Defying the Odds Through Hard Work
Oct. 7, 2005
The words "torn ACL" are among the most dreaded that an athlete can hear when being diagnosed. A torn anterior cruciate ligament requires surgery, and usually up to a year of rehabilitation before the athlete can potentially return to perform at the level he or she experienced prior to the injury.
Those dreaded words fell upon the ears of field hockey player Heather Schnepf during the spring of her freshman year at Iowa. Schnepf had started 15 games as a true freshman that fall, and the team was playing in a spring tournament in Louisville, Kentucky on April 17, 2004 when she had to leave the game after twisting her knee. "The athletic trainers on site thought that I had just sprained my knee, but when I got back to Iowa my trainer thought we should get it checked out," said Schnepf, now a junior.
Results from her MRI came back to show that she had indeed torn her ACL. "It was really disappointing. I went to practice and told the team what had happened, but I didn't get a chance to talk to my coach," said the midfielder. Head Coach Tracey Greisbaum was in Europe that week traveling with the national team.
Heather said her teammates were upset when she first told them the news, "but they were really supportive and wanted me to get healthy and be ready for next season."
Having surgery and going through rehabilitation before next season was easier said than done. Schnepf went to rehab seven days a week after her surgery. "If the office was closed and I couldn't go in, I would do stuff at home on my own," she said. Anything to get back
Through hard work and determination, and with a little help from a high pain threshold, Heather was able to work her way back into playing shape over the summer. "My teammates, coaches, and family were so supportive," said the New Jersey native, "and I took that and ran with it. I wanted to come back earlier than most people would have thought, to sort of defy the odds."
On September 10, 2004, less than five months after her injury, Heather entered the Hawkeyes game against Stanford in the 27th minute to come full circle with her recovery. Though she still had a lot of work to do to continue to build her strength, Heather returned to the field in a remarkably fast time.
Over a year later, Schnepf realizes that her injury may have actually helped her, rather than hurt her. "Recovering with my knee really gave me a bit of a break and allowed me to get healthy and love the game again," she said.
And the game she loved continued to love her back. Since her return, Heather has re-joined the under-21 national hockey team and traveled around the world to participate in various tournaments. She has been to Australia, Puerto Rico and most recently to Chile for the Junior World Cup, which is the world's biggest tournament for under-21 national teams.
Balancing her time between Iowa and the national team hasn't been easy, but with support from her coaches and teammates, Schnepf has been able to make it work, even while attending classes. "Most of my professors have been very understanding and willing to help me out," she says. "Training is mostly during the summer, and we have tryouts during the winter, but how much school we miss depends on the year and which tournaments are coming up.
It's a give and take," she says. "Leaving Iowa to practice with the U-21s or sometimes staying at Iowa to be with the team instead of training with the national team - it's just a matter of doing what's best for you and best for both teams."
Currently this season, Schnepf has started every match except those that took place while she was in Chile. Last year as a sophomore she was a second-team All-Big Ten selection after starting the final 16 games of the season, and now wants to make the most of her time in Iowa City. "I want to get the best experience possible and become the best player and person that I can be when I leave Iowa," she said. "I've been able to grow up here and to have a separate family out here between my coaches and teammates has been a great experience."
"In January, I will be too old for the under-21 team, and we're waiting to find out what the (USA Field Hockey) plan is after that. Whatever comes next I'm just hoping to keep playing," said the high school All-American.
"I want to see this program continue to take steps forward. We made the (NCAA) tournament last year," she said, "and that was a big step for Iowa, but we want to keep it going. We want go further in the tournament and maybe win a national championship down the line."