all in all, a pretty unremarkable September Sunday. The fourth-year varsity soccer player arrived early and picked up a cup of Tim’s — black — before getting to her team’s change room at Varsity Stadium, home of their crosstown rivals: the University of Toronto Blues.

It’s early in the 2013 season and they haven’t beaten this team for a while. The Rams run through their standard warmup before going back to the dressing room to change into their jerseys and to hear from coach Kevin Souter. “Go out and have fun,” he says. They know it will be a difficult game. “Show them how tough we are and put up a fight.” Before they go out on the field for the national anthem, the team lets out a tandem war cry.

The game is under way. Gonyea makes contact with the ball. A split second later, Blues number four makes contact with her face in a brutal header. Gonyea crumples to the ground. Her eyes blur up, probably from the tears, she thinks. Her face hurts. She hasn’t moved, still belly-flopped on that artificial green turf. The blood is coming from somewhere, she doesn’t know where. Her teammates heard the crack.

***

The busiest time for the Ryerson Athletic Therapy Clinic is in the fall — the point of the year when soccer is mid-season and the rest of the teams are gearing up to play. They pump athletes in and out of the clinic. Treatments run the gamut with ultrasound, massage, ice packs and all manner of other exercises.  The beat of the clinic stays consistent — sprains, breaks, bruises, soreness — but occasionally the tempo wobbles like when a girl has a broken cheek or an athlete has a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL), a major knee injury that occurs when the main ligament in the joint tears.

Tucked into the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC), the clinic is a safe place for the varsity athletes to unwind, equally physically, mentally and emotionally. Head therapist Jerome Camacho and assistant therapist Danielle Dobney have been hard at work for the past six years fostering the right atmosphere. A mix of calm, safety and support, it’s sometimes referred to as a hair salon. And they are the lifeblood of the institution.

The clinic first began in Kerr Hall West during the pre-MAC era. It had space for three beds. Exercises were often done in the hall. Now, with the move to the MAC and the space that Camacho helped design, they are the heart of the athletics home-base — courtside, next to the weight room and team lockers. The men’s soccer team will sometimes cut through the clinic to reach their change-room — not because it’s any faster than going around, but because they’re interested in what’s playing, who might be getting treatment and if there’s anything interesting going on.

The current clinic is about double the size of their old one  — complete with six tables, ultrasound machines, hot and cold baths and space to do exercises. The room is also open to encourage communication between athletes and to offer mostly unobstructed line-of-sight to therapists. The sound system is pretty badass too, which is why it’s so strange that on this Friday afternoon the clinic is silent.

The door to the clinic is always open and you hear the next athlete before you see her — the click-clack of crutches as she pendulums along. Alexandra Goudis leans her crutches against the wall near the door. Goudis, a hockey player who is two weeks post-operation from ACL surgery, hobbles over to a bed. For treatment she must present her injury and that involves unwrapping the layers of protection. First up is the brace with the insertable ice-packs. Next, it’s a round of thick bandage, followed by a round of thinner material. For now, she keeps her incision and the 10 staples holding it together covered.

Mary Lalancette, a sock-footed therapist pokes around the injured leg and then asks the tiny athlete to flip on her stomach. The first exercise the therapist does with her is bending the affected leg towards her butt. Facial grimacing is inevitable, the ligament is tight. In the first few weeks after an ACL surgery, it’s important to work on regaining motion. When Goudis is measured, she is at 96 degrees of flexion. Her goal for Monday — coincidentally when her staples come out (she’s excited) — is to increase that by four degrees.

Her injury happened while playing indoor soccer last semester — one kick went amiss and wham, a torn ACL. She was lucky to get in for surgery so quickly. For a non-Ram, it can sometimes take a year.

The therapy team is full of expert people-readers. Some days no athletic therapy gets done, instead it may be a bitch session in a safe place free from coaches or other athletics staff. Other times a hug is needed or just a sit-down to talk about life. Since the move to the MAC, the therapy team has seen the number of athletes they treat double — partially due to most of the teams all being housed under one roof.

Goudis is on to her third exercise now. She has had to shift from her back to her stomach again and this time she buries her face into the pillow and sticks her butt towards the ceiling in an awkward downward dog. This exercise also involves increasing her range of motion, using gravity and a little extra help by way of sandbag. “How much is it?” she asks.

“I don’t know. You want to pick it up?” Goudis takes the navy sand bag in hand. “Oh,” she says and laughs. It isn’t labelled.

Goudis isn’t the only Ryerson athlete who has undergone ACL surgery in the past season and has been subjected to the sandbag. Basketball player Ostap Choliy, the six-foot-five athlete who formerly with York University, tore his while playing in the summer. He’s now five months into rehabilitation.

