Torn ACL: Hartwell’s Story
As a high school junior, Hartwell Taylor had a goal—to wrestle his way to the Kansas state championships in the 126-pound weight class—and win!
“I was drawn to wrestling as a child because it’s a demanding, individual sport,” Hartwell said. “I played team sports, but I didn’t really like them.
“Instead, I devoted the majority of my time to working on my wrestling skills,” he added. “During the summers, I practiced twice a day to be prepared for tournaments. I was ranked in the top three in the 126-pound weight class for Kansas 6A schools.”
But three weeks before state at the Silver Lake Invitational, Hartwell injured his left knee. “Even though my knee was bothering me, I didn’t say anything,” he admitted. “I wanted to wrestle.”
When regionals rolled around a couple of weeks later, Hartwell thought all systems were go!
“My left knee felt fine, until the last practice before the competition. I felt like I ‘tweaked’ it again,” he said. Every time he practiced, his knee felt a little bit worse.
Hartwell’s first regional match went well, but during the second, his knee started to give out. By his semifinals match, he was in pain, but pushed through it for the win.
“That night, I iced my knee, then applied heat the next morning,” he said. At warm-ups, his knee felt worse, not better, but Hartwell was determined to wrestle, no matter what.
“I tore my ACL in the first takedown of the finals match,” Hartwell said. “I could feel it, but I kept wrestling. What else could I do? I was already there.”
After his opponent won, Hartwell walked off the mat in pain. “The physical pain was instant and subsided by the time the match was over,” Hartwell said. “But the pain of defeat was fresh on my mind.”
And when the athletic trainer told him he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, he knew his dream to wrestle at state that year was over. He couldn’t wrestle with a torn ACL. After all, the cruciate ligaments control the back and forth motion of the knee. The ACL also provides rotational stability for other structures in the joint.
“I didn’t want to hear what they had to say,” Hartwell said. “It was disappointing.” But the 17-year-old faced his new reality, having surgery to repair his ACL March 21, 2019. On crutches and in a brace, several days later he began the long road back to competition.
Though there were several rehabilitation facilities near Hartwell’s Lansing, Kansas home, he chose Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine at Village West, a 13,000-square-foot gymnasium with state-of-the-art equipment, including an anti-gravity treadmill.
“Village West is about a 30-minute drive for me, but the facility and the staff are stellar!” Hartwell said. “They have everything you need there for physical therapy.”
Also critical to Hartwell’s rehabilitation was, Michael Denning, DPT, CSCS, sports physical therapist at Village West. An experienced therapist who has helped hundreds of patients, he knew the challenges his patient would face as a wrestler, because Michael had wrestled himself.
“I didn’t wrestle at the level Hartwell does, but I really enjoyed wrestling and I respect the sport,” Michael said. “I know the body mechanics, and understand how intense the training can be. This allowed me to develop a program that was specific to helping Hartwell recover from his ACL injury so he could achieve his goals.”
Highly motivated to get back on the mat for his senior wrestling season, Michael said his patient was focused and a hard worker.
“Hartwell was always looking for the next step in his rehab, and he did his physical therapy homework. He asked me to make his therapy more difficult. That attitude made his rehab go very smoothly. We didn’t have the usual hiccups, like pain or swelling difficulties along the way, because he was such a diligent patient,” Michael said.
Initially, Hartwell’s biggest challenge was regaining the flexion in his left knee. Flexion occurs in the joint when two bones move closer together. When the bones move farther apart, the joint is in extension.
“Most people can function well with 120 degrees of flexion in their knee, but a wrestler needs about 150 to 160 degrees in order to be effective,” Michael explained.
To reach that goal, Michael used wrestling-specific exercises and stretches to get Hartwell’s knee back to the high level of range a wrestler needs.
Hartwell not only did traditional therapy-based exercises initially, but his therapist also utilized blood flow restriction training, or BFR, to help regain full use of his left leg.
BFR training involves wrapping a restrictive device, similar to a large blood pressure cuff, around a limb during different forms of training and movement. Studies show BFR increases muscle growth when combined with low-load lifting.
“By using BFR, you get similar benefits to the muscles that you would from heavy lifting and strength training,” Michael said. “It stresses the muscles so they get stronger, but protects the joints. This technique helped Hartwell recover quicker.”
Hartwell agreed. “The first three weeks of rehab were tough, but I knew I had to keep going and it would get better. After BFR, my left leg felt stronger than my right. It really helped.”
Hartwell also used the hydrotherapy pool; the anti-gravity treadmill, which uses NASA-developed technology to unweight patients, reducing the impact on their joints while walking or running during rehab; and portable wrestling mats to practice scrambling and sprawling.
All were important and helped to improve Hartwell’s strength, balance and stance, key skills for a highly competitive wrestler.
As his rehabilitation progressed, Michael used a small platform with cords similar to bungees attached to it so Hartwell could move freely to work on resistance training specific to his sport. Called the VertiMax, this piece of equipment helped improve how effectively Hartwell could shoot in to take his opponent down.
About 20 weeks after surgery, Michael said he remembered Hartwell telling him, “My leg feels really good. I will be going back to state!”
After nearly six months of physical therapy twice a week at Village West, Hartwell felt like he was ready to return to competition, and just in time for his senior season. But first, Michael performed BioDex testing to be certain he was ready to go.
BioDex is a high-tech device used to evaluate strength, endurance, power and range of motion of the major joints and muscles in patients before surgery and after rehabilitation.
“This was a near-perfect BioDex test,” Michael said. “Hartwell just crushed it.”
After being released from physical therapy, Hartwell began practicing with his team at Lansing High School, this time wrestling in the 132-pound weight class.
“I went into the season more focused because I had had this ACL tear,” Hartwell admitted. “Michael told me to stay aware of my knee, and I did. It actually felt stronger than my right leg,” he said.
Because Hartwell had to forego summer wrestling for rehab, he felt like going into his senior year, “I had a target on my back.”
But he was determined that wouldn’t keep him from the state championships, and it didn’t.
“I wrestled well all season,” he said. “Michael even came to see me wrestle once. I really appreciated that.”
“It was great to see Hartwell in action, and to see all the hard work he had put in pay off,” Michael said. “He worked his butt off!”
At state, Hartwell reached the finals, wrestling for first place. “I put my best foot forward, but it just didn’t happen to be my day,” he said.
His opponent took the match, and Hartwell finished second in the Kansas 5A, 132-pound weight class; and fourth in the state in all classes combined. And, his ACL held up to the ultimate test—he ended the season with 40 wins, 5 losses.
Now finished with high school, Hartwell is looking forward to his freshman year wrestling for the University of St. Mary’s in Leavenworth and studying sports medicine.
“This experience really made me think about sports medicine as a career choice,” he said.
“Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine did an amazing job with my rehab,” Hartwell added. “They made sure I was right on target with where I was supposed to be with my therapy.”
“And Michael was more like a friend than my therapist. He made me feel really comfortable. It was just a good experience all around.”
“Hartwell really took ownership of his rehab,” Michael said. “That improved the odds of his success.”
Plus, working with Children’s Mercy Sports Medicine meant Hartwell had access to the best facilities and therapists in the community, a winning combination.
“There are a lot of really good rehab facilities in the area, but with the space, equipment and personnel, none of them compares to Children’s Mercy,” Michael said. “I truly feel that we were the best place for Hartwell. Our results and his success show that.”
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