Olympian LePeilbet fighting through knee rehab

China's Ren Guixin and United States' Amy LePeilbet (6) go after the ball during the second half of an exhibition soccer match Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
China's Ren Guixin and United States' Amy LePeilbet (6) go after the ball during the second half of an exhibition soccer match Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Maybe it was the culmination of the dozens of times she tried to clear the soccer ball from the penalty area.

Maybe the original graft never took in her left knee after her first ACL surgery nearly seven years ago.

Maybe the stress of planting on her left leg put too much pressure on her knee during any of the U.S. women’s national team practices or 40 matches she played in over the past two seasons.

The only thing Prairie Ridge alumna and USWNT defender Amy LePeilbet knows for sure is the deterioration of the ACL in her left knee forced her to undergo an unexpected, potentially career-threatening surgery.

“I was just so thankful it hung on as long as it did, because to make both the World Cup team and the Olympics, that was a dream come true,” LePeilbet told the Northwest Herald on the phone from Washington. “It held on just long enough, so I can’t be too upset.”

LePeilbet, 31, never expected a scope of her left knee in January would reveal she would need surgery to repair the ACL in her left knee for the second time. Lingering knee problems because of cartilage damage originally sent LePeilbet to the procedure.

LePeilbet’s knee had been an issue since January 2011, when the USWNT played in the Four Nations Cup in China. After an opening match 2-1 loss to Sweden, LePeilbet’s knee “just blew up, completely swelled, and I had no idea what happened.”

Yet MRIs, at that time and in the years since then, did not reveal problems with her ACL. The MRI results all showed it still was attached. At most, the doctor would say the ACL appeared a little loose when testing LePeilbet’s knee.

“I came out of that surgery and I was told that my ACL was in pretty bad shape, so I needed to get it fixed because it wasn’t going to hang on much longer,” LePeilbet said. “When that happened, yeah I was in shock. I wasn’t prepared for that.”

In the midst of rehabilitation that could take more than nine months, LePeilbet is maintaining a positive attitude. Still, the thoughts of the ACL surgery ending her professional soccer career have crossed her mind, as difficult as it is for LePeilbet to admit.

If her knee can’t handle the daily grind, the Crystal Lake native, with a World Cup silver medal and an Olympic gold medal, has no regrets.

“It might take me a little bit to reach that point (of acceptance),” LePeilbet said. “It would be a little devastating after you work so hard and you want to continue, but you can’t cut it anymore. After I overcame that, I think I’d be OK and be really happy with my career.”

LePeilbet’s physical therapist, Bruce Snell, has worked with the USWNT as well as the U.S. men’s national team, described the challenge of playing with a cartilage deficiency on top of a bum ACL as a “double whammy.”

“For her to fight and scratch every day to get out on the field for training or games and to play at the level that she was able to play at was quite astonishing really,” Snell said. “Every day of every week of every training session, sometimes multiple times a day, she had to do extra work to get ready and that was over two years.”

LePeilbet said she believes she has a few years left and can play at an elite level. She met with new USWNT coach Tom Sermanni before the team’s final Fan Victory Tour game against China on Dec. 15 in Boca Raton, Fla. to discuss the plan to get her left knee scoped. She subsequently has spoken to Sermanni throughout the process.

“He’s such a nice guy, very positive, and he says anything I need he’s there for me,” LePeilbet said. “It’s exciting to have that support. I never played for him, but he’s treating me as an important part of the national team, which it’s nice, in that respect, to be treated that way.”

LePeilbet’s USWNT teammates have been just as supportive, sending her encouraging tweets and text messages as well as phone conversations.

“Everyone has been so supportive and been there through it all with me,” LePeilbet said. “Even when I was out there playing, they were supportive. They knew I had a bum knee. They’ve been behind me 100 percent.”

LePeilbet isn’t sure when she will return home to the Chicago area but wants to visit soon. Rehab has kept her in Washington as she travels to NW Sports Physical Therapy three times a week for about 2 1/2 hours, which includes a regiment using an anti-gravity treadmill. Snell also has LePeilbet on a program at her local gym.

Although she’s being limited to running on 75 percent of her weight, it’s helped her get in shape and start running much earlier in the rehab process. LePeilbet also is working to strengthen her left leg.

Since she first suffered the knee injury in 2011, a strength routine that incorporated TRX suspension training, lunges and single leg exercises allowed her to stay on the field. One of the tougher aspects of her rehab has been fixing her gait, which she developed while playing injured the past few years.

“We couldn’t get it worked out when she had those symptoms, but she is still trying to fight through the learned gait deviation which is an on-going battle,” Snell said.

LePeilbet was allocated to the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League, though she will miss the inaugural season because of her injury. LePeilbet remains optimistic that her rehab will be a hurdle she overcomes.

“I’m really excited about the NWSL,” LePeilbet said. “We definitely need a professional league in the States, so it’s exciting to have it back and be watching the women’s game here in our home country again.”

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