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Duluth East's Zwak embraces return to softball after injury odyssey

Becca Zwak had heard that awful sound before. So when she heard it again shortly before halftime of a girls basketball game against Tartan last December, she knew what had happened. "As soon as I went down and heard a popping noise and saw my kne...

Duluth East's Zwak
Duluth East's Becca Zwak bats against Duluth Denfeld on Friday at Wade Stadium. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Becca Zwak had heard that awful sound before.

So when she heard it again shortly before halftime of a girls basketball game against Tartan last December, she knew what had happened.

"As soon as I went down and heard a popping noise and saw my knee twist over, I was 99 percent sure I had torn my ACL again," the Duluth East junior said. "I knew that sound and I knew the same feeling. I was a mess at that point because my biggest fear had just happened again."

But instead of completely tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments -- as she did in another basketball game 10 months earlier -- Zwak suffered a partial ACL tear and meniscus damage.

Zwak sat out the rest of the basketball season, but after having minor surgery to clean out the ACL and meniscus damage in February, she returned this spring to play second base on the softball team.

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"You rehab for a year and you get back and you feel strong and feel good," softball coach Nat Brown said, "and you probably feel stronger in some ways because you've done all that rehab work. And then to have the same injury, it has to be demoralizing. It would have been so easy to say, 'It's not in the cards; it's not going to happen.' But to her credit, she's persevered through it."

Zwak's odyssey began Feb. 3, 2011 against Hermantown. The three-sport athlete felt her knee give out when she jumped up and landed awkwardly.

"I didn't know what it was," she said. "I couldn't walk for a couple days, but I could start putting weight on it before I knew what it was. I was starting to feel good about it, that maybe I would be out only two or three weeks. But my dad had been doing research on the Internet, and he thought it could have been my ACL."

A few days later, doctors at Essential Health St. Mary's Medical Center confirmed Mike Zwak's fears: His daughter had a completely torn ACL and MCL and partially torn meniscus.

"I went to the doctor hoping for the best and preparing for the worst -- and I got the worst," said the younger Zwak, who previously had never suffered as much as a sprained ankle.

Dr. Justin Cummins performed reconstructive surgery a month later. That meant six to nine months of rehabilitation for Zwak, who spent her summer undergoing physical therapy twice a week and lifting weights and running on a treadmill at Impact Sports Training.

"I was very determined to play soccer the next year because it hit me really hard not being able to play softball in the spring or summer," said Zwak, who served as a softball student manager in her absence from the field.

She returned in time for the start of the soccer season, but the defender only played a few minutes a game.

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"(The knee) never got back to normal in that time," she said. "I thought I would be able to jump back in and play, but it's not like that at all. It was sore. I never got my speed back to where it used to be and I had to wear a huge knee brace that slowed me down."

Just four games into the basketball season, catastrophe struck again when she landed awkwardly and twisted her knee.

"I had worked so hard to come back and was so excited to be able to play basketball -- I really wanted to be a part of a team that had a chance to go to state," she said.

She did, albeit from the bench, watching as the Greyhounds reached the state tournament for the first time since 2003.

"This season was really hard for me," she said. "Every day I watched was hard because I wanted to be out there. But I got through it and I couldn't wish for better teammates to support me through everything."

Dr. Cummins again performed surgery in February, this time cleaning out the ligament and removing a fragment of meniscus that was causing the pain.

Zwak was back in time for softball practice. Playing through the soreness and swelling, however, is a work in progress.

"I think she wants to make up for every missed game; she's probably pressing a little bit," Brown said. "But she's very determined and straps on that brace every game. It has limited her mobility, but she won't hear that. She won't use that as an excuse at all."

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Though only half of her ACL remains, Zwak plans on playing basketball next year and was selected as a team captain. The injury may have limited her effectiveness but not her fighting spirit.

"All this definitely has made me stronger and made me want to fight through it and be able to get back," she said.

Related Topics: HEALTH
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