Vassar athletes climb back from dark Abyss of injury

Courtesy of Vassar Athletics

A baseline dribble, a jump stop, a buckle—a pop. What follows this jaw-dropping sound is usually an odd kind of silence. Nobody can quite remember their screaming, or the players that surround them; it’s quite literally a blur. 

Sometimes, it’s not so fast. Months of grinding, bone-to-bone compression that, when described, sounds more like torture than a work of passion. What follows is six hours on the surgeon’s table, where simple cartilage injuries are set aside for meniscal repair, and the wear-and-tear continues. 

Such is the case for injuries at all levels, but the recovery process is magnified in a community like Vassar’s. A competitive educational climate—coupled with a group of athletes determined to do battle in the Liberty League—can often mean little sleep, long hours oscillating between the gym and library, and a kind of dark, lonely state of mind that manifests in much the same way stress fractures tend to—a grinding, dull pain that seems to slowly break you down over time. Yet within this budding competitive environment, according to Director of Sports Medicine Suzi Higgins, high contact sports still face anywhere from 1-4 serious, season-ending, injuries per team, per year. These kinds of injuries act like a break in the cycle: Surgery puts a pause on schoolwork, and the indescribable pain strikes a dent in even the very thought of playing. Instead, athletes must descend into the dreary, dark environment that is the road to recovery. 

Waking up, climbing out of the Abyss, is what makes these athletes special. 

Suzi is the shining light that guides that guides athletes out of this dark place. Throughout my conversations with athletes on their return, one thing was consistently stressed: The Sports Medicine Department, with its collective cast of characters, does an incredible job motivating these injured athletes, keeping their spirits high and aiding in their return. She described dealing with a serious injury as similar to “dealing with a death or loss,” that many athletes occupy the same phases of “Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance” that come with any major trauma. 

Director of Sports Medicine Suzi Higgins cares for an athlete’s injured ankle.
Courtesy of Vassar Athletics.

For that reason, Vassar women’s basketball guard Jackie Cenan stands as a mark of inspiration, for climbing out of the Abyss, not once, but twice. After tearing her ACL for the second time in the spring of 2019, she had every right to quit basketball. But she didn’t. The rehab, which she described as frustrating, painful and even more difficult than the one following her first operation, gave her every reason to stop playing—to occupy herself with her Vassar education and pursue whatever passion she desired. 

Her reason for not quitting? 

“I had to do it for my teammates.” 

I had to do it for my teammates. Finding consistency in athletes’ rehab processes is nearly impossible. Every athlete is physically and emotionally distinct, and not all injuries hurt us the same. However, the singular recurring theme that every trainer, athlete and coach mentioned to me was love. Whether that be Cenan working on her same baseline jump shot every morning, or learning to be a voice within her own locker room, even when she couldn’t take the court. It’s the love of sport, but also the love of the community that the sport constructs, that pushes these athletes above the walls of the Abyss. 

This community extends beyond simply the court and locker room. Suzi, with her incredible patience, and a kind of caring that sits with you long after you first meet her, takes this kind of selflessness and makes it central to the athlete’s rehab process. As Suzi explained: “Students spend a lot of time in the training room when they have a serious injury and we tend to be their extended family and teammates. It’s probably the part of my job I enjoy the most.” 

Building that family, creating a support system fostered on ideals of “specific small celebratory victories,” as Suzi put it allows these athletes to climb from the lonely Abyss of street clothes and sidelines to Liberty League championships and NCAA titles, one small step at a time. 

Jackie’s journey from her Abyss was riddled with difficulties, with moments where the simple things—taking a shower—felt impossible. “It was hard. I wasn’t sleeping. I felt defeated, almost depressed,” she said. 

The key, however, was suspending judgement in the recovery process, as Jackie put it: “This second time around, I kind of learned to accept what was coming, to not be so critical when I struggle with milestones, or if today feels worse than yesterday.”

Eventually, singular rotations on the stationary bike turned into baseline sprints, which turned into jumpshots, which will continue to turn into playoff berths, and, hopefully, championships. 

Small victories begin to add up. Buoyed by a familial support system, whether that be blood or otherwise, Vassar athletes can climb back. Cenan, for better or for worse, is an extreme example in this kind of comeback. A leader off the court, and swiss-army knife on it, Cenan is a clear example of what it means to fall back into the Abyss and not give up, a role model for all athletes who have had their passion snatched from them. 

What’s next for her?

“I just want to play in the tournament.” 

A light at the end of the Abyss. 

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