The one phrase that will create the most heartbreaking chapters in an athlete’s career: “you need surgery for this to heal.”
Yes, many athletes are very lucky and never have to worry about injuries and the recovery process that results, but many end up in a doctor’s office on the receiving end of that conversation. For me, it was more times than I ever imagined.
Haley Gorecki is a professional basketball player from Palatine, IL. She played college basketball at Duke University, was an All-American for the Blue Devils, and graduated in 2019. She was drafted #31 in the 2020 WNBA draft. Haley played overseas for a bit this past year in Spain. At the end of April, she will head off to Seattle to play for the Seattle Storm in the WNBA. This year, Hailey launched her own blog where she reflects further on her journey. Read more from Hailey at https://www.haleygorecki.com/
Growing up, I never realized all of the adventures, accomplishments, and rough times I would have gone through to end up where I am today. Basketball has always been and still is more than simply a sport to me. It has been a hobby, a safe haven, and full-time commitment I have dedicated most of my life to. I am entertained and occupied for hours with only a basketball and a hoop. My love for basketball started on my family’s driveway where I played against my older brother. He brought out the competitor in me. It was during these pickup games I learned my determination and drive. I refused to leave my driveway and go inside without beating my brother 1v1 or a simple game of horse. I needed to be able to walk off our make-shift court a winner.
High school and AAU were THE days where I learned my love of the game. Another factor that played a role in my fond memories of these years was the fact that the most severe injuries I had were ankle rolls, jammed fingers, and a broken nose. I stayed busy during these times, bouncing around from my trainer, to practice, to my improvised court on the driveway. I was an active kid and always tried to stay busy. My parents would drive in circles keeping up with my jam-packed schedule.
Then, college came around and aside from injuries I was still in awe that I had earned a full scholarship and honor to play for the Duke Blue Devils. I look back now, remembering all these ambitious goals for my team and never thinking of the possibility of any minor or major set-backs in my basketball career. This of course would soon be at the forefront of my basketball career. Freshman season started, preseason happened, and thankfully after what seemed like forever that chapter ended. I think any athlete can relate to the 5 a.m., wake ups, long runs and weight sessions. There was a huge wakeup call going from the high school level to being a Division I athlete at a well-renowned basketball program. I loved every minute of being an athlete at Duke. Everything was going great, I loved my team and coaches, and I was settling in to college life and the expectations that had been set for me as an athlete and student. I had become acclimated to campus and I felt increasingly excited for the season to start. Then, November hit.
I can still remember the shooting pain that sent pulses down my leg that started in the middle- to- end of November. What initially felt like a pulled muscle high in my groin and hip joint ended up escalating to far worse than that. There were times I would wake up and could not even walk. My competitive side and all the hours I dedicated preparing for my first collegiate season would not let what I had convinced myself was merely a pulled muscle derail my future. Not being able to play kills me, so I fought through the pain. I thought I had everyone fooled, that everything was okay. Watching thirty seconds of film proved otherwise. I thought I was hiding the pain, playing through it, but clearly, I was limping. There was no hiding the stabbing pain I felt with each step up and down the court. Side note, fighting through that type of pain isn’t “cool”. I understand if you broke a finger or rolled an ankle every competitor will fight through that, but I promise you not telling anyone about pain that is making you walk and run differently is not a smart idea. If I didn’t say something to my trainer who knows what else would’ve happened to me.
I finally went to my trainer, Summer McKeehan, and explained what had been going on. I was convinced I pulled a muscle. Summer helped with trying to fix the tightness with stretching exercises to loosen the muscles in the area, and had me wear a brace which would rest the muscles, but unfortunately it did not help. My injury continued to progress, and I had to tell Summer that I could not even walk, because the pain became so unbearable. It was at this point we had a full work up done: X-ray, MRI, and CT scan and I finally had my answer to my “pulled muscle” – a partially fractured femur and torn labrum. My heart sank when I heard this diagnosis. That news hit me hard, my mind was racing with thoughts about what it would mean for my basketball career and moving forward as an athlete. After the doctor appointments, learning about all the details of surgery, and understanding that this would be the start of a long road ahead, I looked at myself in the mirror and told myself “everything happens for a reason.”
I knew God was always close with me and with him something great would come out of this. Rehab went from weeks to months and felt like an eternity, but I got through it with the help of my trainers, coaches, teammates and of course my family. It ended up being summer time, so my parents and I made the decision to have the surgery at home in Chicago. Looking back at everything the surgeries went fantastic and will never have pain again but leading up to that first major injury that I needed surgery for scared the hell out of me. I remember being on the phone with friends and family saying that I may never be the same player I was after this surgery. My mental state just always would go to the worst thing possible i could think of at the time. Everything happens for a reason though and I knew taking a step away from what is going on and thinking fully about everything, I am a tough person and would get through it. It may not have been the way I wanted things to go in the moment but I knew something good was going to come out from this.
