I was covering my first College Nationals for USA Ultimate (then the Ultimate Players Association) in 2009, and I set out looking for stories as the first games of the weekend got underway. Just as I arrived on the North Carolina sideline, I saw Kaitlin Baden get taken out by a defender's bid, an injury that would lead to four surgeries and months of rehab. It has been my privilege to get to know Kaitlin though this period of time, and her battle back to the top is one that inspires everyone who knows her. Her dedication to the Pleiades and her hard work to return to the sport she loves are obvious to anyone who has seen her take the field. This girl is resilient, and her story, while unknown to most in the ultimate world, is one that inspires me and many others. In this feature, North Carolina captain Kaitiln Baden shares her story with us. If you'll be in Boulder next weekend, you'll want to check out #4 in the Carolina blue. She'll be the one running her defender ragged.
1. The Backstory
Playing in spite of injuries is something that I, and so many other ultimate players, have always resigned myself to. I have always loved that about the players in ultimate, their adherence to the idea that the “show” must go on. When I tore my ACL and meniscus in an on-field collision three points into our first game of 2009 Nationals, I had a hard time grasping the fact that this was an injury that would take me out of commission for a while. After listening to people’s inspirational stories of other players’ comebacks, I was eager to become one of those people. I told myself that I’d be back in 5 months, 6 months tops. Needless to say, my rehabilitation did not go according to [my] plan. In four months, I went through three surgeries and countless therapy appointments. I felt weak and useless; I couldn’t lift my leg off the table, I could hardly bend my knee, I couldn’t walk without limping. My tri-weekly physical therapy appointments became a constant reminder of all of the basic tasks and movement that I couldn’t do. I watched other ACL rehab patients pass through the office and progress through their rehab with no problems whatsoever. I was jealous of their improvement and kept begging to be allowed to move on to running, despite what my strength tests showed. After failing my third strength test some time in April, I decided to take my chances and to just start running anyway. The hardest part about coming back from this injury was re-developing trust. I had to relearn how to walk without limping, how to run properly, how to change directions, and a huge part of all of that was relearning to trust that my leg was strong enough to handle everything. In May 2010, I played with Pleiades at Nationals and it was awesome; granted, I was incredibly out of shape and I was nowhere near where I had been pre-ACL tear, but nothing will erase how it felt to play that first point in Madison. This past November, I went in for my fourth surgery to remove my torn meniscus and I’ve been feeling pretty good since then (knock on wood). Every once and a while when I’m lying on the sofa, I’ll do a few straight leg raises...just because I can.
2. What is your role on the Pleiades? Talk about some of your personal goals as a player and captain.
My second year co-captaining with Leila Tunnell (shameless plug: vote Leila for the Callahan award!), and Lindsay Lang, and my fifth year with Pleiades has been my favorite. In addition to having great on field chemistry, I think our team has developed a strong sense of camaraderie and friendship, stronger than any previous season. At beginning of every year, we write down our personal goals and then go over them with our coaches. Lindsey Hack and I both agreed that my main goal this year was my health. Get better, get back to ultimate. Towards the end of this past semester, something clicked and I got some of my confidence back. I don’t remember which tournament we were at, but I remember thinking all of a sudden, “I can run just as fast as I used to. I’m not afraid to change directions. I’m not scared of someone bodying me up”. I’m not quite sure how I would describe myself as a player. Annoying, maybe? I want my defender running around the whole time I’m on offense. That huff of indignation you hear when your defender is miffed? That’s my favorite.
3. You've been through a lot to get here. Any shoutouts?
This is the hard part—word count limitations are going to cut down on my ability to say everything that each of these people did for me... First, on the off chance that my parents will actually read an Ultimate blog, I want to thank them. I know that it was difficult for them to accept my return to ultimate after having to pay for surgeries and PT appointments, and after watching my struggle through my rehab last year, but in the end they realized how important ultimate is and were supportive. I also want to thank my coaches, Lindsey Hack and Brian Dobyns, and my teammates, for all of their support not only through the surgeries but also throughout the year. There were definitely times when I got myself down, but they never let me stay down for long. Finally, I want to give a shout out to my fellow ACL rehab teammate, Lauren McGuire. Watching her battle her way back from her injury was inspirational and watching the team support that come-back was even more moving. I’ll never be able to stress enough how much it meant to have so many people invested in our improvements. I never thought that one play in ultimate could change my life so profoundly. Two years ago, I think I was still riding that adolescent wave of “invincibility”, but I’ve grown out of that stage now. I know now that any point could be my last and while I try not to think of that or let it affect me, it has a sneaky way of creeping up on ya. I don’t think my knee will ever get back to normal... I’ve accepted the fact that my right knee will always be a little fatter than the left, that I’ll always jump higher and cut harder on my left, even if I prefer my right, and that sometimes, I’ll actually have to sit out and give myself a rest. Regardless, at least I’m back to playing and as long as I’m able to run around and to make a fool of myself on the field, I really can’t complain.