Torn ACL. The dreaded two words of athletes everywhere. For redshirt junior, Brittney Sykes, she’s heard those words twice in as many years.
The 5’9 basketball guard had her first ACL and meniscus injury March 22, 2014 during the NCAA Tournament. For the remainder of the 2014 year, Sykes worked tirelessly to get back to the game she loved. It didn’t matter what was required of her—complete rest, rehab, physical therapy, tough workout sessions—she’d do it. And her never-say-die attitude paid off.
Sykes was back on the court for the 2014-2015 season. But only three games in, she tore the same ACL against Notre Dame. This recovery would be her toughest yet.
“The hard part was doing it again,” Sykes said, noting that patience was key the second time around.
But now surgery, rehab, and recovering were “second nature,” to Sykes, she said.
Her first ACL recovery process took eight months. But they seemed all for naught when she was diagnosed with a second tear less than a year later.
“I didn’t say ‘forget this, I don’t want to do it anymore,’ but I was in the phase of not wanting to [go through recovery again] because it felt like everything that I worked so hard for was snatched right from under me,” Sykes said.
While Sykes forged ahead to surgery and rehab, mustering more physical and mental strength, she credits her family, friends, teammates, coaching staff and trainers who kept her spirits high.
“Without them, this recovery would not have been possible,” she said. “Especially for the second time.”
But Sykes also found inspiration to press on from Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin. During her recovery process, she stumbled across words of wisdom Griffin’s coach once told Griffin, “You have to fall in love with the process of being great.”
“I just came across it,” Sykes said. “It was one of those moments where I needed a sign given to me to know that this [recovery] was all worth it.”
Sykes has kept a strong head throughout the lengthy recovery processes and doesn’t dwell on her injuries.
“I’m thankful that they’ve happened to me because they taught me a lot more about life and about who I am as a person outside of the basketball court,” she said. “You can’t be close-minded. You learn new things about yourself, and one of mine is that I really had to be patient and understand that I had to fall in love with the process all over again.”
Mental toughness isn’t the only toughness needed when rehabbing. Sykes has dealt with pain and fatigue as she tries to get healthy. She learned the importance of communication, talking with Coach Quentin Hillsman and the training staff about what felt comfortable in her recovery.
“If I wasn’t comfortable with a certain drill on the floor, I had to be strong enough to say, ‘hey coach, this doesn’t make my knee feel right.’”
As much as Sykes wanted to get back into the game, she knew it takes time to get back to normal. She reminded her coaches of that anytime she felt she needed a breather.
“When you’re tired, you’re more prone to injury, and we don’t want that for anybody on this team, especially me with what I’ve already gone through,” Sykes said.
Speaking up about her knee pain has really helped her get stronger in the long run, she said.
With the 2015-2016 season recently underway, Sykes is back into the swing of things. She’s been with the team full throttle since the summer and is ecstatic to play again.
“I’m feeling great,” she said. “The biggest thing is to stay healthy. Other than that, I want to come back a better player. I made sure that a personal goal of mine was to learn the game off the floor.”
When Sykes wasn’t rehabbing she was paying close attention to drills, workout sessions, scrimmages and games to improve her game from the bench.
ACL injuries have become more common as athletes become more competitive in games and practice. A typical recovery is six to eight months. But Sykes wants other sidelined athletes to remember to take things one step at a time and to keep up their spirits.
“Every day gets better,” she said. “It may not seem like it, but it truly does. You have to take it an hour at a time. The pain is inevitable, but you can choose whether or not you suffer.”
Sykes’ dedication and mental grit don’t go unnoticed. Hillsman praises Sykes for incredible work ethic, dedication, and heart.
“To recover from two ACLs and get back on the court takes a tremendous amount of will and drive,” Hillsman said. “She’s been remarkable. She hasn’t missed treatments, workout sessions or rehabs. I’m very happy for her.”