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Sidelined: Injury, Grief, and Trauma

Hannah Leathers. Photo: Noah Markus.

This article is part of a new series on Ultiworld — Clear Cut — that will feature writing and storytelling from elite players and coaches. If you are interested in writing for the series (or have ideas for it), please contact editor@ultiworld.com. Many articles in this series will be available only to Ultiworld subscribers.

Finishing my ACL rehab this fall will mark four years since I healthily competed in ultimate, equating to over half of my frisbee career. Since November 2015, I’ve endured multiple serious injuries; and in 2017-2018 in the span of eleven months, I underwent three major orthopedic surgeries (two hip labral reconstructions and an ACL). I’ve been asked several times to publicly share my injury experiences and the grief that has followed. I won’t lie: it’s angering. My frisbee career has been a beautiful mess of body trauma, grief, gratitude, and emotional labor, and to be asked to spotlight that for others’ (both capital and emotional) benefit feels shitty. But I wrote this article for you, dear frisbee community, to try and explain my experiences with complete vulnerability and honesty, and to provide a narrative about injuries that we don’t often hear. I don’t have a whole lot to share about how to get through it, or how to come back stronger. But I do have a lot to say about about how sports culture treats injured athletes. And how naming it as grief, asking for help, and general mental health are not addressed or fostered (by ourselves or those around us) throughout the healing process.

So that you might better understand where I’m coming from in the latter half of this article, here’s my full anecdote. We’ll start even before November of 2015, in my college career/All-Star Ultimate Tour days. During college, I endured a lot of stupid injuries (eight weeks in a hand cast, six weeks in a boot, several muscle tears, etc) but most notably, in 2011 I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s is a bitch of an autoimmune disorder, that makes eating, healing, and general health a lot more complicated. Remember those layout blocks in my Callahan video? Eight of the fourteen were from two games at Florida Winter Classic in January 2015–just five days after I was discharged from the hospital for Crohn’s complications. Crohn’s has fully changed my life. I heal slower. Sometimes I get random fevers. I have to strictly regulate what I eat. It’s shit. And, it turns out, it’s also not the best thing to deal with when healing from three orthopedic surgeries.

The orthopedic doozies started in 2015, just after the All-Star Ultimate Tour, when I learned that I had a labral tear in my right hip. I couldn’t physically run at the time. I took four months off of running and training, and tried to rehab it without surgery. It worked for about a year, and I played a season with Atlanta Ozone competing at about 70% of my capacity. In early 2017, I decided to move to Colorado and try out for Denver Molly Brown, with the plan of getting my hip repaired in the offseason. Within a month of practicing with Molly Brown, I was diagnosed with a labral tear in my other (left) hip. I would now require two surgeries, with a 3 to 6 month recovery for each, to get healthy. After trying to grind through the pain of running basically bone on bone in both hips, I decided to forgo my season with Molly Brown (a group of people I’d completely fallen in love with) to get both surgeries, and come back for 2018.

Those two surgeries were some of the roughest times of my life. I found out after waking up from both surgeries that both labrums were completely unsalvageable, and they had to be reconstructed with cadavers,1 which doubled my recovery time. I endured Crohn’s flares, stomach ulcers from meds, and was unable to take pain meds because of GI complications. I had to lay in a machine alone for six hours of my day for six weeks (twice), and was on crutches for a total of 20 weeks. I spent a full season watching Molly Brown from the sideline… trying to get through 10 months of mental and physical pain.

Finally in June 2018, ten months later, I tested out to return to play, and passed with nearly 100%. Only 20% of people at my physical therapy practice passed this test the first time, and few with a score that high. I felt strong as hell. I could now return to practicing with the team, with a specific regimen of exertion and safety, which I abided by. After practicing with Molly Brown for about a month and a half at the start of the 2018 season, I decided to play in my first tournament–Colorado Cup. In just my second game back since both surgeries, I decelerated and pulled up from a block… and the absolute unthinkable happened. I tore my ACL.

