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Landing On Her Feet: Freshman Needles working to overcome ACL tear

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Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 12:05 am

Freshman guard Carlie Needles planted her left foot to cut right, but she never completed the move.

Needles crumpled to the floor untouched after suffering tears to the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her left knee.

Just like that, her season was over before it even began.

Needles is not the first Gator that has lost a season due to ACL woes.

Sophomore Lily Svete and senior Ndidi Madu, both forwards, also took medical redshirts during their respective freshman seasons due to ACL injuries.

When Needles originally injured her knee, she thought she had merely hyperextended it and that ice treatments would be the cure.

Madu’s situation was similar.

Heading into the 2007-08 campaign, the ACL in Madu’s right knee was already partially torn from high school.

As is common with ACL injuries, Madu’s knee locked at the time, but she believed it was just a torn meniscus, which typically takes between two and six weeks to heal.

When Madu eventually suffered the complete tear at UF, the extent of her injury was still not clear.

“When I actually did tear it, it didn’t lock and it didn’t swell, so I wasn’t sure what it could be,” Madu said.

An MRI the next day confirmed the injury, and Madu had reconstructive surgery a month later.

The most frustrating part for Madu was going through summer and preseason workouts and then watching her team from the bench.

“It’s very difficult,” she said. “You work so hard and you’ve done everything up to this point and now it’s time for games. You’re ready to play, and you can’t play.”

Unlike Madu and Needles, Svete knew something was wrong immediately.

Coming to a sudden conclusion about the severity of her injury was tough for Svete.

“I knew it popped; I knew it happened right away,” she said. “The coaches told me, ‘Oh, we don’t know what it is.’ I was like, ‘I really know that I tore my ACL.’”

Svete had the opportunity to play in four games before her injury — more than Madu and Needles did combined prior to their respective ACL tears.

However, the pain of missing nearly an entire season stung Svete.

“I feel really bad for Carlie because I know exactly what she’s feeling,” she said. “She’s not going to get to experience the season at all as a player.”

Having recovered and moved on, Madu and Svete are helping Needles through the rehabilitation process.

From her own experience, Svete told Needles what her knee will look like post-surgery, and Madu has used humor to provide needed distraction from the injury.

"You would have no idea that Ndidi or Lily even had (injuries) by the way that they move and perform and lift,” Florida coach Amanda Butler said. “They are great examples of what she has to look forward to: not just a full recovery, but maybe even being bigger and better than ever.”

  

Needles will not be the last Gator to lose a season due to an ACL injury.

When she went down, it was a situation all too familiar for Butler.

“We still haven’t found that magic thing to determine why exactly women are more susceptible to ACL tears than men,” Butler said. “They’re just so prevalent in our game.”

Marty Huegel, the director of rehabilitation for the University Athletic Association, is one of many on the hunt.

He said that non-contact ACL injuries, like the one Needles suffered, are a growing problem in women's athletics.

“I call them ‘Title IX injuries,’” Huegel said. “That’s really how we ended up finding out that women are more susceptible to these injuries: due to the numbers playing as a result of Title IX.

“You can talk about Title IX being a good thing — it may have been good or bad depending on what your viewpoint is.”

Huegel, who has worked with Madu, Svete, and now Needles, says women are more prone to non-contact ACL injuries than men.

The Orthopaedic Associates of Michigan list differences such as the size of the ACL itself, pelvis width, hormone concentration levels, and varying movements based on knee structure as potential causes.

Despite the distinction between ACL injuries in men and women, Huegel maintains that the rehabilitation is similar for both genders but varies from person to person.

However, one issue Huegel said hinders women returning from a torn ACL is a reluctance to jump and land.

Considering that landing awkwardly is one of the main causes of non-contact ACL injuries in women, hesitance is understandable.

In order to overcome that unwillingness to leave the feet — and to prevent further injury — Huegel said there are a number of jumping and landing exercises trainers have developed.

“Depending on their level of fear with that, that will determine how fast you progress,” he said. “The progression is not time-based; it’s performance-based.”

Some overcome fear quickly and have to play the waiting game — something that frustrated Svete.

“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” she said. “I was someone who really pushed myself with the rehab and everything like that every day and it is definitely a big task.”

The standard recovery time is between six and eight months, according to Huegel.

However, he acknowledges that while a patient may be fully rehabilitated, there are still challenges ahead in readjusting to aspects of the sport.

“The biggest problem working with athletes is you have to hold them back,” Huegel said. “They want to do more than they should.”

  

Needles is getting antsy — sitting on the bench does not suit her.

“I’ll just want contact, I’ll just want somebody to hit me,” Needles said. “I’ll just want someone to hit me and be able to feel that adrenaline again.”

But physical play is not in her near future, so she has focused her energy on film study.

So far, Butler has been more than happy to keep Needles involved.

“Carlie’s unique because she’s a point guard and she is very much a student of the game,” Butler said. “She still is in all of the point guard meetings, taking notes and doing everything she can to try and develop her mind since her body is on hold here for a few weeks.”

Since the injury, Needles has become like an assistant coach and a cheerleader for her teammates.

Her character and demeanor led Butler to describe the freshman guard as a “tremendous model of leadership.”

“She shed a tear or two at the beginning, and we all did because it’s a hard thing to know that your season’s being taken away from you,” Butler said. “But she hasn’t complained. … I think she’s really been an inspiration to her teammates in that regard.”

Perhaps the most ringing endorsement of Needles came from senior guard Jordan Jones.

At the team’s Thanksgiving meal, each person gave thanks for the person sitting to their left.

Jones praised Needles’ maturity and her selflessness despite being forced to miss the entire season.

“Not one time have I heard her complain; not one time has she come in with a down attitude,” Jones said. “As a freshman, she has so much respect from me to be able to handle it that way.”

Needles is just one on a long list of female athletes to fall victim to a non-contact ACL injury.

Rehabilitation will be a long process, but unless researchers can decrease the likelihood of “Title IX injuries,” it is just part of the game.

“Things happen for a reason and I keep telling myself that,” Needles said. “It’s the way I was brought up — you just try to overcome things, you don’t try to feel sorry for yourself.”

Welcome to the discussion.