Season-ending knee injury troubles Walek, soccer team

by Aaron Kirscht

Athletes who suffer a major injury often share a common feeling: disbelief. For Gophers soccer player Jennifer Walek, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament in the fourth game of the season, there was no exception.
“For awhile, I just stayed away from everyone,” Walek said. “I wanted someone to shake me, tell me it was just a dream.”
The injury was no dream. Instead, she said, “it was the same old nightmare story; if you hear it pop, you know it’s bad.”
It was bad. At home against New Mexico, Walek headed downfield on a breakaway and was called offsides. When she turned to look at the referee, her cleat caught in the turf and she buckled to the ground.
“It didn’t hurt as bad as it sounded,” Walek said. “It was really loud, and I knew right away what happened.”
Her intuition was validated a day later, when an magnetic resonance imaging test revealed a large ligament tear that would require reconstructive surgery.
“I cried. It was so hard to accept,” Walek said. “I had so many expectations for my senior season, and then it was over.” Walek joined sophomore Noelle Papenhausen on the injury list, also with a shredded ligament.
All told, things could have been much worse. A more serious tear could have dashed any hopes Walek had of playing competitive soccer again.
But barring any major complications, Walek is preparing to play next season. The NCAA granted her a medical exemption that will allow her to suit up for a fifth year of competition.
In the meantime, Walek is splitting most of her waking hours between the classroom and the training room. In the first two weeks after surgery, Walek estimates she spent four to six hours a day in therapy, testing her range of motion with “a long list” of exercises. Now she spends “only” two to three hours a day in rehabilitation, with an occasional day off.
“People ask me if I have more free time now that I don’t have soccer,” Walek said, “But I really don’t. I go from class to the training room to the weight room to practice.”
“School’s still there,” Walek said, “but working on my knee takes up so much time. It’s my priority to get back, and rehab is so important.”
Walek said continuing to attend practice helps her deal with the emotional struggle of being out of the lineup, but it’s still tough to handle.
“I’ve never been in this position in my life, being without soccer,” Walek said. “I’m not even able to run. It sure isn’t easy.”
It hasn’t been easy for the rest of the Gophers, either, who lost in Walek the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and a 16-goal scorer in 1995. Name a team record, and Walek probably holds it.
“I wish I could be out there helping (the team) out,” Walek said. “But I’m doing all I can on the sidelines, cheering them on.”
Freshman Nicole Lee has stepped in for Walek and shares the team lead in goals with Erin Hussey and Jennifer McElmury, Walek’s roommate. But the team has struggled in many respects, getting off fewer shots and scoring fewer goals.
And with losses against Penn State and Wisconsin — currently one-two in the Big Ten — the Gophers hopes of gaining a high seed in the conference tournament are slim.
The Gophers have gone scoreless in the first half in eight of 11 games, and have scored only seven first-half goals all season.
“They’ve been playing well, doing everything but putting the ball in the back of the net,” Walek said. “I think that if we can put in some early goals we’ll be fine.”
But for the time being, the Gophers will have to play on without their team leader.
“The only positive is that I will be able to play next year.”