Elite athletes are trained to be tough, to block out the noise and to win at all costs. For many, that mentality comprises their entire identity.
What happens when all of that is taken away at the blink of an eye?
When injuries arise, as they often do at the highest level of competition, athletes can struggle to cope with the loss of a season, the loss of a goal and the loss of a function that they once relied on to win. Some fall into depression, others lash out. Some, however, try to fight through the pain.
Cole Carlucci, who recently graduated from Monarch, thought he would have to miss out on two sports when he tore his ACL midway through football season.
“It was the fifth play of the game and I was running down on a punt. I went to tackle the guy and I just planted my foot and my weight shifted and my knee caved into the left. I heard a pop,” Carlucci recalled. “It was pretty painful, but not like what you’d think. I was more upset because I knew what happened right away. I tried to get up and walk away. I was trying to hobble to my coach and he realized I was in pain.”
The pain wasn’t the worst part.
Carlucci knew that injury would most likely mean the end of his final wrestling season, which he had been working toward his entire high school career. He wanted to be a champion. To him, that’s all that mattered.
“I’ve been wrestling since I was 6, always dreaming of being a state champ and now I don’t even get to try,” he said. “I missed my whole sophomore year from being injured and then the COVID year was dumb last year. It was horrible. It was like one of the worst things in my life. I just talked to a bunch of people, just vented from sadness. Grades probably went down a little bit then. It was depressing.”
He and his doctors explored other options before surgery to try to accommodate his desire to wrestle. Together, they engineered a way for him to still be able to compete during the winter season, just as long as he wore a knee brace every time he stepped onto the mat.
It was a risk he decided to take.
Drew Horning, a former private practice psychotherapist now with the Hoffman Institute and a former high school basketball coach himself, often sees that fighter mentality in the athletes he treats and coaches. And, while he loves to see that toughness from a coaching perspective, he knows there needs to be a delicate balance when dealing with serious injury.
“There’s a tension here, and when an athlete can get it right, it works great,” Horning explained. “Oftentimes, when they can’t get the equation right, it’s problematic. To succeed on some level in athletics, it requires that we repress a little of our internal state — composure, calm, ice in the veins. You can’t be hypersensitive and perform at a high level, so you have to — as a part of being competitive — disengage from your feeling state. … You have to numb to some of the things that your body is telling you. You want to push your body to the limit.”
Facing a recurring setback
Holy Family’s girls lacrosse coach Sarah Brown very nearly gave up her own collegiate lacrosse career. It had certainly caused her enough pain in a short period of time.
During Brown’s freshman season at the University of Colorado in 2015, she suffered a bulging disc in her L5-S1 spinal joint. Just a few years earlier, a stress fracture in her back disrupted her recruiting process.
“Mentally, it was definitely hard,” Brown, who played at Centaurus, recalled. “I had been through that similar injury my junior year of high school, going through recruitment with a fractured back, having schools drop me and then getting an opportunity still with CU. I had kind of been through that and that time around, I think I had a doctor tell me then that I didn’t have the mental capacity to play at the D-I level. I think there was this side of me that felt bad for myself, which I think there is in every injury and it sucks.”
She grasped the opportunity that CU head coach Ann Elliott had gifted to her, and didn’t let it go. Not when she hurt her back again, and definitely not when she found herself close to a starting position.
Her bulging disc first presented itself during the fall and, over the next few months, she found ways to manage her pain levels accordingly. Just before the fourth game of her inaugural collegiate season, she had been making a strong impression on her coaches and teammates.
With Northwestern next on CU’s docket, the coaching staff awarded Brown the top “scout” position in practice, meaning she would play as if she were the opposing team’s best player. In doing so, she would help prepare the starters for what they might see during the game.
By that point, however, the pain she had ignored for so long was screaming at her every time she picked up a stick. She cried crawling into her lofted dorm bed and climbing into cars. She had run out the clock on how far she could push the injury, and the setback almost proved too great to bear.
“It was a big deal to me that I got to play the best player at the time because that meant that I was getting better and I was closer to getting that starting position,” Brown said. “I really didn’t want to stop playing even though the pain was horrible but after that, that’s when I no longer could run.”
The mental and emotional strain that followed would have been overwhelming, had Elliott, her coaching staff and CU’s training staff not treated her like every other healthy player. Despite having to sit out for the majority of her freshman year without a redshirt, they still demanded she keep her grades up, that she show up to practice and that she maintain her rehab regimen on the road to recovery.
Horning believes that kind of inclusion amid injury is “huge, critical.”
“In any injury, there are setbacks. It doesn’t always go as planned or maybe, something else happens, or maybe it’s related to some other thing,” Horning explained. “Nobody wants to be a wimp and I think at times, we have to know when to say enough is enough. I can’t do this anymore. I need a break. Physically or emotionally, there are times where we can push ourselves too far that the gains aren’t big enough and the losses are too big.”
Never giving up
When Mead wrestler Jake Glade tore his meniscus toward the end of his sophomore season, he never once allowed himself to believe his season was over. He had worked too hard his entire life to fulfill his dream of becoming a four-time placer at the Class 4A state tournament.
