Later this year, Brooke Zwayer will begin the next phase of her athletic career when she begins playing women's basketball for Malone University in Canton.
There was, however, something about wearing the blue and gold uniform of her high school team for one more season. That has kept the Olentangy senior forward focused on the present when looking ahead might have been the easier path.
Late last July while competing in an AAU game, Zwayer went up to catch a pass and landed awkwardly on her left leg. The result was a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament and a partial tear of the meniscus in her left knee.
According to sportsinjuryclinic.net, the recovery time for a torn ACL usually lasts between six and nine months, which would mean Zwayer could have missed her senior season.
With the motivation of trying to help the Braves win a fourth consecutive league championship and capture their first district title since 1998, Zwayer stuck to a strict rehabilitation regimen in hopes of getting back on the court this winter.
She ended up missing eight games before returning for Olentangy's 67-50 loss to Centerville on Dec. 27.
"My doctor said that depending on how hard I worked in therapy that I could come back pretty fast," Zwayer said. "It's my senior year, so I wanted to get back as fast as I could. My first game back, I couldn't stop smiling."
Zwayer is among several winter-sport athletes from the area who have refused to be derailed by a major knee injury. The road to recovery not only involves a physical rehabilitation, but a mental one as well.
In girls basketball, New Albany senior guard Hannah Scipio returned for her team's third game this season and Olentangy Liberty junior guard Emily Perry is back after missing last season. Gahanna senior guard Reyna Montgomery and Northland senior post player Jasmine Weatherspoon are expected to return before the regular season ends.
Westerville North senior guard Jack Gibbs has been one of the area's leading scorers in boys basketball after missing most of last season with a torn ACL.
In wrestling, Dublin Jerome senior Brett Mowery has been competing at 220 pounds after returning from a knee injury that kept him out of action in December and Marysville senior Morgan Miller is competing at 220 after missing last season with a torn right ACL.
Jerome senior hockey player James Eastep missed time early this season recovering from a torn left ACL that occurred late last May.
"It's tough, but with the science involved with the knee surgery, (Zwayer) was back in a little over five months," Olentangy girls basketball coach John Feasel said. "It used to always be at least six months. The surgeons are getting so good and the rehab is so great now."
According to mayoclinic.com, an ACL injury most often occurs in sports that involve sudden stops and changes in direction such as basketball, soccer, tennis and volleyball.
Immediately after the injury occurs, the knee might swell, feel unstable or become too painful to bear weight. Many people hear or feel a pop in their knee when it occurs.
Depending on the severity, treatment might include surgery to replace the torn ligament, followed by exercises to help regain strength and stability.
Mayoclinic.com and other studies have shown women significantly are more likely to have an ACL tear than men participating in the same sports.
Weatherspoon, who helped Northland win City League and Division I district titles last season, got hurt in an open gym last summer when she landed awkwardly.
During her therapy, she has worked extensively on her right quadriceps and hamstring. She was scheduled to be examined again by her doctor Jan. 23.
"It's my senior year, and watching my team play, it's like, 'Man, I need to be out there,'" Weatherspoon said.
According to orthoped-ics.com, ACL reconstruction can be done with grafts from the patellar tendon, hamstring tendon or donor tissue. If an ACL is completely torn, it will not heal properly even if the torn ends are sewn together.
For Perry's surgery, doctors used a patellar tendon. The central one-third of the patellar tendon was removed along with a block of bone at the sites of the attachment on the kneecap and tibia.
"When I could do a leg lift again, it was the greatest feeling," Perry said. "I had a really great surgeon."
The best ways to prevent a torn ACL are improving conditioning, strengthening the hamstring and using proper technique when jumping, according to Mayoclinic.com.
"A lot of it has to do with strength," Feasel said. "There's certain stuff in the offseason that you can do to try to strengthen the leg muscles.
"We've had three of them (over the past few years). You can work and slave to try and prevent them (but) the one girl as a freshman just got caught in a weird position. She's real strong and physically fit. It was more like a freak (injury)."
OVERCOMING THE MENTAL HURDLE
After making second-team all-district in Division I during the 2010-11 season, Gibbs helped his AAU team finish third in the national tournament in July 2011.
The setting seemed right for Gibbs to be one of the area's top players again last season before he tore his right ACL on Dec. 16, 2011.
Gibbs missed the remainder of his junior season and did physical therapy and rehab for the next several months before finally being cleared full-go last September.
Then another battle began.
"One of the hardest parts of it was that I was just being really tentative at first," Gibbs said. "I feel pretty close to being back now. I'm probably at about 90 percent right now, and now I'm going to the basket like I know I can."
Dr. Chris Stankovich, who has been a professional athletic counselor for two decades, believes that overcoming injuries is one of the toughest tasks athletes must deal with to reach their goals.
"For the athlete, they've got to set very specific goals and keep track of them during the rehabilitation process," Stankovich said. "They have to have faith in their doctors and stay connected with their team. If they're out of action for a month or longer, one thing that's changed in recent years is that injured athletes aren't guaranteed their starting spot back. I think that can play tricks on an athlete's mind.
"A lot of coaches and athletes see that they've been (cleared) to play again (physically), but mentally you'll see them come out tentatively. I would say that the vast majority of athletes languish in the anguish of recovery."
Scipio tore the ACL, bruised a bone and sprained the medial collateral ligament in her left knee during a 48-34 loss to Pickerington North in a Division I district semifinal on March 1.
She returned for the Eagles' 54-36 win over Teays Valley on Dec. 4.
"It was a really big mental problem for me," said Scipio, who has signed with the University of Akron. "I was hesitant when I'd go in for a layup. It was really only recently when I felt like I could do what I wanted. Throughout my recovery, I could shoot, but I'd say I'm at about 90 percent now. I know I have a lot of work to do still."
Miller was a state qualifier at 189 for the Marysville wrestling team as a sophomore but tore his right ACL on Oct. 21, 2011, while playing for the school's football team. He missed the 2011-12 wrestling season and was cleared to compete in sports last summer.
"It's definitely a lot different but bearable," Miller said. "Last year I wasn't able to wrestle, but I was able to get into a wrestling tournament in Michigan (last summer). I wore two knee braces during football. Wrestling in a knee brace is cumbersome, so I had to do more rehab. Now I'm wrestling pretty well without a brace."
The advice Zwayer has for athletes overcoming a knee injury is: Don't dwell on it.
"I know there's nothing I can do about it, and (the knee is) stronger now," she said. "The less I think about it, the better off I'll be."