Julia VanWatermeulen: A comeback story
Many high school athletes who go through an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury never get to return to playing the sports they love. The high school careers of these athletes often end with physical therapy sessions, sitting at the end of their team's bench with crutches or a knee brace, and maybe getting subbed into a game for less than a minute just to say that they got on the court, field, track or mat one last time.
Thankfully, this was not how Ellsworth's three-sport athlete Julia VanWatermeulen's ACL injury story ended.
Not only did VanWatermeulen continue with her cross country, basketball and track careers after suffering from a torn ACL, but she came back stronger than ever and made her way into the Ellsworth track and field record books.
VanWatermeulen began running competitively when she joined middle school cross country in sixth grade. The year before VanWatermeulen's injury, her freshman year of track and first year on varsity, VanWatermeulen placed sixth at sectionals in the 800 meter dash, and just barely missed her chance to advance to the WIAA state meet.
"I almost made it to state and I was really upset, so I told myself, 'I'm going to go next year,'" VanWatermeulen said. "Then I was never able to go."
The freshman's hopes of making it to the state track meet were put on the back burner after her ACL injury, which came during a basketball game her sophomore year where she got in for the last 30 seconds of the game.
"I went to do a layup or a jump stop—I'm not even sure what it was—and then my foot got stuck and my leg turned. I just felt my bone, and it felt like it left. Then it popped back in, and it hurt so bad," VanWatermeulen said. "I fell and I was screaming. All I was saying was, 'Ow, ow, ow.'"
VanWatermeulen's first thought was that it was her ACL, and remembered having seen former Ellsworth girls' basketball stud Kelsey Betthauser go through the same injury. "I remember I thought that would never happen to me."
VanWatermeulen tried to play down her injury and said that she was "fine," but she wasn't able to move her leg and had to be carried off of the court by her coaches and trainer. "I was crying the whole time because I was thinking about track."
VanWatermeulen would be forced to spend her sophomore year of track as solely a spectator.
"After I had my surgery, I just cried all the time," VanWatermeulen said. "I thought, 'Why me?'"
The disheartened runner was worried that she wouldn't be able to come back full-strength, and the sentiments from her peers didn't lift her spirits any.
"I was always on crutches, and people would look at me and say, 'Oh, you'll be fine,'" VanWatermeulen said. "But I would be like, 'You don't understand.'"
She described having to watch her teammates run while she had to stand on the sideline as being "awful," and remembers thinking, "That should be me."
VanWatermeulen wasn't the only person who struggled with her injury. VanWatermeulen recalls seeing pictures of her head cross country and track coach and assistant basketball coach Marcie Jahnke kneeling on the gym floor with her head on the ground, reacting to what had happened to her star runner.
"I was with Julia in the training room in the moments following her ACL tear, and we cried together," Jahnke said. "I promised her then that she would come back better and stronger."
Getting back on track
Soon, VanWatermeulen's schedule would be filled with rehab and physical therapy sessions in Red Wing rather than track practices in Ellsworth.
"I would do physical therapy twice a week, and my physical therapist, T.J., started to make me feel like I had a chance," she said.
VanWatermeulen progressed at a quicker rate than most young athletes with ACL tears do, and she credited this to her trainer whose encouraging words helped her believe in herself again.
She recalls having to lift weights in order to regain the strength in her injured leg, which she said was so much smaller than its counterpart.
"I just kept working," VanWatermeulen said. "Then I just knew."
She was able to run for the first time after a month of rehab, but recalls that it was just "a little bit of running," much less mileage than she'd prefer.
"I was running pretty good at three months, but my legs weren't the same," VanWatermeulen said. "I was so nervous, because I didn't know if I'd ever be as fast as I was before."
Jahnke said that, as a coach, she knows that oftentimes the most difficult part about coming back from an injury is regaining mental strength. However, this wasn't the case for VanWatermeulen who Jahnke described as being "strong-willed."
"Having coached Julia in cross country, basketball and track, I can tell you that Julia continues to be her worst critic," Jahnke said. "She looks at every performance and is very critical of what she needs to do to get better."
VanWatermeulen's determination and high standards for herself helped her to forget about the nerves she had about coming back from her injury, and allowed her to use that energy somewhere more beneficial—the track.
"I would run every day by myself," VanWatermeulen said. "I just had so much adrenaline. I could only run on the track, so I would run up there and run as much as I was allowed to."
VanWatermeulen returned to running competitively six weeks into her junior year of cross country.
"I came back, and I was still on the varsity team, but I was a lot slower than I was before," VanWatermeulen said.
At first, she was upset by her performances, but then realized that it had only been a mere six months since she had been unable to walk off the basketball court on her own. Now she was competing in cross country meets, running over hills and rough courses, getting back to where she needed to be before the upcoming track season.
However, the junior three-sport athlete had to get through another season of basketball before she could return to track, her favorite sport. VanWatermeulen played with a brace and felt as though she was less active on the court than she had been the previous year before her injury. "I knew it was possible to tear my ACL, and I was more cautious about it," VanWatermeulen said. "I wasn't as aggressive."
Despite having to deal with the looming thought of tearing her ACL again, VanWatermeulen said she was glad she went out for basketball again for multiple reasons—one being that it made her recovering leg even stronger than it was after the cross country season.
"I think basketball got my leg even stronger for track," VanWatermeulen said. "I was excited, but I was even more nervous to return to track."
But once again, VanWatermeulen's running abilities bested her nerves.
On March 19, 2017, VanWatermeulen ran the 4x800 and 4x400 meter relays along with her favorite race, the 800 meter dash, in her first track meet since spring of 2015. The track star made her junior season debut a memorable one with first-place finishes in all three events and ran faster times than she had prior to her injury. She was finally back.
Shredding records, not ligaments
VanWatermeulen's first meet back on the track was no fluke. "I just kept getting faster and faster," she said about her junior year of track.
VanWatermeulen placed third or better the six times she ran the 800 meter dash leading up to the sectional meet, and her success led her to revisit her freshman goal once again.
"It was at one of the outdoor meets where I thought, 'I can make it to state,'" she said. "I just had this belief that I was stronger than I was before."
VanWatermeulen's instincts proved to be right at the WIAA Division 2 sectional meet held in Medford on May 25, 2016 where she came in fifth place in the 800 meter dash with a time of 2:20.94. With this time, the junior runner had broken Ellsworth's school record in the 800 meter dash and accomplished her long-lived goal; she was going to state.
VanWatermeulen placed 14th in the 800 meter dash at the Division 2 State Track and Field Championships with a time of 2:25.58, but is still hungry for a chance to beat her own record at the 2018 state meet.
VanWatermeulen still experiences some knee pain when she runs, but explained that she sometimes just shrugs it off and said, "It goes away."
The now senior runner has gotten used to leg pain from grueling practices, but said that being surrounded by like-minded runners who she now considers family.
"We're all really close, and that's what I'll miss about cross country," VanWatermeulen said.
The senior's high school cross country career came to a close on Friday, Oct. 20 at the Hayward sectional meet where VanWatermeulen ran a 23:50.0 for a 23rd-place finish, but VanWatermeulen plans on running both cross country and track in college. Until then, she'll attempt to make one more run at qualifying for the WIAA Division 2 State Track and Field Championships, and based on her history of accomplishing goals, you can expect to see her running in the postseason this spring.