Benched until better: Athletes struggle with injuries


AJ Walker and Audrey Carbonell

After rolling his ankle at a practice during his freshman year, Owen Stafford (10), who is on the Boys Varsity Soccer Team, had to sit out the rest of the season. “It was really disappointing because I had just made the team and I was really excited to play for the first time,” he said.

According to Assistant Athletic Director and Upper Division Physical Education Department Chair Amy Mojica, athletes can experience a wide range of emotions after they are injured, all of which are valid. “Sometimes it’s a ‘why me?’ or ‘I’m really angry,’ and sometimes it’s ‘I don’t believe this is happening,’” she said. “Being an athlete is a lot of people’s identity, and an injury can take you away from that, which is jarring.”

Mojica finds that a significant part of the recovery process is supporting athletes who struggle with feelings of anger and sadness due to their injury. “I’d say we’re really good listeners over here, and that’s a huge part of it,” she said. “If we feel we need to loop in guidance and counseling they support us, but a lot of it is just being there for athletes.”

In the winter of his sophomore year, Walker McCarthy (11) missed the first three and a half weeks of the swim season after slipping on icy steps and rolling his ankle. During the time in which he was unable to practice, McCarthy found that he was more anxious and struggled to focus throughout the school day.

“No longer having that space and that time where I could exercise, where I could be with people I really liked, and where I could get my energy out definitely made the rest of my day more challenging,” he said. “The quality of [my] work and the time I was spending with people, even though I had more time, was reduced because I wasn’t feeling like my regular self.”

Luke Harris (10), who, during his freshman year, was concussed before a wrestling match, also noticed the effects of his injury in his academic work. The week he was injured, he had trouble focusing and studying for his assessments. To help with his stress, Harris set up meetings with his grade dean and Counseling and Guidance to receive testing accommodations. Although it was not difficult to make the arrangements, Harris said the school should have automatically given him accommodations.

To deal with the negative emotional effects of being unable to practice with his team, McCarthy decided to try changing his routine, he said. “I tried to spend more time outside — which I normally don’t do — and I found that definitely made me feel more relaxed and calm.”

Despite his inability to practice, McCarthy said that his relationship to his team did not change while he was injured. McCarthy’s coaches and teammates were supportive during his time off and made sure he still felt like part of the team, he said.

When possible, Mojica does her best to help injured athletes interact with their teams. “We try to keep them with their team instead of totally gone from the team because socially and mentally that’s really important,” she said. “Maybe they can do the book, maybe they can junior coach, [or they can] be around people [and] be a leader from the sidelines.”

After injuring his leg at a race three years ago, Ethan Waggoner (11), who runs on the school’s cross country and track teams, said he grew increasingly irritated during practices over the next two years. “It was frustrating seeing people run around the track effortlessly while me, a person who was nationally ranked, could barely make it around a lap.”

Waggoner consulted a number of doctors who assured him that nothing was wrong, so his injury remained untreated. “I had years of misdiagnoses, which led to me running in severe pain while being told that there shouldn’t be anything wrong with me,” he said. “[That made me] believe either I was being weak or I was just in my head.”

Mojica said athletes should always try to be aware of their pain because the severity of their injury isn’t always clear. “The more obvious ones are severe, but every once in a while there’s something that’s more nuanced or a chronic injury that’s problematic because of the anatomy,” she said. “Sometimes it is really driven by where the injury is and if there are any unique things about the injury that we have to be worried about.”

During his sophomore year, Waggoner was diagnosed with Compartment Syndrome in his leg, which is defined by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons as “a painful condition that occurs when pressure within the muscles builds to dangerous levels.” Waggoner learned that he needed surgery, and, in the winter of that year, an operation reduced the pressure in his leg.

“Most people get sad when they have to have a surgery, but for me it was kind of a solution,” Waggoner said. “While I obviously wasn’t happy that I would miss the spring season and I was going to be out for all this time, it was kind of a blessing because my current path was such a brutal mess.”