My freshman year was cut short. I played a total of 14 games, which put me just over the cutoff for a redshirt season. I felt cheated out of a season of basketball. That year was also hard for my team because the season ended early for them as well. We ended up not making the NCAA Tournament, which is unusual for us Blue Devils.
I looked at myself in the mirror and told myself “everything happens for a reason.”
The recovery process was strenuous, challenging, and painful. As much as I tried remaining calm and looking fine on the outside, inside I was hurt a lot of the days, sad and frustrated. In a moment an injury can take away your ability to play your sport for a long time, and everything you have been working for the last 14/15 years was taken away from me. During the recovery processes for each injury there was a new obstacle that would come in the way. Not only did you have to recover what was injured to be back to a normal human but then also work back to a D1 athlete on top of all of that. There were times with my shoulder, I would have someone help me shower. Come into the bathroom with me to wash my hair. Help put on clothes and even put my hair up. For my hips I also remember getting help from my sister and brother. Going to the bathroom and having to sit that low wasn’t easy. I would take my sisters hand to help me sit down very slowly without causing pain. Then to get back up the same thing. My brother would help me get to the floor so I could use my rehab machine and once I was finished he would help me back from the floor to a standing position. I slept on an air mattress for the first few weeks with my first hip, so I wouldn’t have to go up and down the stairs to my room. Moving with my first hip wasn’t an option. Like I mentioned, it wasn’t only the labrum that was torn but I fractured my femur bone as well.
When I was finally, FINALLY playing basketball again, it felt like forever. I sat out after the 14 games I played my freshman year, and then sophomore year came around and I could not wait to get back on the court. The team prepared for the new season, it was my sophomore year and I was ready to bounce back after last year. I played pretty well considering the surgery I just recovered from; I had really good percentages and I was getting back in my groove.
Right when I felt like things were back to normal I began to notice my shoulder hurt every time I took a shot. I thought I had moved past tough times and would be able to move forward with my career, but I soon learned that it was just the beginning of what would be a few injuries. A sharp pain ran through the back of my shoulder every time I would shoot or go up for a rebound. I did some rehab in order to strengthen the joint. I would come in early before practice to get some work on it in addition to completing the strengthening exercises. Summer decided it would be a good idea to get imaging done. We went for the x-ray and nothing showed so the doctors ordered an MRI. Mentally, I was torn and struggling, but I forced myself to always think positive. So, a few days later I went for the MRI. Barely a day goes by and I find myself having the all too familiar conversation with the doctor where I am shell shocked by bad news. I had a torn labrum and have to have what the doctors call them “anchors” placed in my shoulder, which they did to my hip as well. And, just like that, my sophomore year was gone.
The recovery from shoulder surgery was excruciatingly painful, there were moments in the rehab process where I thought I would never be able to reach behind my back ever again. Pushing through pain and trying to get it “loosened out” was seemingly not working. Slowly but surely progress was made. The rehab process taught me to become excited for the little goals I set for myself. I learned that it is a process of baby steps, each equally important and worth celebrating.
Despite being unable to play that season, it ended up being an exciting year. I learned a lot about coaching, as well as ways to improve my game by watching and learning from the sidelines. We did well that year and had a successful run. We ended up losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Oregon. I was excited to be part of this team and all we had accomplished, but for me personally, it had been a very physically and mentally draining year. I tried to stay focused on my recovery, and our team accomplishments.
Again, I became excited for my return to the court. To my horror, I realized as I increased my workout intensity and recovered my shoulder, my left hip felt exactly how my right hip had felt almost a year and a half ago. I did not think I would be able to handle yet another injury and the rehab it would entail. It is one thing to go through surgery and an entirely different thing to start from zero to build my body back to being Division I ready. Summer wasted no time in setting up appointments. She wanted to get my hip looked at right away because of my history with injuries. At this point I had become a regular at the doctors’ offices and was now on a first name basis with the assistants and nurses. They would come get me, “Oh hey Haley, how’s it going? Good to see you.” Looking back, it was funny to become a regular at a surgeon’s office, at the time it was pretty sad.
I learned that this is a process of baby steps, each equally important and worth celebrating.
Shortly after these appointments, I learned I would have to have my left hip repaired. This time around I was not as nervous or scared. Knowing exactly what to expect made everything easier. I knew going into it I would crush rehab and everything that came with it because I already had to do this before. Do not get me wrong, I was not always a perfect person, I had my ups and downs on certain days. I was not always confident I would ever be able to play again at the level I wanted.
Another thing that took me a long time to get over and realize I have an amazing story to share from these scars. My battles wounds as I call them. I have 3 scars on each hip. So every time in a bathing suit you see them. Some are more prominent than others but they are very visible. On my shoulder, I have 3 scars as well but one of the scars is on the outside of my shoulder that looks like a big pimple.. all the time. But that is okay! It is normal. I finally said to myself… who cares. The scars on my body make up who I am and I am proud who I am and what I have accomplished.
