Last year, on Friday March 13, 2015, I had my very first major injury. I originally wanted to write a small Facebook post to acknowledge the milestone and the people who helped me get through it all, but thinking back to that day there were so many more firsts to remember: my first match at black belt, my first submission only tournament, my first tournament representing a new team, my first time being carried off the mat because I couldn’t walk, my first loss due to injury, my first trip to the ER in an ambulance…
Wait—my first trip to the ER!
So this time last year, I still did not know what exactly was wrong with my leg except that it hurt. It didn’t work properly, and I just wanted to cut it off. The only thoughts going through my head were from my super fight only days earlier. I kept replaying the short 30 second time span: I opened with a takedown, creating a scramble that landed me in her closed guard. I immediately posted my hands in her armpits and jumped to my feet to break her guard, a jiu-jitsu 101 move that I can do with confidence on just about anyone.
But even with the basics, shit happens.
As soon as I straightened my legs to open her guard, this horrible cramping sensation hit me, followed by muscle spasms from my lower back all up and down my right leg. The spasms wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t control my leg let alone bear weight on it. But I didn’t want to quit.
Jared (owner and leader at BJJ United) and Nelson were in my corner. It was the first time I was representing BJJ United. The whole team was there, and it was the first match of the sub only event. I didn’t want to let myself down. I didn’t want to let the team down. And I couldn’t move my stupid leg.
My first thought was to be embarrassed: My coaches had seen me do this break to a pass over and over again. They must think I’m hesitating or going crazy. We trained for this, Hillary!
I finally yell back to my corner, at the risk of a verbal DQ, “I can’t move my leg!”
My opponent even respectfully asked, “Are you OK?”
Right there. I probably could have and should have stopped. But all I saw was red. I couldn’t shake the cramp away. “It’s just a cramp. You can do this. You can win this,” I said to myself. So I pushed forward somehow. I passed her guard and took her back. I should have finished the match right then. But no, I couldn’t control the right side of my body from the waist down. Somehow the match went on for six minutes. She mounted me and I had to tap. It was embarrassing. I let everyone down. I wanted to run away and I couldn’t even crawl.
Nelson carried me off the mat. I couldn’t sit, and I couldn’t stand unless I held my leg up. It wouldn’t straighten or bend on its own. I needed his help to support the leg, so he couldn’t drive me to the hospital.
None of the responders could say what the problem was. They could only speculate I pulled my hamstring. There wasn’t much swelling or bruising to be seen yet. When we arrived at the ER, there was no orthopedic on duty so after a few hours that seemed eternal, I left with some scripts for muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, a phone number to call on Monday, and no rhyme or reason as to what actually just happened to me.
Can I shake this in a few weeks? Just some RICE, right? Wrong.
After asking around we got the name of a good sports medicine guy. The sports doctor scheduled an ultrasound and MRI. My hamstring was torn. Almost, but not completely off the hip bone. The muscles had retracted about 2 inches, so surgery looked like the only answer. He sent me to an awesome orthopedic doctor who was not eager to slice-and-dice our way back to health, however. Instead, I was referred to an amazing PT, named Meredith, who really cared and worked hard to get me back. She really took the time to understand what I did before the injury and even looked into the weaknesses that could have caused it. She was just as determined as I was to get back to normal and train again.
For instance, Nelson and I had already signed up for the first US BJJ Globetrotters Camp in September and I did not want to miss it. So I set a goal to be back on the mat at least drilling by May and rolling by August so I could be ready for camp.
The biggest part of my healing process at PT was the ART (Active Release Technique) she would use on my leg first thing, every session, two to three times a week. A lot of friends and those whom were familiar with soft tissue injuries asked “why not electrotherapy?”
The hell if I knew, but it made me curious, so I asked Meredith, and she replied that it wasn’t necessary. The movements of the ART really hit the injury at the core. My tear was located right where the hamstring meets the bottom of the hip bone and therefore went really really deep and was hard to feel and find from the outside. The ART treatment renewed my flexibility, strength, and range of motion in accordance with stretching and strengthening exercises.
I had a lot of homework to do on my own too. At least a half an hour morning and evening of specific movements and stretches were necessary to meet our goals. Then Meredith would take measurements and record my progress every few weeks. Homework was equally as important as making every appointment. And although my hamstring may or may not have re-attached itself, all the scar tissue that developed during therapy stayed flexible because I kept it moving every few hours every single day.
Eventually I graduated to dynamic stretching. The first time I tried to jog I nearly fell flat on my face. But eventually I got there. She started applying resistance and weight training and the difference from only a few weeks prior was astounding! My left leg (the healthy leg) was stronger than ever and my right leg could barely curl 5 lbs on a leg curl machine.
Nelson and I had plans to visit San Francisco and Las Vegas during this time, and finding a gym was tough, but Big Panda was very good at reminding me to do my homework as well as creating resistance when we didn’t have weights.
That brings me to another huge and final component to my physical healing process: Having the right attitude. I walked in there day one and told Meredith I’m here to get better. I couldn’t train, so I saw it as my exercise. The endgame was just being able to train again. So on days where I couldn’t go to PT, or I didn’t have gym access, or maybe I did make it to PT and I was just tired, sore, etc, I didn’t make excuses. I did what I could and always tried my best. I still ate right, and made sure to get a good night’s rest because I was still in training. It was a different kind of training, but it was no less important.
As my body was healing, mentally I was still very hesitant. I had so many doubts but my coach Jared really taught me about the mental game. He kept me in the gym and on the mat, constantly reinforcing that I could do it. I could beat the injury if I wanted to. Along with some awesome teammates and jiu-jitsu buddies, I was able to adapt and overcome - the motto at BJJU.
My husband now fondly calls me a “triple threat.” I started to slowly drill last summer and can actually now roll and train jiu-jitsu again with confidence. In January, I learned to snowboard in Austria at the Winter Globetrotters Camp. Then I learned to surf at the inaugural Rollin’ in Costa Rica Camp earlier this month. Nelson, if you would have told me a year ago, injury or not, all this was going to be accomplished, there certainly would have been some reservations. But you believed in me, and I am so thankful we did it together. I am especially thankful for all these firsts and the new found strength and determination that has blossomed from it all.
If you’re out there recovering from an injury: chin-up. You can get through this and come back stronger than before.