McCarthy found a silver lining in his injury as well. After his time off from swimming, he had a greater appreciation for the sport when he returned to it, he said.

After wearing a boot for three and a half weeks and reducing the amount of pressure he put on his ankle, McCarthy returned to the pool. “It took me a few weeks to get back into it because with a sport like swimming, you really need to be practicing consistently to perform at your best,” he said. “I made sure to stretch and foam roll, which made a difference for me after being inactive for a while.”

The length of Harris’ recovery process following his concussion came as a shock to him, he said. After injuring his head before the NYC Mayor’s Cup, Harris began to feel the effects of the concussion the following week. He had terrible headaches that caused him to stay in bed all day, he said. After missing a few days of school due to his headaches, Harris was tested and learned he was concussed. He hoped to recover quickly and compete in the upcoming state and city championships, but it took him six months to fully recover, and, as concussions are brain injuries, the recovery process mostly consisted of “waiting it out,” he said. Besides taking ImPACT Tests weekly, Harris also limited the amount of time he spent on his computer.

“[Concussions are] an all-inclusive type of injury,” Mojica said. “It takes you out of sports, it takes you out of academics, and it takes you out of social events.” In the case of a concussion, Mojica will partner with Counseling and Guidance to provide concussed students with academic and emotional support alongside the physical support she can offer, she said.

After getting surgery to reduce the pressure in his leg, Waggoner had a “hectic” recovery process, he said. “We were going to start physical therapy, but then the pandemic hit,” Waggoner said. “That was tough. It wasn’t the perfect timing.”

Waggoner completed virtual physical therapy until he was allowed to go to the hospital and do physical therapy in person. “I did PT for six months, and I wasn’t making any progress, really,” he said. “I could run if I wanted to, but it still hurt and the whole point was not to run with pain.”

The lack of noticeable improvement disappointed Waggoner. “Physical therapy not working was probably one of the lowest moments just because it was really difficult work,” Waggoner said. “It was a lot of strength work that led to me being a strong person — I could lift more weight, but I still couldn’t run. I would come home exhausted from working out and the next day see none of the results I was promised and I was working toward.”

The recovery process can be frustrating for athletes due to the lack of control they have over their progress, Mojica said. “There’s only so much you can do to better influence your results, and sometimes you just need time and you need to accept that, which is hard,” Mojica said. “We try to give people control over what they can control and support them knowing that you can’t control everything.”

Waggoner revisited his surgeon, who performed an MRI and found the pressure in his leg had reduced significantly. However, he still felt pain in his leg when he ran, and he was still unable to perform at the level he had before the surgery, he said. He decided the next best course of action was to create a recovery plan for himself that would work for him and hopefully yield better results.

“I’ve kind of taken the recovery process into my own hands,” Waggoner said. “I would not say physical therapy helped me get back into running, rather my own workouts, massages, and running with a team rather than alone.”

By now, Waggoner has now made a lot of progress and is seeing positive results. “I’ve had some hiccups, but as of right now I’m fully running with the track team, and [I’m the] captain, so it’s awesome,” he said.

Harris also returned to practice this year, but, due to his fear of getting injured again, doesn’t think he will return to person-to-person practices next year, he said.

At times, Mojica has to play the “bad guy” because students want to keep playing on their team but doing so would only worsen their condition, she said. “Athletes do feel like they’re letting their team down and they’re letting their coach down if they are injured. We take the responsibility of talking to the coaches and pulling athletes, saying, ‘Hey, this athlete cannot participate because I’m making the choice, not the athlete.’”

While no athlete wishes to be injured and forced to miss out on their athletic experiences, they can learn from the situation, Stafford said. “I think injuries can be a huge letdown and depressing, but you’re always going to get through them, and the process can make you stronger.”

McCarthy is grateful that he took his injury seriously and encourages other athletes to do the same. “It’s important to listen to how you’re feeling because I feel like that really pays off,” he said. “It’s much better to miss a few practices than to miss a few weeks, or potentially a whole season.”