Kersta Carlson sat shivering and mud-stained as she waited for her X-ray results. She didn’t need them. She already knew.
A soccer star since age 4, Carlson considered the sport a huge part of her life. From “rec” soccer to premier club soccer, from a four-year run on high school varsity to a Division 1 college team, Carlson lived and breathed soccer.
Having been recruited by many schools in and around Minnesota, her home state, she decided to take a chance at walking on to the women’s varsity team at Miami University.
“I figured if it was meant to be, it was meant to be, and I would be just fine-and, it was,” Carlson said.
A display of toughness throughout her freshman year led Carlson to a starting defender position as a sophomore. Carlson saw plenty of action during the second season of her college career. That is, until April 13.
During a rainy spring season game against the University of Notre Dame, Carlson landed on her right foot after clearing a ball. At the same moment, an opposing player came in a second late, falling onto Carlson’s right leg.
“The moment it happened, I knew it was serious,” Carlson said.
She had sprained her right ankle in a prior season, and although she had wrapped that ankle in tape to prevent another sprain from happening, she feared the worst as a wave of pain rushed over her and tears streamed down her face.
Just before the end of the first half, Carlson was carried off the field to a bag of ice. But the pain continued to worsen as she sat through halftime.
Moments later, Carlson found herself at McCullough-Hyde Hospital where she again sat waiting, this time for four hours in her rain-drenched, sweaty and muddy uniform. Quivering from the cold, she awaited delivery of news she didn’t want to hear-a broken fibula and a broken and dislocated ankle.
Carlson’s ankle was placed in a splint until an appointment with Miami’s sports medicine doctor the next day.
There, she was told the same things, and in addition, she was told she had shredded her medial ligament, the inside ligament in the ankle that forms a triangle.
Surgery was necessary, and needed to happen immediately.
“I was scared,” Carlson said. “No one likes surgery, and certainly not someone like myself who had never gone through surgery before. I was frightened.”
Days later, Kersta traveled with her mom, who had already been in Oxford to watch Carlson’s game, to the Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati to have the urgent and required surgery.
“My mom was definitely there to listen to my frustrating moments,” Carlson said. “She supported me in wanting to come back to play, yet reminded me I would need to be patient in the fact that I had a serious injury and couldn’t just bounce back.”
After the surgery, Carlson’s ankle was too swollen to be casted, so she was wrapped in rolls of gauze and Ace bandages, given a boot, a set of crutches and a long road to recovery.
She decided to stay in Oxford throughout the summer to take classes, but mostly to continue rehabilitation with Miami’s soccer athletic trainer Misao Tanioka.
The crutches stayed with Carlson until mid-June, and the walking boot until mid-July.
After the bandages came off, Carlson was left with a four-inch scar and a one-inch scar on the outside of her ankle, along with a two-inch scar on the inside of her ankle. On the inside of her fibula was a metal plate and the five remaining screws. The sixth screw, the largest of the others, was later removed.
“After everything, I felt frustrated and helpless, but I knew I had to take it step-by-step,” Carlson said. “I had to think baby steps. I couldn’t start to walk before I crawled.”
So, step-by-step Carlson began the journey to recovery. Focusing herself on a rigorous rehabilitation program, which she is still going through, she wanted her comeback to the field to be the end result.
But, why after such a devastating and excruciating setback would she want to come back, physically behind everyone else, and risk the potential for another serious injury?
“A life without soccer seems unimaginable,” Carlson said.
Doctors and coaches repeatedly told Kersta that she would be able to return to the field.
“I encouraged Kersta to be patient and understand that the path to full recovery would not be a straight, direct line,” head coach Bob Kramig said. “There would be setback and days where she would struggle.”
Not wanting an injury to keep her from playing, she stuck to the supporting words from the friends and family that surrounded her.
“I knew I would be incredibly upset with myself if I technically gave up on my last two years of playing competitive soccer because of something, that according to doctors everywhere, I would be able to bounce back from,” Carlson said.
Though she was doubtful several times, it was her stubbornness that pulled her through at the end of the day.
Her coaches didn’t even pose the question of Carlson not remaining a part of the team, no matter how long it took her to get back in to shape.
“We wanted to start her slow, help her gain confidence and work her way gradually back into the line-up,” Kramig said.
Though she wasn’t able to start running again until the beginning of pre-season, which began Aug. 6, she was considered a member of the team regardless of the circumstances.
“She’s a key part of our defensive lineup,” senior Allison Berkey said. “The team gave her great support in the sense that they knew she was a strong asset to our success.”
But her lack of physical stamina at the start was certainly not easy to adjust to.
“This was difficult because the entire team came in shape to play, and I was more so just starting to run,” Carlson said. “I was certainly far from being in shape.”
Now, as her third season with the team is well underway, she feels as much a part of the team as she would if she had come back fully in-shape with no injury.
“Kersta is a big asset to this team both on and off,” Berkey said. “I think she has a strong focus and passion for the game of soccer, and that is very apparent in her play.”
Although she has not been able to serve as a starter like she did in the season before, she progressively continues to work her way up to that role. In fact, she was able to start against Louisville Sept. 14.
The overwhelming support and encouragement from her coaches and teammates, she mentioned, has greatly helped her push through.
“Given the extent and nature of her injury, Kersta’s comeback has been nothing short of spectacular,” Kramig said. “Kersta had to work through not only the physical challenges one would normally assume go along with rehabbing that type of injury, but also the mental challenge of regaining her confidence and overcoming fear of re-injury.”
Carlson continues to hold a persistently positive attitude, even after her last two years of Miami soccer are up. Instead of letting the fear of sustaining another severe injury succumb her, she simply views the pain she has experienced as a gain.
“When I am done playing soccer I will have a huge identity crisis on my hands, but no matter what, I should be able to run, skip, and jump throughout my life whether it’s 26 miles or two,” Carlson said. “I should be just fine.”