Injured Athlete

Even When Devastated, Give Thanks – by Tonya May Avent

“Excuse me but I think your daughter is hurt.” My eyes looked up from the book I was reading, across the field to the opposite side of the track where the long jump pit was located. It was an absolutely beautiful day, with the sun shining brightly and only a few clouds in the sky.

I remember looking up and thanking God for such a perfect day for competition. I prayed with my daughter and sent her off to warm up and check in for competition. I was confident she would have a memorable day of performances and stamp the ticket to her sixth straight Junior Olympics.

Before she was even born, I knew Kennedi would be athletic. When I was pregnant, she would just flip and flip and flip inside of me. My husband and I would just stare at my convulsing stomach in amazement. I smiled and wondered about the amazing things my unborn child would accomplish, especially in the field of athletics. Both her dad and I were accomplished athletes, and I was sure she’d follow in our footsteps.

As a young child, Kennedi was so busy. She was always on the move and into something. She would jump off anything – dressers, down the stairs, and off retainer walls. She just loved to move. I remember one time at the park, she was about five years old and went across the monkey bars by herself. An older boy was there as well but could not make it across. His father got mad and berated his son because “that girl could do it, why can’t you?”

I hated when people said, “Run like a girl” or “play like a girl” as if that were somehow inferior. I wanted Kennedi to defy all stereotypes about female athletes and raised her to be fearless and compete with anyone, regardless of their sex or gender.

When Kennedi was six, I saw an advertisement in a local paper for a track and field youth team. I ran track in high school and was excited to see Kennedi also in the sport. By the second week of practice, she discovered the long jump and loved it. There was a lot to the technique – learning her starting mark, working on her approach, her release from the board, and her jumping form. She seemed to be a natural, and by the next season, she had broken a regional record and was a finalist in both the USA Track & Field and AAU Junior Olympics.

My husband and I were convinced we had a future Olympian in our family and went all in to develop her natural athletic ability. Training started in April, and she competed from May through early August, always culminating with the Junior Olympics.

Kennedi played other sports and excelled in soccer and volleyball. She was a very intense and physical athlete, so we started calling her Beastmode, like the NFL player, Marshawn Lynch. Every achievement, accolade, award, and medal she won was proudly posted on social media. It wasn’t until years later before I reflected on that behavior – was I posting because I was truly proud of her, or was it for selfish reasons like vanity and ego-boosting?

When she didn’t perform the way I expected, I would let her know it. I would rant, fuss, and complain, usually with her ending up in tears. I thought I was challenging her to be the best she could be, as I knew what she was capable of. But all she heard was she wasn’t good enough for me, and the pressure grew and grew the older she got. I honestly think that pressure contributed to her injury, as I later found out she made a landing adjustment before her jump that she should not have.

On that fateful day in July 2018, Kennedi was competing in the pentathlon for 13-14 year-old girls and was having an amazing day of performances. The long jump always made me nervous, having to watch her approach the board, making sure she didn’t foul, and then waiting for the official to read out her jump distance.

It was the 4th event in the competition, and Kennedi was in 2nd place, so I decided to sit with the other parents in the shade while she competed. I figured she was in good hands with her dad and coach, and I could skip the nerves and butterflies in my stomach.

There was a lot of commotion at the sand pit and fear immediately gripped my heart. With everything in me, I wanted to dart across the field. Instead, I calmly walked along the outer perimeter of the track. I knew I should be praying, but I didn’t know what to say. My mind went to 1 Thessalonians 5:18 and I just kept saying “Thank you Jesus, thank you God, thank you Jesus, thank you God.” I had no idea what was waiting for me on the other side of the track, but all I could do was thank God in advance for the miracle I knew I would need Him to perform. I wanted God to remember my initial response was to thank Him while not knowing what was going on, so He would show mercy for whatever it was I was about to face. 

As I approached the pit, all I could hear was my daughter screaming and crying in pain. The closer I got, the faster and harder my heart pounded. People were surrounding her, attending to her. “No, no, no, please God no!” I just stood there praying and then I got on my knees, I grabbed her hand and I just prayed, and I declared the words I always spoke over her: “You walk in divine health, you are the healthy, healed, and whole child of God.” It was a declaration I learned in my church years earlier, and we had been saying it ever since.

In the ER, her x-ray showed no broken bones; we were advised to follow up with our orthopedic doctor for an MRI and we left for the hour drive home with Kennedi’s left leg braced and in extreme pain. That night was terrible. She was in so much distress and cried when she wasn’t sleeping. My heart ripped with every reaction to her agony. We all slept in the living room, waiting for morning to come.

