The Fight for Normalcy - Mackenzie Henke's Journey Back to the Field
April 24, 2014
Written by: Nicole Skow for NevadaWolfPack.com
It was just another match. Sweat dripped down Nevada’s faces as they warmed up. The overhead lights illuminated Mackay Stadium. The sky glowed pink as the sun set behind the stadium. The crowd dressed in light jackets, as the air was chilly but not freezing. Fans and players alike waited in anticipation for the match to begin. The buzzer was close to sounding for match time.
The Nevada women’s soccer team was ready. Everything about the practice week was normal: the team scrimmaged each other, hammered home its ACL prevention exercises the day prior and watched film on its opponent Colorado State.
Players not only donned pink jerseys to honor breast cancer survivors, but fans who wore pink got into the match for free. In the locker room, the women danced to fast-paced music to relax themselves. It’s not like they needed to relax. They knew Colorado State stood no chance against them. Little did they know the Rams were prepared and ready for battle.
Nothing changed in warm ups; it was just another match. Nevada’s defenders and forwards volleyed with the ball and sprinted across the field. The two groups split up: the defenders practiced long balls while forwards shot on goal.
Warm ups finished and the team ran in for the huddle. Nevada head coach Dr. Melissa Price quickly reviewed the plan and gave her team words of encouragement and the usual motivational speech one last time. The sea of pink cheered as the players charged the Chris Ault Field.
Right from the get-go Colorado State shocked the Wolf Pack. The Rams weren’t the team from the film. Nevada players fought for every ball, and they admitted that Colorado State wiped away any cockiness Nevada felt coming into the match.
Things continued to go awry as it was clear Nevada hadn’t shown up to play. Nevada’s front line took 12 shots on goal to no avail while Colorado State only took four. The stats didn’t adequately represent how the two teams played. Colorado State outhustled, outworked and outplayed Nevada in every shape and form. The crowd grew quieter and lost the motivation to cheer as the match continued.
Colorado State’s only goal came from forward Sasha Pchenitchnikova in the 38-minute mark. She dribbled around Nevada goalkeeper Kelsey Quintos and directed it toward the left side of the net. Nevada only played catch-up for the last 52 minutes of the game.
The two teams ran back and forth the whole second half. Sweat soaked both teams’ jerseys as they jockeyed for position. When the final whistle blew, not only did Nevada give Colorado State its only win of the season, but also Nevada’s Mackenzie Henke went down with an injury in the 72-minute mark.
No one thought anything of it at first; she cut for the ball and literally just fell to the ground as if she tripped. The focus remained on the ball until people realized Henke hadn’t moved since her fall.
Within a matter of seconds, Henke’s life as she knew it came crashing down before her eyes. Everything would change in an instant because of one wrong move. This one moment sent rippling effects that continued to affect her months later.
Ironically pink happened to be Henke’s favorite color and it would be the color that she would go down in and end her freshman season wearing.
“Kenz, we think you did something pretty significant and that there’s a strong chance that this might have been your last game of the season.”
Henke’s mother, a former soccer player, exposed her daughter to the sport when Henke was 3 years old. Soccer has been the only sport Henke’s known and had a fire for since then.
As Henke grew older, she played for more competitive teams. Along with playing club ball for the Eastside FC 94 Red, she lettered two years at Tahoma High School in Covington, Wash. Under her high school coach Jason Johnson, Henke was a 2012 Gatorade Player of the Year nominee and named to the 2012 South Puget Sound League North All-League First Team.
Johnson and his coaching staff at Tahoma High School always knew that Henke could play in college. Between her sophomore and junior year, Henke turned the corner and it was obvious she was destined for the collegiate level. Defenders couldn’t match her speed. She would take on the entire back line from left to right at times. Even with double teams, Henke found ways of getting open and scoring. Left or right footed and even with her head, everything was fair game. Her skills made her appear unstoppable.
“She was kind of doing whatever she wanted and she was primarily doing that all of her junior and senior season,” Johnson said. “Anything that she really wanted to do offensively in the final third she was capable of doing.”
Despite being successful on the field, Henke still doubted that she could play at the next level. The compliments she received from friends and family went in one ear and out the other. Her doubts consumed and clouded her thoughts.
Dana and Suzie, Henke’s parents, told her that she could do anything she set her mind to. Yet the most inspiration came from Lance Fisbach, her club coach. He believed in her when she wouldn’t believe in herself. She flourished and transformed into the player she is today because of him.
“He made me believe that I was good enough to play Division I soccer by encouraging me positively,” Henke said.
When it came time to look at colleges, Fisbach mentioned to Henke that her skills and success caught the attention of the University of Nevada, Reno.
