By Andrew Wuebker | April 12, 2018
When junior lacrosse player Abby Wollenberg landed on her left leg awkwardly in a preseason game this past fall, she knew something wasn’t right.
“‘Oh, holy s—. That was not right,’” she recalled. “It kind of just felt like an ankle [injury]. Kind of like I had just stepped on it wrong, landed wrong, but then I kept going and it was progressively worse.”
With the season-opener slightly over five months away, the second game of a standard play day at Springfield College had suddenly become Wollenberg’s worst nightmare as an athlete. The damage was done. A torn left ACL had ended her junior season before it even started.
In the aftermath since then — the moments, hours, days and now months after the injury — she remembers everything.
From RWU Assistant Athletic Trainer Cory Viveiros telling her the tough news to the acceptance of not being able to play for an entire season, Wollenberg says this experience has been one of the most challenging times in her life. The lessons she’s learned throughout the recovery process, however, and her adjustment to the sideline view have given her new perspectives that have aided her rehab and the team.
After the initial whirlwind of confusion and denial, it sunk in for Wollenberg a couple days after the ACL tear that she wouldn’t be playing at all this year. Wollenberg had surgery on Dec. 7 to repair the torn ACL. Because she sustained previous injuries to both ankles playing basketball in high school that required surgery, Wollenberg was used to the injury scene, but this one was different.
“It’s funny because I really remember everything,” she said. “I was nervous, as anyone would be going into surgery, but I was used to it. It was my third one, so I knew what to expect, but I was definitely more nervous about this one because it was such a bigger injury. And how my body was going to respond, I didn’t know and it was just scary. It was a lot scarier than the last two.”
Post-op, Wollenberg started physical therapy just six days out of surgery, using crutches, and was in a brace for two months.
Workouts for Wollenberg have been tough. With each session comes intensified exercises, like added weight to the push press. She does exercises like squats and hits the bike to rebuild strength in the muscles around her knee.
Accepting help throughout her recovery when she didn’t want it, even when navigating around campus or at home, has been a lesson to Wollenberg.
“I always say, ‘I’m not a crier, I’m not someone who gets upset,’ but I’ve learned, especially through this experience, that it’s okay to show your emotions and it’s okay to need help and it’s okay to hurt,” she said. “Because this is one of the toughest things I’ll ever go through.”
Her parents, trainers, coaches, and teammates have been there for Wollenberg throughout the recovery process. In return, Wollenberg is doing everything possible to contribute to the team off the field, instead of on it, which for her she says has been a big challenge and adjustment.
“That’s been the toughest thing, being on the sidelines, especially as a junior,” she said. “Seeing the freshmen and sophomores — they’re in a spot I want to be. I think the biggest thing is making sure everyone is positive and really in the game, focused on the game. Coach [Jennifer Fox] always says, ‘Leave everything that’s not lacrosse related out of the turf, out of the fences, and just focus on lacrosse.’ And that’s kind of the biggest thing that I try to do is make sure everyone stays focused and really focus on the game plan and what we need to get done.”
Wollenberg has been a huge part of the Hawks’ sideline “celes” (celebrations) during games to keep her teammates positive and upbeat. From calling out numbers to chest bumps and bowling celebrations, the celes are one way she leads from the sidelines.
It wasn’t until a recent loss against against the Hawks’ fiercest rival in the conference, Endicott College, that her injury really hit her. Wollenberg expressed frustration and even became upset when she was unable to help her team on the field.
“I couldn’t bring my lacrosse skills to the field to help them and I think that was the most frustrating, because you could just see that they needed help and they didn’t know what to do,” she said. “Me physically not being able to do that was what got me the hardest.”
The past few months have clearly taught Wollenberg many things, but perhaps most of all to not take any opportunity for granted, especially when it comes to playing lacrosse, heeding the words of her former coach: “Practice like you can’t tomorrow.”
“And that came true this year for me because I couldn’t,” Wollenberg said. “One day I could play and the next I couldn’t even walk with my two legs. I think that’s a lesson that I try to convey to my teammates is, ‘You don’t want to be in my shoes because you miss everything, but I wish you were in my shoes to actually see how much you need to value running and working out and playing with your teammates and doing all that stuff that I physically can’t do.’ And I think they understand that because this team is my blood and I love them and I know them like the back of my hand, and they know I would do anything to be on the field with them.”
Wollenberg has also learned a great deal about herself and what she’s capable of after facing this arduous experience.
“I’ve definitely learned that I’m not unbreakable,” she said. “That bad things are going to happen and it’s how you respond that’s gonna make you the stronger person. Because I know being a senior next year and being a leader of the team that people are going to look to me when times get tough.”
As the season for the Hawks continues to wind down and only three games remain before postseason play begins, Wollenberg will of course be cheering on her teammates from the sidelines. Although still some months away from getting back on the field, Wollenberg is both apprehensive and excited to hit the turf again with a lacrosse stick in hand, but stronger than before. For now, she’s tired of waiting.
“I want to get out there. It’s been long enough.”