The next day brought more physical and emotional trauma. An attempt to go upstairs and bathe her brought so much pain, causing her eyes to roll into the back of her head, and she went in and out of consciousness. We called 911 but by the time the police and ambulance arrived, she seemed to be ok. We left immediately for her orthopedic doctor, and after hours of waiting, she was finally approved by our insurance to have an MRI.

I fought back tears when the doctor read the results – a torn posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), one of the four main ligaments in her knee. It wasn’t a common injury in children, and we sought multiple opinions to find a doctor who had experience treating someone Kennedi’s age with this injury. Thankfully a good friend recommended Dr. Mesa at Delaware Orthopaedic Specialists (DOS), who promptly examined Kennedi in between surgeries that Monday. After discussing our options, we decided to proceed with intensive physical therapy instead of surgery due to Kennedi’s age. Along with rehabilitation, we would be praying for a miracle, as I was convinced she would defy all odds and expectations, and be back to competing way ahead of the projected recovery schedule.

Another family friend recommended the University of Delaware’s Physical Therapy Clinic, as he had recently torn his PCL playing football and was rehabbed through the facility. I was a ball of nerves at her first appointment. It had been over a month since she walked, but an amazing therapist named Greg had her walk right away, even through her pain. At first, I stared in horror, thinking, what is he doing to my daughter? But Greg knew exactly what he was doing and for her first day of high school a few weeks later, the crutches were gone. Kennedi was known as “the girl with the brace” at her new school.

She rehabilitated her entire freshman year; we drove to the University of Delaware three times a week, then twice a week, and once they were satisfied with her progress, we transitioned to a closer facility – The Training Room, where she worked hard to strengthen her knee.

She wasn’t officially cleared to resume sports until the summer of 2019 and played volleyball on her high school team in the fall. Next up was winter track and on the first day the sprinting drills brought extreme pain, so we had her focus on the shotput for the indoor season. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the season ended early, and the spring season was canceled. Unfortunately, she never had the amazing high school athletic season we all eagerly anticipated over the years. She regained her strength and agility, but the speed and knee stability were just not restored to their previous condition.

I remember one evening I was in the kitchen making dinner, and Kennedi had come home from practice and was complaining about the pain in her knee. Weary at this point, I started questioning God again. From day 1, I prayed for and believed without wavering that He would heal her knee. Countless people prayed over and for her as well. Why was it taking so long for Him to answer all of our prayers for her healing?

After a while, I worked myself up so much that I was yelling out to God in my kitchen. “WHY GOD, WHY?” His quiet voice finally responded: Because you’ll bring Me glory. I was stunned. I started crying again, but the reason for the tears was much different this time. I knew I had to use our story to encourage other people to trust God when they were going through painful and devastating situations and needed hope.

Soon afterward, I shared our story with Guideposts magazine and started writing a blog about our faith journey. Our ministry, Destined 4 the Dub, was born from that place of pain.

I often think about my initial response when Kennedi was injured. I wonder what it meant to God for me to trust and thank Him on one of the darkest days of my life. As Kennedi is still on her journey, I’m still thanking God despite my uncertainty about her future.

Kennedi just left for college and she’s thriving. She wants to be a pediatric physical therapist and focus on helping children with special needs and physical disabilities gain mobility, just like her physical therapist helped her. I’m overwhelmed by the thought of her impacting so many of those special lives.

I often wondered what would happen if Kennedi faced another difficult situation after she left our home. After her injury, I was always praying over her, giving her scriptures to stand on, and speaking words of life and encouragement to her.

But what would happen when she was no longer in my house? Did she have a strong enough foundation in the Word of God? My next endeavor was to write a book: Using God’s Playbook for the Game of Life: 52 Scriptures Your Young Athlete Should Know Before Sending Them Off Into the World, which I dedicated to Kennedi.

I don’t know what the future holds for Kennedi. But I know God has great things planned for her, and her life will make a great impact on others. Being thankful while not knowing what the outcome will be is not easy, but it’s a response that honors God. And I’m still waiting with great anticipation for how He will respond to my thankful heart.

PRAYER FOR MOMS:

Dear Heavenly Father,

I thank you for each mom reading this story. Please show them you are on their side, and not against them. May we remember to thank you for Your amazing plan for us, even when we don’t know any of the details. Please show us when our prayers aren’t answered how or when we want, or when our dreams have died, that You are still in complete control of our lives and our children’s lives.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

~Tonya May Avent

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Want to hear more of Tonya’s story? Watch her Moms Night In Conversation on YouTube

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