It felt like the whole tournament stopped. Those closest to me rushed to the injury tent from all over the complex. Some skipped their games to grieve with me. I’ve never felt more devastated to my core than I felt in those few hours. It honestly felt like a part of me died. A light went out. What the hell force of nature would do this to someone, so quickly? I cried basically every hour for two weeks straight. Probably every day for at least a month. I still cry, a lot.

I know that my hip weakness had something to do with it; it had to. Did I come back too fast? Did I not work hard enough? Did I warm up well enough? I’d been rejected again, for the fourth year in a row, from the community I’ve given so much of my life to–socially, emotionally, physically. This time with pretty intense emphasis.

The day of, the days after, and the month after, it felt like everyone around me was grieving, too. We were all in shock. I received tons of of emails and sentiments of support from those closest to me, and from complete strangers–via email, text, snailmail, Twitter, in person, etc. I felt really loved, but also really lost.

As the shock factor faded, I started to feel really isolated. People weren’t sure how to treat me or what to say. I had to answer the same questions at tournaments and practice over and over and over again –“Yeah, it sucks big time. But I’m ok. It’ll be over soon.” A lot of folks stopped making eye contact with me, or asking me how I truly was. And if they did, and I gave them an honest answer, it felt like they were listening, but hardly ever empathizing. Maybe they were too nervous to hurt my feelings, or didn’t know what to say. I knew that every time I encountered a teammate, or a friend in a frisbee setting, it was likely on their mind. But for one reason or another, the feeling of support started to dwindle. Six and a half months later, I still feel the same: lucky for the support I’ve received, but isolated by the continual (even growing amount of) grief involved.

At some point I realized that this wasn’t because I didn’t deserve support, or because people didn’t love me. It’s because I was, and am, representative of every athlete’s worst fear, in some ways. Injuries (our own or others’) remind us that we’re not invincible. That our ability, and thus our community, can be taken from us at any point. And when people experience this loss, those who haven’t also experienced it have a hard time knowing what to do or what to say.

Six and a half months later, I’m just now starting to be able to process it all. With the help of a therapist and conversations with close friends, I’ve finally learned to name the experience as trauma and grief, and treat it as such. To be gentle with myself, and to be patient with my mental health. To acknowledge that I’ve lost such a huge part of my identity, my ability, and (at least for now) my community. That what happened was unfair. And that even if it may be temporary, it doesn’t mean it’s not painful as fuck.

I’ve recently decided to take the 2019 season off to heal mentally and physically. This decision has given me a lot of relief, but has also intensified the grief. I’m worried I’ll lose my best friends. I’m worried I’ll never want to play again. I’m worried I won’t ever fully heal. But it’s either that, or facing the risk of injuring myself again, and spending almost half a decade as an injured (and in many moments, a handicapped) person. I feel a lot of pressure to come back and fulfill the precedent I set for myself early in my frisbee career. But living a normal, able-bodied life for the first time in over two years takes priority. Taking proper time to heal from a traumatic event is more important.

Naming the experience as grief, talking about it out loud, and feeling validated that it really is as hard as it feels has been difficult. As a culture, sports fail to acknowledge that injury is loss and that ability is a privilege. That losing it, as an athlete, is not generally considered a risk for mental health. And that when it’s taken away, especially for a continued amount of time, there aren’t a whole lot of options for those it’s taken from.

***

For the latter half of this article, I offer some critical personal reflections and actionables. As you read, I encourage you to ask yourself the following: as teammates, friends, or loved ones of people that experience traumatic injuries in this community, what does our responsibility or commitment to helping them through it look like? If we’re all taking the same risk, and build trustworthy, ability-based relationships, what happens when someone’s ability disappears? And how does sports culture, self-centeredness, and absolving ourselves of actionables play a part in this?

Sports culture unfairly pressures athletes to valorize their trauma and erase their sadness.