All it took was one deep squat to tear the cartilage in his knee, but he didn’t let that stop him from trying to compete at the Chadron, Nebraska tournament where it happened.
“I woke up and (my knee) wasn’t moving. I couldn’t move it. I couldn’t straighten it,” Glade recalled. “It was stuck bent a little bit. I tried to warm up and I took a shot and I collapsed and fell over. I went over to the trainer and she wasn’t quite sure what it was. I decided to wrestle but I didn’t get a warmup in or anything.”
He had the trainer tape his knee up to the point that it cut off the circulation and the pain, and gritted it out in order to win the tournament. After receiving his diagnosis, his doctor instructed him to sit out the rest of the season and undergo the surgery as soon as possible. The state tournament was just a month away.
Glade told him no.
Instead, he convinced the doctor that he would take every precaution necessary to complete his sophomore season. He had placed fifth as a freshman and wanted to at least match that feat during his second year. The doctor agreed and set the operation date for a couple of weeks after the state tournament.
Glade, his coaches and his parents then turned to Taylor Karty, Mead High School’s athletic trainer, and worked out a rehabilitation regimen for him to adhere to while he hobbled through the rest of his wrestling slate. He didn’t always stick to that plan, much to Karty’s chagrin.
“I was doing stuff with the trainer, but she wouldn’t let me do anything in the wrestling room,” Glade said. “We got into this little thing there in the middle where I just didn’t go to the trainer’s room and I’d go straight to the wrestling room because I wanted to wrestle and she wouldn’t let me wrestle. I didn’t go in, I just went straight to the wrestling room and I started wrestling, doing stance and motion (without a partner). She came in and she yelled at me.”
He couldn’t handle losing the identity he had carefully built his entire life and didn’t want to miss out on the in-season experience his teammates were receiving. The sense of defeat that may follow can be hard to let go of, for any athlete at any level.
Horning has seen it time and time again.
“With adolescents, identity is really important,” Horning said. “Who are you? Are you a jock, are you a musician? These roles we play become important in identity formation, our development as adolescents. It’s a key piece there. That’s really important and now you pull this thing that they’ve been doing for 12 months? You take that out of the equation?
“How can it not be a recipe, a perfect storm for depression, angst, really, mental health struggles of athletes. Because in part, they’ve put so much emphasis into it. Now, if you’re not doing it, you’ve been one-note Charlie. What else are you going to do? One, you can’t do anything because your body is limited, two you have so much more time on your hands.”
Coming out the other side
In each of these cases, the athletes involved felt a sense of loss of control and grieved what they believed to be the end of their wrestling seasons or, in Brown’s case, the end of her career. As each one sifted through the emotional, mental and physical strain of their respective injuries, they eventually saw the light at the end of the tunnel and let that light guide them to victory.
Carlucci not only completed his wrestling season, but he claimed the gold that he had long set out to achieve. When the ref raised his hand, the hand of a champion, at the end of his Class 5A 182-pound state title match, he couldn’t help but beam at his family and friends in attendance at Ball Arena.
“It was super rewarding,” he said. “Just the buildup of being hurt, not even knowing if I get to wrestle and then grateful to actually be able to get through the whole season and be successful, it was super special.”
Carlucci claimed his crown in the end, and his toughness and commitment in the leadup to the tournament impressed some of the higher-ups. The risk he took reaped the best reward when Iowa State University came calling with a scholarship offer. He committed without hesitation.
Brown, too, didn’t let the stress of a recurring back injury convince her to quit lacrosse altogether. Instead, she used it as fuel to prove that she did, in fact, belong at the collegiate level and that she could overcome an injury that didn’t want her to heal.
She let the grind of her recovery influence the rest of her career, which led her to becoming a two-time All-American and Pac-12 defender of the year. Before making the move to Holy Family’s coaching staff, she took the opportunity to coach at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.
“I actually had a pretty difficult time freshman year in general, which made me kind of wonder if I should play sophomore year,” Brown said. “There was just a lot going on with it being a new team and not feeling like I really fit in and then not playing. Mentally, that was really difficult but it also drove me to want to show that I was supposed to be on the team and I was supposed to play and I got recruited for a reason, that I was a great player. I felt like I had a lot to prove, not only to the team and to the coaches, but to myself too.”
At the end of his season, Glade fell just a bit short of his personal goals at the state wrestling tournament, but still managed to place sixth in his weight class. Looking back, he takes pride in that accomplishment, knowing everything he had to endure to get there. His dream of being a four-time state placer during his high school career still lives on.
Now that all three of the injuries they thought would once hinder their careers are in the rearview mirror, they can look back and take pride in the strides they took when their bodies only wanted to hold them back.
In the end, the road to recovery was worth it.
“I think the lessons learned when they can get to the point where the injury is fully healed and they can compete at a higher level, is there a better experience in life?” Horning said. “Being able to successfully come out the other side is a gift.”