Coming Back Stronger

By Siri Kongara

Something just didn’t feel right.

It was the first practice back from winter break as we were getting ready for the upcoming spring season.

My freshman year, no less, so I couldn’t have been more excited.

But, unfortunately, during warm-ups, my foot got stuck and my knee turned in a way that it’s definitely not supposed to.

Strangely enough, I wasn’t in very much pain. If anything, my knee felt more uncomfortable than painful.

When I went to the training room, my heart sank when they told me they feared I tore my ACL and would wait for an MRI to confirm.

I honestly couldn’t believe it.

I’ve seen athletes tear their ACLs on TV and lie on the ground screaming in pain as they hear this loud pop. I didn’t have any of that, so how could I have torn my ACL?!

Once I got the official MRI and confirmation, reality began to sink in, and I started thinking about what that meant for my tennis career.

I had a 9-12 month recovery ahead of me, and for one of the first times in my life, I was about to take a journey into the unknown.

Leaning on Creighton

There’s never a “good” time to be injured, but having such a severe injury during my freshman year was especially difficult because I was still getting used to college.

Beyond academics and athletics, the social aspect of college is what makes it such a meaningful experience to develop lifelong relationships; however, rehabbing my knee was a full-time job.

I was practically living in the training room and didn’t get to practice with the rest of my teammates on a daily basis. I wasn’t able to take part in road trips where you really develop those strong bonds and build camaraderie.

That was extremely hard for me to accept because it almost felt like my ACL injury robbed me of my first two years of college.

Truthfully, I’m not sure how I would’ve gotten through those two years without the best support system I could ever ask for.

My trainer, Mallory Barber, was my rock. We saw each other every single day throughout my rehab process, and she’s been there for me every step of the way.

I was also reminded why the Creighton tennis program is so special, in large part because of Tom and Jean Lilly. As husband and wife that help lead this program, they’re a power couple in every sense of the word and have become second parents to me, especially as I was recovering and making my way back.

They were always checking in on me and making sure I had the resources and support I needed – for my mental and physical health – and I’ll always be grateful to them for looking out for me and taking care of me.

When I was the weakest and most vulnerable I’ve ever been, I’ll never forget my Creighton family supporting me and doing everything they could to help me get back to full strength and a return that never would’ve been possible without them.

Back where I belong

I returned to the lineup in early February last year in a match against Bradley. While I was fully cleared and everything, I was still more than a little apprehensive.

Coming back from a major injury and recovery process, you always worry about getting injured again, right? That can be a major mental roadblock for many athletes.

But once I stepped foot onto the court, my mind was free and clear, and I was ecstatic to be playing the sport I loved again.

It surprised me how great I felt out there – just like my old self – and I actually ended up winning my match and having an excellent day on the court.

That became a pivotal moment in my tennis career because all the doubt I had after my injury left my mind. I no longer had to worry about ever being healthy enough to play again, or about being the player I once was.

For the first time since my injury, I was confident and knew that I belonged on that court.

That mindset has set me up well in my junior year this season where I’ve finally been able to play a full season and have enjoyed being a major contributor to the team.

Again, when I was rehabbing, I wasn’t sure what the future of my tennis career was going to look like, so I never really imagined being in a position to clinch a victory for my team.

But I did just that a few months ago against North Dakota.

It was 3-3 and I was in the final match that was going to be the decider.

No pressure, right?

It was a long match and battle against an incredibly talented player, but I ended up winning the match and giving us the victory as a team.

All of my teammates stormed the court and were going crazy. If I could’ve stopped time right then and there I would’ve because I felt like I was on top of the world.

Like I said, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be in that position again, so to know all of my hard work and resiliency paid off in that specific match was such a rewarding feeling.

I was proud of myself for everything I’d overcome, and I was even more optimistic about my future and all the goals I had in front of me in my tennis career.

I was also reminded why the Creighton tennis program is so special, in large part because of Tom and Jean Lilly. As husband and wife that help lead this program, they're a power couple in every sense of the word and have become second parents to me, especially as I was recovering and making my way back.

The conference tournament

Before my career at Creighton is over, I’d love nothing more than to win conference with my girls. We made it to the Big East final last year, and I know I speak for everyone when I say that we love the direction the program’s heading in and feel confident that a conference title is coming back to Omaha soon.

And on Friday, we get to give this a shot.

We are the number #5 seed at the Big East Championships and are kicking off the conference tournament against UConn. 

All of our attention is on the conference tournament.

And we are ready.

Life after tennis

Off the court, ironically enough, my dream is to become a doctor in Orthopedics sports medicine. 

It’s a goal I had for myself even before my injury, but after going through that and the grueling rehab process, it only reaffirmed my belief that this is what I was meant to do.

I had such a close relationship with my orthopedic surgeon. She was so comforting and reassuring to me during some of my darkest times, and I want to pay it forward and be there for others who are going through the same trials and tribulations that I did.

As challenging as tearing my ACL was and missing time on the court, it became a blessing in a way because it’s given me perspective I never would have had.

With tennis being such a mental sport and an individual sport, it’s easy to get caught up in your own success and the pressure you put on yourself. But I feel so at peace now.

Win or lose, I just feel happy to be doing what I love at a university and program that I love.

I hope I can inspire others that with the right kind of hard work, resiliency, and support, there isn’t anything you can’t get through.

No matter what adversity you face, you can come back stronger than you ever thought possible.

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