Injuries can be traumatic and can cause intense grief. Sports, at every level, focus strongly on the success story. We often spotlight the injury, without addressing the person’s sadness or trauma (ex. honoring paralyzed football players at halftime, sharing traumatic injury videos on the internet, showing post-op videos during professional interviews, asking them to describe what it feels like to be back, etc). We don’t treat injuries as things to grieve. And athletes’ mental health suffers because of this. Even if it’s temporary, there’s still a severe loss involved. When we ask players about their injury experiences, we can’t be afraid to ask how they really are. We need to create a culture surrounding injuries in sports that valorizes vulnerability and addresses mental health, rather than just running for the first time, or the first game back.

We can often center our own feelings when trying to support injured teammates or loved ones.

Injuries (our own or others’) remind us that we’re not invincible and that our ability, and thus our community, can be taken from us at any point. This is a scary realization and can affect the way we treat those we love when we are trying to support them. From my experience, this realization can manifest in loved ones not truly empathizing or supporting because they are nervous that they’ll mess up. Or because they don’t know how to. It can be easy to center ourselves when we’re scared, and ask questions like, “What can I do to help? What have you learned?” Feeling pressure to help the person can also manifest by listening with the intent to respond, as opposed to listening with the intent to hear, or empathize.

Try and uncenter yourself. Don’t be scared to approach them or be with them. It’s important to listen, and not to put pressure on yourself to help or solve it. Just listening and empathizing is great.

Here are some specific, actionable things to do if someone close to you becomes injured or experiences body trauma:

  • Be ok feeling awkward: you don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be present.
  • Ask questions: how does today feel? What feels the hardest?
  • Let them be sad. Let them grieve. Sit with them in it. This is where the growth will happen, both for them and for you.
  • Be specific about how you can help; don’t ask them what they need. They won’t know (ex. I’d love to come cook you dinner and watch a movie with you).
  • Do activities with them (especially if they are immobile or are post-op). Distractions are good. Play is good.
  • Offer to go to their doctor’s appointments with them. Hearing bad news alone can be really tough.
  • Keep supporting them. The pain from the event can feel fleeting from an outsider’s perspective, but the grief and the healing process continues, for months or even years for some people. If you have the ability or energy to keep reaching out, do it.
  • Name it as grief. Practice confronting people who are in pain. Ask them questions, help them process. Realize your discomfort as they share their pain, think about why this might be, and sit with them in it. You don’t need to help them out of it. Recognize the privilege it is to play frisbee, and to participate in a community through the privilege of ability. Recognize the risk you commit to every time you step onto the field, and commit to being there for those who experience the consequences if and when you can.

***

Right now, it is unclear if I’ll return to ultimate or not. I’m currently approaching my seven month of ACL recovery and am 3+ months behind on typical recovery milestones. I was evaluated by my surgeon yesterday, and face the possibility of an additional diagnosis. I’ll be getting an MRI this week to rule out an LCL or meniscus tear. The potential for a fourth surgery, plus the toll three other surgeries have taken on my body, leaves my return to ultimate a definite question mark.

I’m still processing and grieving the loss of such an important foundation of my identity, and know that it will be a continual process. I recognize that my experience is a unique one. I also recognize that I hold many privileges that others don’t. And finally, I recognize that emotions, struggle, and pain are all relative. But I share my experiences and thoughts in hopes that they might help those who are traumatically injured (and their supporters) gain a new perspective, and approach their own situations in a more intentional and healthier way–whatever that means for them.

Thanks for listening.

— Hannah Leathers


  1. Something I hadn’t been consulted on or consented to in advance of the surgeries 

  1. Hannah Leathers
    Hannah Leathers

    Hannah is from Atlanta, Georgia, and now lives in Denver, Colorado. She started playing ultimate at the University of Georgia, where she played for five years and was a Top 5 Callahan nominee. She played on (and captained) the All-Star Ultimate Tour in 2015. She also played for Atlanta Ozone from 2013-2016, and was on the Molly Brown roster (but injured) in 2017 & 2018.

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