(Saginaw, Mich.) Last March, freshman, Kaylee Carew called coach Rod Wortley from her hotel room at the NAIA Indoor Track & Field National Championships saying she wanted to talk. They met in the hallway at the Quail Hollow Resort and Carew said, "I want to have the surgery."
A ligament in her left ankle, strained the first week of the cross country season in September had not healed well and the subsequent scar tissue made it impossible to run without severe pain. Months of physical therapy had been ineffective and the remaining options were to stop running or surgically remove the scar tissue by severing the ligament, patching it back together then waiting up to a year to see if range of motion would return and allow for pain free running.
"Kaylee likes to run, but she loves to compete," said Wortley. "The prospect of not being able to race again was almost as bad as having to wait a year to find out if that would ever be possible. Those are not the kinds of choices college freshmen expect to face."
After the operation, Carew was on crutches from March through May and in a walking boot much of the summer. By August she was doing well enough to ride a bicycle and jog for a few minutes at a time. Her desire to return to training for the cross country season was countered by a strong warning from her doctor who had performed this surgery on other collegiate runners. Those who resumed training as soon as they were able, developed stress fractures. Even with the ankle at full strength, the rest of the body isn't ready to withstand the pounding of hundreds of miles after months of no running.
Kaylee spent the cross country season bouncing back and forth over the line of the right amount of training and too much. "She really wanted to get into meets and try and help the team," said Wortley. Every time she seemed close, her body reached its limit and she had to back off and start over. There's no schedule to follow, it's mostly trial and error. As a coach the biggest challenge was to keep her incredible motivation from prolonging her recovery."
As the cross country season ended, Carew was ready to progress to doing track workouts. Even then it was a trade-off – a hard workout required several days to recover instead of just one, but she was finally able to push herself with good results.
The first meet of the Indoor season at Saginaw Valley State, Kaylee entered the 3,000 meters. "I wasn't sure what I could do, but anything under 11:30 would be good," she said. Needing 46 seconds per laps to run 11:30, Carew and teammate Liz Baller jumped into the middle of the pack after fast opening laps of 40 and 41 seconds. They stayed under 45 seconds through the mile mark in 5:42. "That was probably faster than it should have been, but Kaylee was racing and that's what she does best," said Wortley. "The question was whether she'd have the endurance to hang on with her limited training." The twelfth lap was a 46, as Wortley informed Carew that she could break eleven minutes if she could hold 45 second for the final three laps. After a 47 then a 45, Kaylee found enough strength to crank out a 43 second final circuit, hitting the line in 11:00.23 for 9th place. Her time was a personal best by eight seconds.
"To be racing and racing well after just nine months is nothing short of amazing," said Wortley. "A large part of what made that possible was to resist the urge to do too much. That's a lot harder than it sounds. I'm extremely proud of her and I know she's pleased to be able to contribute to the team again."