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The Life of a Recovering Athlete

A Saturday Special

By Hank Hudepohl

Any individual that counts physical activity as a part of his or her own being, whether a competitive athlete or not, shudders at the mere whispering of the word "injury."

To some, tearing knee ligaments or twisting an elbow is nothing more than a bother that has disrupted the normal order of things. To others, an injury is tragedy.

Just ask Harvard men's hockey defenseman Scott McCormack.

In January, while skating against Vermont, McCormack received a rude welcome-back-from-winter-vacation greeting, breaking his collarbone during his 1989 debut.

"I was really frustrated then," says McCormack, recalling the incident. "The team was rolling, and we were just entering the thick of the schedule, playing up to three nights a week. I wanted to be a part of it."

But McCormack had to wait. So he waited. And waited some more.

During such an interim, many would sink into deep depression, but not McCormack. Where another person might have wallowed in self-misery, McCormack applied himself toward staying on top of his game.

"My academics didn't suffer. I just went around with one arm for awhile instead of two," McCormack says.

And the collarbone healed. And soon, McCormack was back on the ice.

While his collarbone was healing, the 24-2 Crimson played in top form, and McCormack made his re-entry during the ECAC quarterfinal series against RPI. Skating onto the ice for the first time in months, he took the puck and slammed it into RPI's net in the early moments of the game. In an incredible instant that defined an explosion of inward frustration, 'Mack was back.

"The team was pulling for me all the way. They were a great inspiration," McCormack says.

Unfortunately, McCormack reinjured his collarbone in the ECAC consolation game, after Harvard dropped its semi-final contest to--you guessed it--Vermont.

"I knew we had national championship potential," McCormack says, "and it was difficult accepting the role of spectator for the rest of the season."

But what was it that made Scott McCormack come back in the first place? What motivates an athlete to compete after sustaining an injury that might have residual effects, showing up as a limp in the future?

"A lot of it has to do with the character of the individual," says Kate Smith, who has worked with athletes in the Harvard training room for two years. "Obviously, if the athlete is not committed to the sport, then an injury provides an excellent excuse to quit. But almost everyone that comes in here with a serious injury returns to the playing field."

Smith noted how psychologically important improvement is to self-motivation.

"For an injury that could require nine months or longer to heal, one should make short-range goals. Breaking up the healing process into intervals gives the athlete a success and hope, and this encourages a speedier recovery."

But once healed, how does an athlete overcome the fear of re-injury?

"Sometimes a person can't," Smith says. "An athlete that decides to play again is naturally tentative about the past injury. This insecurity might wear off right away, and everything is fine, but other times, an old injury leaves nagging reminders that may never stop tormenting the athlete's mind."

Two prominent Harvard athletes attempting to overcome nagging serious injuries are tennis' Jonathan Cardi and soccer's Derek Mills.

Cardi, playing number-two doubles with freshman Mike Shyjan, has been plagued since last fall by what he thinks could be a torn rotator cuff.

"The doctor's aren't sure exactly what is wrong," Cardi says, "but I had been improving until recently. Now it's starting to bother me again, but I'm still playing. It's a love of the game, a love of the competition, that keeps me interested."

Mills would concur. As a freshman, Mills was touted as being the nation's best 18-year-old soccer player. Now, he battles daily with a knee injury.

"I spent my freshman summer rehabilitating my knee, and I returned the following year completely out of shape," Mills says. "Then my knee gave me problems again and this year. I competed in only five games. You only get 44 chances to prove yourself in this sport, and every game counts."

McCormack, Cardi, Mills. Three of the many competitors on Harvard athletic fields who have suffered an injury in the past or play with one today.

There is no magic in an athlete's road to recovery. If there is a common denominator, however, it is a desire and a will to succeed. Reaching goals--a slice of what Harvard is all about.

The only real magic is seeing that athlete back on the playing field.

Watching Scott McCormack slice between defenders and deftly flick the puck past a sprawling goalie.

Applauding Jonathan Cardi for a service ace or a booming forehand smash.

Cheering Derek Mills as he scores on an overhead kick, Pele-style, and celebrates, forgetting about his knee for the briefest of moments.

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