The improbable, prolonged comeback of Katie Lake
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Injury has long been a demon athletes try to avoid. When they do confront the evil, limiting, ‘I’ word, people commend them for accepting their position, facing it head on and battling back.
Most athletes will suffer just one major encounter with injury followed by one lengthy, exhausting recovery. Steamboat Springs High School senior Katie Lake has had two.
In 2016, Lake tore her left ACL in a soccer game. Last springs, she tore her right ACL. A typical nine-month recovery wouldn’t allow her to play basketball for one last season. That was not acceptable. Lake and her physical therapist set a speedy and strict recovery, aiming for her to be back in action in seven months.
It took her a little longer, but at seven months and three weeks, she was back.
“It’s been indescribable,” Lake said of her return. “I’ve been really proud of how hard I’ve worked.”
“I did it again”
On April 18, 2019, injury got its grip on Lake, ripping her knee sideways in a lacrosse game.
“I did it, again. I did it, again,” Lake recalled saying, knowing exactly what was going on underneath the skin.
She knew the feeling of tearing an ACL because she had torn her left one three years earlier. She knew the agony of physical therapy and waiting and spending time on the sidelines.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, again,’” said Lake.
Then again, having been through it before helped her. Lake knew what it took to return to action. So, she made a goal. She would be back in seven months.
Thus began her second recovery. She underwent surgery right after the injury to repair her torn anterior cruciate ligament. After a couple weeks of living life on crutches and putting zero weight on her leg, Lake began physical therapy.
In the fall, she ran with the cross country team. She couldn’t run as far or as frequently, and never competed, but it helped her regain strength and confidence. Come basketball season, her strength test was right around the corner. She participated in all the drills and exercises she could at practice, shooting or running on the sidelines during the ones she couldn’t partake.
On Dec. 20, 2019, after a brutal and strict test determining if she was ready, Lake got the all clear. She’s still finding her shot but has already changed the team with her ball handling and presence on the floor on defense.
“Katie brings so much. She’s always talking. Always looking to get other people’s shots, not just hers,” said senior teammate Jaycee May. “She makes it fun.”
Lake is cleared to play, but only half the game as to not over do it, so head coach George Ibarra plays her for about half of each quarter.
“Really now, it’s more of her needing to hone in her shot and she’ll make a difference for us,” he said. “Over playing for her is the whole thing. She’s so excited about being back on the court her senior year. Mentally, she’s just going 1,000 miles an hour.”
Lake doesn’t move as swiftly as she once did, as she has a hard plastic brace on each knee, limiting her range of motion. She has to swivel her legs outwards a bit with each stride, or they clang together and sometimes catch, sending her flying into the floor with her knees stuck together, which she admitted has happened in practice.
“I feel like this season, my role is creating things for my teammates,” Lake said. “I’m still working on my confidence.”
The recovery was hard on Lake’s family as well, who had to witness Lake go through that a second time.
“With Katie, the hardest thing was trying to balance supporting her recovery and cheering her on, with the simultaneous feeling of wanting to wrap her up in bubble wrap,” said Lake’s mom, Tammy.
She understood her daughter’s desire to get back in action, though. High school is fleeting, and Lake had already missed two winters of basketball due to other injuries.
“I didn’t see the end of it”
Mere months into her freshman year, she tore her left ACL in a December soccer game. That sidelined Lake until August of 2017, the beginning of her sophomore year. In addition to tearing the ligament, Lake dislocated her knee, which put off surgery and prolonged the recovery.
“I was young and I hadn’t been through it before,” Lake said. “I didn’t really see the end of it, which was really hard.”
Just when she thought she was strong enough to play, Lake twisted her ankle in an early season basketball game. When she returned three weeks later, she tweaked her knee, which sidelined her for the entirety of her sophomore season.
After spending yet another year watching basketball rather than playing it, Lake was cleared in time to play a few weeks of lacrosse before the start of summer.
The Sailor then went a full year with zero injuries.
Staying away from soccer, Lake opted to join the cross country team, even though she wasn’t super keen on the idea of running.
“I think I needed to be busy,” she said. “And I wanted to be in shape for basketball.”
Lake ended up not only being a natural at long-distance running, but loving it. She ran with the girls team at the state meet, finishing fourth among Steamboat competitors and 104th overall. Lake now considers herself a runner and knows whether she does sports in college or not, she’ll always be able to put on a pair of sneakers and go for a run.
That led into her very first full varsity basketball season. She scored double digits on eight occasions, posted a pair of double-doubles and earned a triple-double in the Sailors’ 44-23 win over Eagle Valley. The girls went 5-18, and Lake was named an all-conference player.
Then in April, her injury-free year came to a halt on the turf of a lacrosse field.
“I’m really proud”
Now that she’s healthy again, Lake is more mindful than ever of her body as she tries to evade injury for good.
“My goal is to make sure I stay strong and don’t re-injure myself,” she said.
She has zero interest in taking it easy, though. Lake is already looking forward to one last lacrosse season before heading to college to potentially become a mechanical engineer.
“The thing I’m really proud of is seeing how she’s matured as a person as a result of this,” said Tammy. “Obviously, adversity does do that to people and makes you probably stronger in the long run even though you don’t want to see anything ever happen. Also, seeing how she just held her head high. Both times.”
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