Recent Walter Johnson High School graduate Kristen Larrick never paid much attention to how she walked.
Not until February, at least.
But after suffering a dislocated right kneecap in a Jan. 21 basketball practice, the College of William and Mary volleyball recruit spent the better part of the following month reacquainting herself with her gait.
“You kind of forget how you walk. It’s like when you walk, your right foot goes this way. You get self conscious about how you walk. You’re like, ‘Whoa, how do I walk?’” Larrick said.
A predicted six-to-eight week recovery process took slightly longer for Walter Johnson’s “Most Outstanding Senior Athlete” per this year’s senior superlatives. But the 6-foot-1 Larrick finally was cleared to return to full activity two weeks ago and was back at club volleyball practice with Metro American on Thursday evening.
The shoe heels Larrick wore at Friday’s graduation were also a sure sign that she’s completely back, second-year Walter Johnson girls basketball coach Lindsey Zegowitz said jokingly.
In all seriousness, though, Zegowitz said no matter how frustrating Larrick’s lengthy recovery process has been — it was an adjustment for all of Walter Johnson to see the strong and athletic Larrick reduced to a wheel chair in the weeks following her injury — she had no doubt the future NCAA Division I college athlete would overcome the setback. That is, after all, what champions do.
“She has a great work ethic and a great family, and I knew she would work hard to get back to playing volleyball. She has such a great attitude about everything. She would have a great smile on her face just sitting in that wheelchair. She worked hard with therapy, and as the weeks went by, she moved to crutches, and the braces got smaller and smaller,” Zegowitz said.
Larrick was in undeniable pain that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day practice.
But as paramedics lifted her from the hard gymnasium floor, her right knee cap shifted off to the side, the tears the Wildcats’ then-leading scorer finally gave way to were not a result of the discomfort.
It was a fear of the end of her collegiate career before it started, Larrick, who recorded a team-high 246 kills as Walter Johnson’s middle hitter last fall in leading the Wildcats to their first state tournament appearance since 1992, said.
“I was kind of losing it, like, ‘Oh, no, college, my life is over. The whole time I was too scared to ask if it was an injury I couldn’t come back from. That’s what bothered me the most. And they were like, ‘Is something wrong?’ And I was like, ‘Is this something I can come back from?’ And they were like, ‘Of course, it happens all the time,’” Larrick said.
That’s all she needed to hear. The competitor within, the determination and will to be the best in everything she does, immediately kicked in.
Larrick endured hours of physical therapy, often painful, that included rebuilding the strength in her quadriceps and hip, a lot of balance work to stabilize her knee.
In addition, she enlisted the help of a physical trainer at the gym two months ago to ensure she’s staying in good condition — her summer exercise packet arrived from William and Mary in the beginning of May.
Larrick easily could have spent the winter sulking, but she didn’t, Zegowitz said. She couldn’t help the Wildcats on the hardwood for the second half of the season, but she remained a true leader and inspiration to her teammates.
And though she certainly could have gone without the injury, Larrick said the work she’s put in, coupled with the perspective that time away from competition has given her, has made her an overall better athlete.
But recovering from a serious injury involves both physical and mental components, and the latter part is the next step for Larrick. Another MRI two weeks ago revealed there is no structural damage to Larrick’s right knee. Believing in its stability is something she said she is starting to come around to.
“You hear the typical injury story about how you become stronger than you were and you’re just like, ‘OK,’ but you don’t really get it until it happens to you. But it’s true. That’s how you feel. I’ve missed playing so much I just want to be better than I ever was before. I want to work harder at everything,” Larrick said.
And when Larrick sets her mind to something, Zegowitz said, it happens.
“Kristen is one of those student-athletes everyone wants on their team. She gets good grades. She’s polite, and she’s coachable. She’s so athletic,” Zegowitz said. “I’ve never seen a girl with a vertical like she has. She has a great attitude, a great work ethic, and she wants to win. Though she had this minor setback, I think she is going to have an amazing career at William and Mary,” Zegowitz said.