Henke and her parents visited Nevada on a whim. Henke didn’t want to go to school so far away from home, but they went anyway. Before the university offered her a scholarship, she knew that she belonged there.
“I just kind of fell in love,” she said. “I could picture myself here and I still can’t picture myself anywhere else.”
It happened in a matter of seconds. Henke charged at the defender and ended up falling in a heap of pain. She had tried to pivot and cut back, but her knee gave out and sent her to the ground.
Three pops sounded in her knee, one big and two small. The adrenaline may have quelled the pain for the time being, but that didn’t stop her from thinking the worst.
Stephanie Ludwig, the women’s soccer athletic trainer, rushed out onto the field. After the initial emotions bubbled to the surface, Henke calmed down. Fear still coursed through her veins as Henke imagined the worst, but Ludwig remained optimistic about the injury.
“Kenzie is a very emotional person as in she puts a lot of hard work and passion into everything,” Ludwig said. “At the same time she puts in a lot of emotional investment into stuff. When she did get hurt, a lot of that did come to the surface there as you would expect, but then she calmed herself down.”
Ludwig didn’t confirm that it was an ACL tear right away, but Henke had a gut feeling that she tore it. A former teammate at Eastside FC tore hers and Henke’s mother had torn it as well. She knew what to expect. In this case, ignorance would have been bliss for the college freshman.
Henke hurt her knee on Friday Oct. 11 against Colorado State. In prior weeks, she started to play quality minutes and work herself into the substitution rotation. She waited in agony and pain, mentally and physically, for Monday to roll around so she could undergo an MRI.
After the MRI on Oct. 14, Henke drove back to school from the doctor’s office. As she pulled into the parking lot, Ludwig called her. The news wasn’t good. It wasn’t what Henke wanted to hear. Ludwig delivered the devastating news. Henke’s heart shattered to pieces as her biggest fear came true.
Henke didn’t have adequate time to process everything and wrap her mind around the news and how it would affect her life. Two days later, she went in for surgery.
If she thought her life changed when she hit the ground, it was about to change even more.
Post-Op Day 1
Henke went in for the operation Wednesday morning. Once the doctors finished the reconstructive surgery, Ludwig and her roommates Kara Kopolow and Katherine Davison helped Henke settle in before they went off to practice. Henke’s pain and numbing medication kicked in and sent her into a deep slumber.
Henke awoke at 6 p.m that same day in tears. She screamed out in pain repeatedly. The numbing medication wasn’t enough. It wore off. She banged on the wall in excruciating pain and texted the first person she could think of for help.
Ludwig texted her back. “Calm down, calm down. You have enough medicine,” she said.
“No, no I don’t. I’m serious,” Henke said. Sobs racked her chest. She knew she couldn’t call Ludwig because her sobs made her impossible to understand.
Kopolow walked in and caught Henke in hysterics. “What’s wrong?” Kopolow said.
“It’s not working,” Henke said as a scream. “I need more medicine.”
Kopolow called Ludwig and ended up in tears herself. Henke’s pain was overwhelming her and she yelled at her roommate.
Kopolow, Henke and their residential assistant for the floor waited for thirty minutes, but it felt more like six hours. Henke’s knee was set up to a machine that bent the leg. Every time Henke’s knee hit 90 degrees she screamed out in excruciating pain.
“You don’t understand,” Henke said over and over again to Kopolow.
When Ludwig arrived, Henke yelled at her residential assistant. “Just let Steph in don’t let her check in. It’s after six!”
Ludwig and the doctor finally made their way up to the seventh floor of Argenta and reached Henke. Students filed into the hallway at the sound of Henke’s screams wondering what was happening. Ludwig and the doctor helped Henke through the pain for the time being.
This was only the worst to come. Henke would soon learn that the physical pain would only be half the battle for her.
The Black Hole
After a major injury such as an ACL tear, it is normal for athletes to become stressed, anxious or depressed with the loss of their ability to play the sport that they love. Everything that was once easy for them is now an obstacle.
Severe injuries can temporarily cause people to have decreases in confidence and increases in anxiety, depression, stress and frustration, said Dr. Yani Dickens, certified sports psychologist at the University of Nevada, Reno. That being said, he reiterated the idea that it may be difficult to recover mentally but it is still possible.
The first two months were hell for everybody. Kopolow and Davison watched as their best friend spiraled further and further down and became a shell of the person they once knew.
Henke found solace in sleep. It took her away from the struggles of her daily life and allowed her a chance to escape. Anxiety and panic attacks plagued her constantly as her mind stressed over her inability to play soccer and her struggles with school. She was unable to escape to her outlet, the only thing she knew for the past 15 years of her life: soccer.