The thing with injuries is that when I was sidelined I felt and would sometimes convince myself I was not even part of the team. I felt like I could not practice or play, so I was simply forgotten until next year. I worked through many mixed emotions, with some good days and some bad days. I keep bringing up my teammates, but that year everyone was so supportive and helpful. They understood what had happened and what I had been through. They made me feel like I was very much a part of the team and it was almost as if I were playing. I loved it. They respected me and when I had a comment to say during the game, or halftime they would listen. This season helped me find my voice. There were some days where mentally I thought I couldn’t go to the gym and only watch, while doing rehab on the sidelines.
That year we got to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen and I was so happy for my team. It was exciting energy to be around. We worked our butts off, but eventually lost to Connecticut. The moments from that season were super special to me because Rebecca Greenwell, Lexie Brown, Bego Faz Davalos and Erin Mathias were seniors that year and they were not returning. They are some of my best friends and being able to play with them really was special to me.
My first full year of basketball did not happen until my redshirt senior year and what a year it was. We lost some of our seniors who were starters, so we were somewhat starting new. It was exciting though, we had a great summer working with our strength and conditioning coach and getting right! Our season had lots of growing pains. We had to learn how to play together and get in a groove, and our record was a rough one for the team. Our team struggled, but I was really happy that I finally could play through a full season. I savored every minute of being on the court. That was the most exciting thing for my family and me. The last three years of staying focused on my recovery paid off. I was able to have a pretty good season but was not quite satisfied with how overall we did. We ended up not making the NCAA Tournament. Our sights were set on next season.
My first full year of basketball did not happen until my redshirt senior year, and what a year it was.
My last year at Duke, aka my grandma year, started with me feeling the healthiest I had been in a while. Our season began very slowly and mentally it was hard, but that comes with the territory of sports. We had worked so hard in the offseason, but things were not flowing like we had anticipated the first few games of the 2019-20 campaign. We had to turn things around. Keep in mind, we did have one of the hardest schedules playing some of the other best teams in the nation. Once ACC competition started at the beginning we were 3-4. Not anywhere near the level of success we had anticipated for the season, and definitely not a good foundation for where we hoped to end up.
Then, boom! After we lost to Clemson, things clicked. We were the hottest team in the conference; no one wanted to play us and we were just getting started. I would get the question a lot about what changed that allowed us to start winning our games and the answer was simple, we finally had a FULL healthy roster. We had our point guards, Kyra Lambert and Mikayla Boykin, back after being on minute restrictions which helped us tremendously. By the end of the season we beat two top 25 teams in the country and were just getting started for the ACC and NCAA Tourney. I loved having the ability to be a captain another year for the team with Emily Schubert and Kyra. I motivated the team through the good and bad, and that fight and focus everyone had is something I will never forget. I will forever be proud of this team and everything we accomplished.
We played to earn a strong spot in the ACC standings. This excitement, as many of you know, quickly came to an end as the ACC Tournament did not go as expected for the Blue Devils, and we lost our first game to Boston College. That bus ride home felt a lot longer than an hour and a half. We had such high expectations and all felt like we could have done more to get a win. Yet again, I found my excitement cut short.
We returned the Thursday of spring break to resume practices and be back on campus as a team. All the meanwhile, the coronavirus was getting pretty bad, and affecting the lives and health of many across the country. Coach P called a meeting for all of us to meet in the film room and talk about what this would mean for the rest of our season. We soon learned that the men’s team was on their way back from the ACC Tournament, which had been cut short because of the virus. I was mentally preparing myself for bad news, but I did not realize the extent to which changes had to be made and soon realized the news I was about to receive would leave me heartbroken.
For the safety of the athletes, coaches, fans, referees, and personnel the NCAA decided to cancel the tournament. Devastated does not even begin to explain how I felt. There were tears rolling down my face the rest of that day. Everything that I have worked for, everything that this team did to make a comeback to be in the tournament was gone. The pain I put my body through and the recovery I was seemingly all for nothing as I processed the news I had been given. For the next couple of days, things were not making sense as to why this was going on. But, I am a big believer that everything does happen for a reason.
That was my motto throughout my whole career; everything happens for a reason. It may not have been the most ideal route to take and it was certainly not one anyone would willingly pick, but it just ended up being that way. I grew as a person and as a player with each challenge and recovery. I saw the game I loved through so many different viewpoints and perspectives. And, as I look back on all of it I can say, “thank you.” I have grown as a person not only on the court but off as well. These past few years I have learned the importance of “listening to my body” (I got that one from Becca Greenwell and love it). I am the only one that knows how my body should feel, I am the only one that can feel the pain I am feeling, and I have the ability to fix that, be smart. For me, I know I will want to play for a long time and in doing so I have to take care of my body and continue to do rehab, lift, stay in shape, eat right, and overall prepare to compete at the top level for many years to come. So Duke, thank you for all of the lessons I have learned, and the experiences I have gone through. I loved every minute of my career as a Blue Devil. Now, I am onto my next chapter and I am so excited for it.