A Knee-d to Finish
Dec. 6, 2007
by Jeff Smith
All Johanna Solverson wanted to do was wear her Iowa women's basketball jersey one last time. As one of the nation's highly-regarded recruits, Solverson came to Iowa City as part of head coach Lisa Bluder's first true recruiting class six years ago. Yes, six years ago. After earning a role in the starting lineup in 2002, Solverson played three straight years with the Hawkeyes before suffering an injury that is all too common in the world of women's basketball. And she did it twice.
Prior to entering her senior season with Iowa in 2005, Solverson was instructing at a camp in Chicago when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. After missing the entire basketball season, she rehabbed extensively only to find herself at another camp in summer of 2006, down on the floor in pain. Same injury. Same knee.
Isn't camp supposed to be fun?
A native of Lake Zurich, Ill., a town 45 minutes northwest of Chicago, Solverson led her hometown high as a McDonald's All-American, averaging 17.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. She was recruited by several schools, including Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten.
"I wanted to stay in the Big Ten because the competition was good and I could go far away from home, but still be close enough that my parents could still come and watch," she said.
After selecting Iowa, Solverson made an immediate impact on the Hawkeyes. She started in 27 of the 33 games Iowa played in 2002-03, and was named to the Big Ten's All-Freshman team following the regular season. Among all-time Hawkeye freshmen, she ranks first in steals (57), second in three-pointers (30), fourth in blocks (17), fifth in assists (66) and seventh in scoring (285). She also played a key role in the Hawkeyes' Big Ten Tournament run, when she finished a three-game span with averages of 13.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per outing.
"She was part of our first recruiting class, which was ranked as high as eighth in some polls and obviously she was a McDonald's All-American," Bluder said of Solverson. "She started right away and really put up some impressive numbers for us."
Solverson partially credits her impressive freshman campaign to the tough competition she played against in high school.
"I played in some great games in high school against a lot of girls who were going to Division I," she said. "I never knew what to expect (at Iowa), but I knew I had to work twice as hard. But when you come here as a freshman, you are shown the ropes and that helped keep my confidence high."
Following a sophomore season where she tallied 5.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, Solverson returned as a junior to start in all 33 games and nearly doubled her point production with the average of 10.9. She showed the balance in her game by becoming just the second Iowa player in school history to produce over 350 points, 125 assists and rebounds and 70 steals in a single season.
Everything was perfect and now Solverson had a little momentum heading in to her final season as a Hawkeye.
And then it happened. The Big One.
"I was working (DePaul head coach) Doug Bruno's camp in Chicago at the beginning of August and we would always play noon ball during lunch," she said. "I was going up for a lay-up and it just happened. I felt it right away. They thought I broke my femur bone."
Her femur bone was fine. Her ACL in her right knee was not.
The injury is known by many as "The Big One" in women's athletics, especially in soccer and basketball. In fact, several reports indicate that the ACL injury rate is up to five times greater for females than males in those two sports.
Solverson spent the entire 2005-06 season on the sideline as a redshirt, rehabbing her knee and knowing she would return the following season to finish her career.
And then it happened. The Big One. Again.
Almost a full calendar year had passed and Solverson was playing just outside Iowa City in Coralville in the popular Game Time League, which is an organized pick-up game camp for several in-state players from Iowa, Iowa State, Northern Iowa and several other smaller schools.
"It was the second game of the league and I was just going for another lay-up," she said.
Solverson admits that the first injury was upsetting because it happened on the eve of her senior season. The second one, however, came as a complete shock.
"(My knee) felt so strong and I was just shocked when it happened," she said. "It took a weekend to be upset about it, but then I had to let it go. I knew I had to work really hard to get back to where I need to be."
Having already used up her redshirt during the first injury, Solverson was not guaranteed any sympathy by the NCAA, so she knew this rehab stint was going to be far more important than the first one. She had hoped to make it back for the 2006-07 conference season, but following a sit-down with the Hawkeye coaching staff, all parties agreed she was not 100 percent and ready to play. The necessary paperwork was filed to the NCAA, which included a personal letter from Solverson, and largely in part because the injury occurred prior to the season, she was granted a medical redshirt for the season and a sixth year of eligibility.
But could she take another year of rehab? How would she hold up? Could her body take it?
Those were all questions that circled through Solverson's mind when thinking about having been so close to playing her senior season and then spending the next two seasons on the shelf.
"I just really wanted to wear my uniform again and play teams like Iowa State and Drake one more time," she said. "I want to keep playing at some level and wasn't ready to give it up just yet."
Solverson's perseverance and resolve have not only been noted by Bluder, but by the entire team, coaching staff and trainers.
"Jo is an incredible example for everyone to see," Bluder said. "It's shows how badly someone wants to be a Hawkeye one more time. I'm so thankful she has had a chance to come back and be an incredible leader and show everyone the example she is."
Solverson says Bluder has been one of many of her supporters throughout the past two seasons.
"When I would be rehabbing at practice, she would always come over and check on me. But when I was ready to coming back, she was always hesitant to put me in. She was like, `Let's just wait.'"
A member now three senior classes, Solverson admits that someone on the team is always making a joke about her age and says the term "Grandma" is too often used. Bluder calls it a sign of affection and a sign of her length of stay in Iowa City, but points out that all the players understand what she has been through to wear the Hawkeye jersey.
Solverson is back to health this season and is currently playing as one of the team's co-captains. After the first week of December, she was averaging just north of six points and four rebounds per game in an average of 20 minutes of action.
Meanwhile she is hoping to wrap up her second undergraduate degree next summer in sociology, after completing her first in health and sports studies in her first four years on campus.
As for the knee, Solverson says it's healthy, but ACL tears are becoming too common, although coaches are now more aware of it and taking steps to prevent such an injury.
Bluder is one of those coaches, having seen far too many ACL injuries in her time in Iowa City.
"There is an injury prevention program through our hospital and we had doctors come in twice a week for 30-minute sessions to teach the players body position and how to jump correctly," she said. "I always thought, `Can you teach an old dog new tricks?' Studies show that you can at a younger age, but I thought if it can prevent one 20-year-old from having an injury, it's well worth it."
And for Solverson, so was the wait to don that black and gold No. 34 jersey one last time.