When a knee injury brought the 2021 gymnastics season to a halt for 17-year-old Abby Huber, the ambitious high school athlete immediately began fighting her way back.
As a high school junior, she aspired to become a competitive gymnast at the collegiate level, undeterred by her late start to the sport. It hadn’t been until 6th grade at 12 years old that Abby walked off the basketball court where she’d spent her childhood under the direction of her coach – who happened to also be her mom – and found a passion for gymnastics.
Looking back, Abby said it’s not really clear what the root cause of her ACL tear was. It may have started when she fell while skiing after mistakenly winding up on a black diamond run when she’d meant to stick to the intermediate blue runs. But, despite her concern, she performed fine at the gymnastics meet the following weekend. Her luck, however, wouldn’t hold.
“After that competition, at our next practice, I did a dismount on the bars and there was an audible pop,” Abby recalled. The landing landed her on the floor. “I could not get back up.”
Not being one to give up easily, Abby powered through the rest of that practice session, taking it easy, but not sitting it out.
“When I woke the next morning, I could not bear weight.”
Abby’s mom, Denise Proudfoot, remembers silently fearing that her daughter was on the same road she’d traveled as a young athlete. Denise had her first ACL surgery while in high school, her second while in college, and her third and fourth in her 20s when she had issues with both and her orthopedic surgeon had recommended they be redone.
So, when the X-ray and MRI confirmed that Abby’s ACL was in fact torn, Denise leaned on her own experience to get her daughter through. With an optimistic plan in place, they scheduled her surgery as quickly as possible, hoping to beat the odds and get Abby back to her sport in time to compete the following school year. That gave them just 9 months. Denise knew physical therapy was going to be paramount.
Having been on her own continuing knee rehabilitation journey, Denise knew without a doubt that her physical therapist, Jeff Blanchard at Therapeutic Associates Physical Therapy – South Salem, was the right fit for Abby.
“Jeff has this breadth of experience and specific expertise and confidence … and there’s an energy about him,” Denise explained. “Jeff’s attuned to a holistic nature of the trauma of injuries, and the impact something like a knee injury has on your psyche as well as your movement. He has a real understanding of how those systems play together in your life and impact one another so he’s able to go beyond the prescribed exercises and coach you through the psychological impact and the nervous system impact in a more holistic way.”
Given the quick timing for surgery, Abby only had a short window for prehab — pre-operative physical therapy designed to aid in preparation for and recovery from surgical procedures. Therefore, it was after her ACL repair that the healing journey really began for Abby.
“My first experience at PT was intimidating because I could not do anything,” Abby shared. “I was just sitting on the couch all day, which didn’t seem very productive, but my brace was locked straight, and I even slept with it on.”
That intimidation, or fear, physical therapist Jeff Blanchard explained, was the psychological side of Abby’s injury.
“As we’re working with different injuries, there’s always really two sides,” Jeff said. “There’s the physical side, and there’s the psychological side. In different people, we see different kinds and different amounts of that psychological side at play. Some individuals jump right in and seem to have no fear. On the other side of the spectrum is where fear is very real and it’s very high.”
After an injury, people naturally want to avoid getting hurt again. Subconsciously, they start to avoid any movement they associate with the potential to cause reinjury.
“The subconscious brain is 90 percent of our faculties, and it is powerful,” Jeff emphasized. “With Abby, we would talk about the logical side of things, like really understanding that her knee was stable, that the surgery was going to hold together, so we could do this. Then there was the more emotional side and helping her feel compassion for herself and to not feel bad, but rather to know that it was a natural thing for her to feel some fears and to want to avoid movement.”
Guiding her step-by-step, celebrating the little wins along the way, Jeff was able to build Abby’s confidence while empowering her to overcome her fears.
“Jeff was very observant of the mental stuff, which was really helpful,” Abby reflected. “For example, bending my knee was extremely difficult, and painful, but he worked with me to understand how nothing was wrong with it, everything was fine, and I was just in my head because it hurt so I kept trying to back off.”
Though Abby said the first couple of weeks of PT were intense, soon her recovery started to go quickly. Together with Jeff’s help, she worked hard to rebuild the quad muscle in her leg. Within six months, Abby said, she was jumping and running, but still moving with caution.
Staying connected with her gymnastics team helped Abby stay focused on her recovery.
“They kept me going and inspired. They’re like my second family.”
While Abby’s goal initially had been to make it back to gymnastics in time to compete during her senior year of high school, when the season came, she realized that would have been too big of a push. Gymnastics is an extremely high-level activity, and though she was having fun tumbling with her team again at practices, Abby accepted that competition wasn’t in the cards for her.
“I was just so happy to be back at practice and back with the team,” she said.
Denise said she saw a shift in her daughter’s world after her ACL tear and subsequent surgery and physical therapy journey. While Abby’s outcome, Denise reflected, might not fit the total return to sport patient rehab storyline, it is still a truly inspiring success story.
“Abby was 100 percent in her gymnastics world, keeping other parts of her at bay. This opened up an opportunity for birthing other skills and talents that she’s now poured herself into,” Denise explained, adding that by not returning to competitive gymnastics Abby found space for skiing, music and college aspirations.
“From a mom’s perspective, she has rehabilitated and also realigned with who she is in a more full way.”
Abby’s physical therapy journey did much more than help her recover from knee surgery, it sparked something inside her.
“Jeff’s impact on Abby was remarkable,” Denise said. “It opened up a whole new world for her in a different way.”
With an acceptance letter to Western Oregon University in front of her, Abby has boundless opportunities ahead, including one she is looking at through a new lens — pursuing the study of exercise science with the goal of working with athletes recovering from injuries … potentially as a physical therapist.
“As I experienced the challenge of recovering, I was able to learn first-hand how a good physical therapist can make such a difference,” Abby said. “Jeff showed me that being a physical therapist goes beyond the physical aspect. He was heedful to my mental and emotional health as I worked through each small achievement in getting back to my sport.
“Because of this, I adapted my school schedule to dip a toe into the world of health services and found myself further intrigued in the subject matter of the athletic training and health services program at my school than I have been in any other areas of interest,” Abby added. “Jeff unintentionally introduced me to the field of study in which I now hope to acquire and carry on into my adult life.”
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