One day Henke had a meeting to watch film, but she knew she wasn’t going to make it. She sat in her dorm room all the way across campus and her crutches made her slower. Henke only had 15 minutes to reach the soccer offices. She called her mom and bawled to her over the phone.
“I’m not going to make it,” Henke said in tears.
Suzie Henke did her best to calm her daughter down, but Henke ultimately calmed herself. Henke made it to the meeting a few minutes late.
Crying wasn’t the only way her panic and anxiety attacks manifested themselves. Henke was used to these sorts of attacks, but she felt she suffered more of them after the surgery. When Henke didn’t need the crutches any more, she paced back and forth in her room, from the bathroom past her bed and back again. The action subdued her feelings and eased her mind.
Kopolow and Davison grew used to her crying, but they rarely caught her in these instances. Henke usually kept her emotions to herself, especially when the three of them began to grow apart.
“I just was different,” Henke said. “I wasn’t happy ever. I emotionally was really kind of unstable and that’s not like me usually. We were really close and the surgery just distanced us more because I couldn’t do everything they could do and I couldn’t always go with them. It just distanced us. And when we were together, they didn’t really want to be around how I was.”
Sleeping was not only a new solace, but it became a new hobby. For the first month, Henke slept her days away unwilling to face her reality. It worried and scared her roommates.
Henke usually slept all day, but one day in particular stood out among the rest for Davison. Henke typically attended her rehab sessions with Ludwig, but one day she didn’t show up. She missed all of her classes. She refused to pick up the phone. Not only were her roommates worried, but her teammates were as well. Henke sent everyone into a frenzy.
Davison rushed to the dorms and found a sleeping Henke. It was a turning point not only for Davison but for Henke as well. Davison watched as her best friend started turning to her other teammates Daisha Jones-Oglesby and Lindsey Salcido for support.
Henke’s dorm room became an extension of her nightmares. She hated it. She hated returning to it and dealing with everything. Her room reminded her that she tore her ACL. It wasn’t what a home was supposed to be; it was a part of the hell that was her daily life.
Henke started staying with Jones and Salcido at their house every night. The two sophomores opened up their house to her and let Henke vent about the issues back in the dorms. Jones and Salcido listened to her worries and consoled her. Without them, Henke doesn’t know where she would have been without their love and support.
Jones and Salcido may have become a new support system for Henke, but in turn it contributed to the straining relationship Kopolow, Davison and Henke shared.
“When she would go and stay at their house night after night it made the tension between me, her and Kara even worse,” Davison said. “It did nothing to help our relationship or fix her living situation. It just prolonged everything. It just made everything worse.”
Davison and Kopolow constantly watched what they said to Henke. Anything they said could have been taken the wrong ways since Henke was in a fragile state of mind.
Henke and Davison’s relationship suffered the most strain. Davison described Henke as a very passive person; she avoids confrontation at all costs. On the contrary, Davison is a very blunt and to the point person. She’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind and call people out. Their personalities clashed on more than one occasion and Davison had a hard time dealing with the state that Henke was in.
“I just got really annoyed, like, frustrated because we’re all here on scholarship and to sleep away your day and not go to class and not do what you’re supposed to be doing and getting paid to do that was really frustrating to me,” Davison said. “There was a point where I just kind of got fed up with it. She was so emotional and sometimes it was so hard to talk with her and have a normal conversation with her.”
While everything else fell around her, two parts stayed constant: the training room and Ludwig. Her training sessions with Ludwig were the highlights of her days. Even though she was doing rehab for her knee, she loved being there. She not only escaped the problems with her roommates but also the negative energy that flowed throughout her room.
Some days the injury still got to her. It crept up and mentally crippled her. As soon as Henke walked into the training room with a negative demeanor, Ludwig noticed and immediately tried to improve Henke’s mood.
“I’m going to try and do everything in that first couple minutes or throughout her rehab to get her thinking differently, to get her thinking more positively, to get her thinking more optimistically so that she feels that there’s no day that she can’t overcome,” Ludwig said.
The training room may have been her sanctuary, but Ludwig become Henke’s rock. Henke went to her for everything. Ludwig put her at ease and the two created a bond that would be unbreakable.
A strong support system is key throughout recovery. Family, friends, roommates and teammates can play a huge role in recovery. Henke had all of those components and more. Ludwig connected with Henke on a different level; she became a big sister to the freshman and provided guidance during the lowest part of Henke’s life.