For Choliy, it all started with a pop. It’s still early in the offending 2013 summer league game. He does a move he’s done hundreds of times before, a Euro step, planting his left foot and pushing off with it as he changes directions — that’s when he feels it, the pop. Immediately he falls to the ground. It feels like his knee dislocates. It’s uncomfortable. He stays down for a few minutes, but soon is able to walk it off. His knee still hurts a lot, but he decides to play in the second half anyways. This lasts until he jumps for a rebound. A little pop in his knee again. “Okay, I shouldn’t be playing,” he thinks.

For the next three weeks, he rests. Later he would find out that after that game his ACL was already partially torn. But he thought it was just a tweak, so he played again. And again he jumped. But this time there was an “actual pop.” There was pain, but not so much that he screamed. Afterwards, there was no walking for a few days and his knee was extremely swollen — which is common in fully torn ACLs.

By November he’s able to go in for surgery to repair the torn ligament. He’s made peace with the injury now. It will be a long and arduous rehabilitation. He’ll either come back stronger or it’ll end his career.

The morning of the surgery, Choliy is nervous. The 24-year-old has never experienced anything like an ACL tear before. That night after the successful procedure, he goes to sleep. The pain is excruciating, something even the oxycodone can’t quite dull.

Choliy also attends the Ryerson clinic for rehabilitation. It’s important to jump right in and he’s already gone over the hurdles Goudis now faces. The therapist slowly eases the weight onto Goudis’s right ankle and her leg descends slightly. It’s a passive exercise so she can lay on her stomach while the weight works its magic.

“This one was Ostap’s least favourite,” Lalancette tells Goudis.

“Really?” she can’t believe it.

“You can tell him he’s a big baby,” Lalancette says. “I’m going to pin the ACLs against each other.”

***

A few weeks after Choliy and I meet to talk about his injury, we’re back at the MAC for photos. We do a few casual shots on the court. But in the interim, while I’m checking the pics on the back of my camera, he’s looking over at his teammates — Jahmal Jones and Aaron Best — as they ham it up doing layups and trick baskets for another camera. He catches me looking at him, “I can’t do that stuff,” he says, not until he gets his brace, which won’t be for a few weeks (in April). Instead he shoots a few baskets, straight shots — no jumping and no running for the rebounds either. He’s quietly restrained, only a sliver of the cocksure player he was at York remains.

Choliy’s teammate Best is not so far out of rehab himself. He sustained a foot injury while playing in rural China with the men’s basketball team over the summer.

During the first game of the series, Best jumps. It’s an awkward landing and a clean break. He is rushed off to the hospital with Camacho. “Boom! I could see it right away, the fracture,” Camacho says of the x-ray, “like oh yeah, fracture, confirmed, done, cast.” It was the same injury Best suffered the year before, but on his opposite foot. The cause was similar — an awkward landing, a “crack or a crunch” and with the resulting fracture. He “had to wear a boot for eight weeks, had to use crutches — the whole nine.”

The first time around it was mostly a mental game for Best, learning to trust his foot again. “You start running around and you start moving, you get really tentative. You don’t want to overstep the boundaries of the foot.You don’t want to hurt it again,” he says. That’s your biggest fear, stepping on the court and actually hurting it again. You don’t want to experience that again.” Unfortunately, he did.

The loudest voice in his head speaks of the expectation to pick up where he left off, in that split-second before the bone breaks. But therapy requires the act of patience. Going back to playing too soon can actually reverse progress.

***

The cycle of athletes is continuous through the clinic. They come in hurt, depleted, they leave feeling refreshed, relieved. It’s a safe place, free of academics and athletics. “They’re all a bunch of injured athletes or teammates [who] are here to support each other, so they let loose and they can relax and there’s a time for them to lay down and just feel hopefully better,” Camacho says.

Katrina Gonyea, with her cheek injury was out the entire soccer season. She’ll suit up to play in the fall for her final year of Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) eligibility.

Aaron Best played in all of this season’s games, amassing more than 600 minutes of competitive play. But the team fell just short of qualifying for the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) final four tournament.

Ostap Choliy has not played at all this season. He continues rehabilitation for a torn ACL and will be lucky if he gets to wear the Rams jersey when the team begins playing in November.

The final steps for Goudis during Friday’s session are to ice her knee and massage her leg. The day before, she iced and said she “was frozen like the movie.” Today she gets the full athletic-therapy spa treatment and is cocooned in warmed towels.

Once the icing is complete, Goudis repackages her knee. The layers of bandages are reapplied with a bit of goo on her scar and the brace is slipped on. Someone brings her crutches over and as she leaves, the click-clack of her crutches gives away her movement. She smiles as she heads out the door and thanks Lalancette, “merci!”

*This article was edited after publication due to an editorial error. In the printed version,  ACL was attributed to the wrong type of injury. The Eyeopener apologizes for this mistake.*

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