Gia Winger suffered her first torn left ACL and meniscus during the last open gym at Mitchell High School before her freshman season. Kelsey Dahme’s left ACL tear happened four games into her freshman year when she collided with a Watertown screener.
And then it happened again.
Both seniors on the Mitchell High School girls basketball team have experienced the dark times cast by two torn ACLs.
The months of physical therapy then coming back only to have it happen again. Winger and Dahme know the emotional and physical battle each other has gone through the last four years. And they leaned on each other at times, forming a closer bond.
They compared the pain and post-surgery feeling, while Dahme offered tips on how to walk, shower and what to wear. When it became emotionally challenging, they’d text each other support.
“Having us both be seniors this year and going through the same injuries that we have, I feel like we’re closer as friends and teammates just because of that alone,” Winger said.
Neither senior knew the severity of their first injury. Winger held out hope that she only hyperextended her knee until athletic trainer Clayton Gropper told her to see a doctor. Dahme kept playing in the game until a teammate called attention to it.
Winger was sidelined for six months and Dahme for five to make it back for the tennis season.
The second occurrence wasn’t as painless, or as easy to think positive.
When Dahme came down with a rebound, she landed on an opponent’s foot. She compared it to how sprained ankles happen. But the then-sophomore knew right away it was worse -- everything was worse.
The Kernel guard tore her right ACL and meniscus, and suffered a bone bruise. The pain and swelling were worse than the first time, and instead of continuing to play, she felt defeated and depressed thinking about her progress wiped away by one leap. And having to go through it agan. This time, for seven months.
“The second time was complete defeat because to go through the whole recovery process the first time, it’s brutal,” Dahme said. “I just knew that’s what was ahead of me and I’d have to do that again. So super depressed and everything that you’ve worked for is taken away again for a second time.”
Winger wears a titanium athletic brace on her left knee, but as a junior she kept tweaking her knee. At one point, she couldn’t bend her leg all the way. When she went to the doctor, she discovered she had retorn her left ACL and meniscus, requiring a nine-month absence.
It wasn’t until one of Dakota Wesleyan University’s athletic training students noticed she had been wearing a right brace on her left leg while shadowing Gropper. Therefore, her physical therapy consisted of fixing her bad habits.
The process was longer, but new Kernel coach Cole Knippling preached patience to the eager Winger, who wanted to make sure she was back for the first day of practice. She sat on the sidelines of every open gym and summer workout, which Knippling said helped her basketball IQ, and made it back on the hardwood in time.
“With me, it was trying to support her to, ‘It’s going to be worth it. Have faith that you’re going to get done in time,’ ” Knippling said. “... I hope both of them have realized the struggles they went through made them stronger kids and that they can get through a lot.”
There were plenty of struggles, but quitting sports never crossed their minds.
Still, it didn’t make the emotional and mental aspects during and after rehab easier. Both seniors looked toward their love of basketball as motivation. Dahme had to hurdle the mental barrier, too, calling medical timeouts during tennis matches and watching her peers pass her.
“Tearing your ACL is motivating, but also demoralizing,” Dahme said. “You see kids you used to be better than, they’re better than you. It’s one of those things that humbles you. It makes you realize I gotta work for this.”
“When you have those emotional breakdowns, that’s what you have to keep telling yourself -- that you want to keep playing,” Winger said.
The physical toll of rehab was just as challenging. Dahme -- a soon-to-be occupational therapy major at South Dakota State University -- enjoyed learning about her knee and different exercises that helped. She welcomed her muscles’ soreness, knowing it meant she had a good workout.
It was still tough, though, something Winger doesn’t downplay.
“The beginning where your leg is locked at zero and the first couple of weeks you’re just trying to bend it,” Winger said. “That’s really hard emotionally because you’re just thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t want to bend it because it’s going to hurt.’ And then toward the end of it, you want to get playing again ... but at the end you have to be careful and listen to what your physical therapist tells you.”
Both made it back for their senior seasons.
With the correct brace, Winger doesn’t feel any limitations or pain anymore. She’s used her strength to turn into a key post player off the bench. Her shot has come back as the rust has worn off, but the 5-foot-9 forward has been a key on defense all season. She’s set to play basketball at the University Jamestown (N.D.) next year, but said a third ACL tear would likely force her into retirement.
Dahme’s tennis background helps her lateral quickness on defense, but her main role is as a team leader. She was the only player not to vote for herself as a captain. Being knocked down twice has helped Dahme evolve into that role, she said.
It’s easy for Knippling to see the hardships they went through during their prep career every time they step foot on the court.
“The fact that both of them have done that says a lot about them,” Knippling said. “The rehab process is a grind. Emotionally and mentally it really wears on you. When you watch them in practice, they’re both mentally tough kids. They look tough on the court because of what they’ve been through.”