When Henke felt overwhelmed, she texted Ludwig, asked her where she was and went there immediately. Ludwig consoled Henke as she sobbed and voiced her grievances. With Ludwig by her side, Henke never felt alone. Ludwig understood and empathized with Henke, and when Ludwig tore her ACL before winter break, it brought the two of them even closer together.
“I never really felt alone because I felt like she knew exactly what I was going through,” Henke said. “Now she knows exactly how I was feeling and we can talk about the mental stuff that nobody understands unless you go through it.”
“It’s good for her to see that she’s not alone and that everything she does will pay off,” Ludwig said. “That everything I do will payoff. It gives her faith in the system. We’re almost like partners in crime.”
Henke sat at the edge of the table by the window. Her mind wandered toward the thought of Ludwig possibly leaving next season. Her big blue eyes grew red and tears slowly rolled down her face. For a few minutes she grew quiet. Sadness was etched across her face. The nervous smile disappeared. Her hands wiped back tears but they kept falling. Her face grew red and her eyes darted around the room as she looked for something to focus her gaze on. She was happy albeit nervous, and her vulnerability came to light.
It’s clear she’s thought about her future with Ludwig and the possibility of losing her. Her trainer became more than just a trainer; she evolved into a best friend and acted as the glue that held Henke together.
“We were extremely and are still extremely thankful for Stephanie,” Suzie Henke said. “She was really my only contact on the coaching side of things and so we really appreciated her. Mackenzie just looks up to her like she’s a big sister that she never had.”
Back to Normal
Things are finally returning to normal, or as normal as they can be for someone living with an ACL injury. After the initial two months, Henke started to turn things around and become more positive. She wasn’t out of the woods yet, but she was getting there.
Thanksgiving gave Henke a needed break. The freshmen soccer class feared she wouldn’t return back to Nevada with the direction she was heading. Henke had fallen very far behind in school and needed to reprioritize her life. Academics became her number one focus and she completely cut out her social life.
Her relationship with Kopolow and Davison started to mend itself. Upon returning from Thanksgiving, things began to return to normal. The three of them talked and gossiped in ways they hadn’t done in months.
Winter break offered a fresh start for Henke. She came back energized and ready to mend ties with the people around her. Kopolow, Davison and Henke improved their relationship tremendously from where they were last semester. They’re still working on returning to where they were before the injury, but all goods things take time.
The biggest gains are between Davison and Henke. Davison can be straightforward and honest with Henke if Henke acts irresponsible without Henke getting upset. The two are still learning to communicate with each other, but Davison feels the worst could happen and they would get through it.
Since November, Ludwig noticed that Henke has started to find positives in the things around her. Henke finally accepted her injury and was ready to move on from it. She took the negatives around her and flipped her mindset to a more optimistic point of view.
Davison also saw this. Henke stopped sleeping the day away. It appears she embraced her situation and worked to get past it. She looks and acts genuinely happy and aware that she’s going to be okay. Davison has heard things that Henke hadn’t said in a long time, such as “I’m going to go for perfect attendance this semester” or “I’m going to try for a 3.5.” Davison sees huge improvements in not only her mental strength but also her emotional strength as well.
“It’s built up Mackenzie’s mental and emotional strength more than anything,” Davison said. “I’ve seen such amazing changes in her. Before her injury, her mental capacity for pain was zero. She would break down so easily. She had no faith in herself. Now, she has the ability to take things on and accept things for what they are where before she never had that ability.”
One of the toughest parts about ACL injuries is the recovery process. It can take anywhere from six to nine months to make a full recovery and return to the playing field. Even when one does return to play, it can bring about another set of challenges.
Henke’s biggest fear is that she won’t play as well as she did in the past. She’s always been a motivated athlete. She predicts that she’s going to be harder on herself now because she wants to play again. She’s itching to get back on the field and work herself back into the line-up.
“It’s a good thing and a bad thing,” Henke said. “I push myself to do better, but if I don’t do as well, it backfires a little bit. I would rather be hard on myself than not at all.”
That’s only one issue though. Henke has to build up her confidence in order to step onto the field. She needs to be able to let go of all her fears of reinjuring her ACL or tearing the other one and just play the game of soccer. She does not want to end up where she was this season: nursing an injury and missing another season.
Ludwig thinks optimistically as she looks into the future. She foresees Henke playing the entire season and it positively impacting the team. Her teammates see that it is possible to return after hitting rock bottom.
“She’s a motivated athlete in many ways,” Ludwig said. “She loves the game of soccer. She wants to be on the Nevada Wolf Pack women’s soccer team. She wants to be a teammate. As far as her physical abilities, she will turn into a beast. She has a lot of development to do, but she will be an asset to this team by the time she is done with her eligibility here.”