Taylor Otto expected to panic, but the anxiety hasn’t come.
It’s funny to be poised for disaster like that, to wonder when what seems inevitable will happen. Otto, a junior setter at Prairie Ridge, wishes she could explain the careful acceptance with which she has approached her bizarre ankle injury – one most athletes in her position would see as catastrophic and nerve-racking. But she can’t, so Otto doesn’t try too hard. She’s just grateful.
“I expected to be devastated,” Otto said. “I thought the panic would hit me all at once, but it didn’t. I get sad once in a while, but I just know I have to take it slow. One day at a time. One step at a time. I’ll get there.”
High school athletes everywhere certainly would understand if Otto had let the injury derail her. A freakish accident at such a delicate time – the start of prime volleyball recruiting – is what nightmares are made of.
On Nov. 29 during a random pickup game at Club Fusion in Marengo, Otto jumped to attack and landed awkwardly on a teammate’s foot. Her ankle twisted awkwardly and she tore three ligaments without breaking any bones, which is so unusual, Otto said, her doctors weren’t sure how to treat it.
That’s when she expected the panic to overpower her. Otto had spent the past several months taking private lessons to perfect her passing, her timing, her attack, her serve. She’d grown into a leader on the Wolves’ varsity team, which came within a game of reaching the IHSA Class 4A state semifinals this season and won a share of the Fox Valley Conference Valley Division crown. She was one of the area’s most efficient passers in a system her mother, and Wolves coach, Stefanie Otto, designed. And Otto was poised to play for one of the best club volleyball teams in the nation this offseason at Fusion, where her skills would be on full display for recruiters across the country.
If anyone’s star was rising, it certainly was Otto’s.
“I was getting so excited,” Otto said. “The ankle hurt, but seeing it all go away made me sad.”
Sad, but not panicked.
It’s a rare high school athlete who can find perspective – nearly as rare as Otto’s injury. While she can’t totally explain why she has found it, Otto has drawn on experience. When she partially tore the posterior cruciate ligament in her knee during the fourth match of her freshman season, Otto panicked. She had four more years, but it felt like she’d never play volleyball again. The fear consumed her, and she thought fatalistically. Now, too much is on the line.
With experience comes confidence, a natural byproduct of hard work. Confidence that another day exists, that hard work will beget more hard work, that success really is not a destination but a journey.
Then there is last season, which she approached differently after volleyball camp at Indiana University. While there with her teammates last summer, Hoosiers assistant coach Paul Koncir helped the Wolves map out their season, noting that it could go several different ways. The more Otto considered this, the more parallels she drew to her own life. She could let it go one way or choose to take it another.
She’s chosen to take the injury in stride and is improving ahead of schedule. Otto shed the crutches a few days after Christmas, shook off the walking boot Jan. 4 and now is walking for the first time with just the help of a brace. She attends physical therapy twice a week. Her doctor speaks excitedly about her progress. Maybe Otto will see the court before she’d planned, which had been late March or early April.
The injury could have been far more debilitating, but her attitude couldn’t have been much greater. It ensures Otto’s star will continue to rise long and the injury will be just a footnote.
“There’s always another time,” Otto said. “I have another club season. I have another varsity season. I know I’ll be OK. I have the future, and that’s what’s making this all right.”
• Maureen Lynch is a freelance sports writer for the Northwest Herald. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.