by Alex Cyr
A gloomy cloud currently hangs over the athletic therapy room in the basement of the St. Denis Centre, where sunlight is already scarce on this late afternoon. Today is Halloween, and Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi plays from a Detroit radio station’s Scary Songs Playlist. The haunting sound of Richie Sambora’s 12-string Ovation guitar, though soft, resonates on the chamber’s walls and overbears meagre conversation, while an influx of quiet, sore and stressed student-athletes populates the single door-less entryway.
Almost paradoxically, what contributes most to the room’s ominous mood is its busyness. The beginning of winter sports and the intensifying of fall ones has hobbled everyone from hockey players to cross-country runners. One after another, athletes hoping for the best outcome, but fearing the worst, meet with therapists to discuss and treat the ailments threatening their seasons. It’s a dreary feeling, and a sad sight. The best therapy room is one free of patients – nobody likes being injured, athletes least of all.
Supplying demand, therapists shift from one treatment table to the next, placing electro-stimulation rubber pads smothered in blue gel on their patients’ muscles. Student assistants frantically tape ankles and football players draped in kinetic tape and bandages run amok. The stretching area at the center of the room is saturated, and all the exercise bicycles by its front wall are in use. Despite the warmth, good humour and knowledge of the practitioners, athletes leave the room hoping they will not come back.
As an athlete who has come back, I notice a familiar presence dismounting one of the bicycles to unroll herself a yoga mat. Amidst confused first-time rehabbers struggling with therapy band stretches, she conveys an air of professionalism, moving from one exercise to the next with a sense of purpose and extreme comfort. She wears a San Francisco Giants hat as a near extension of herself, covering her blonde hair, and walks in seasoned training shoes. Her tank top reveals a nearly uninterrupted sleeve of tattoos on her left arm. Today, she challenges late fall’s melancholy by making jokes.
“You’re telling me I could have biked faster?” she quips at a teammate also receiving treatment. “I hope that’s not a chirp.”
She then turns to Dave Stoute, one of the therapists, to chime in on his quibble about the St. Denis Centre’s limited parking terrain due to the building’s ongoing renovation project. She holds three lively conversations at once, soliciting a few much-needed laughs.
Her name is Krystin Lawrence. She is a 22-year-old Tecumseh native studying sociology, but for long-time Lancer athletes and fans, she needs no introduction. Being only in my second year at the University of Windsor, I infer that she is revered within Windsor’s athletics program by the amount of attention she receives from therapists, and by how many eyes are on her as she completes her rehabilitation exercises, one by one, day after day. Today, band-assisted donkey kicks succeed her bike warm up.
Lawrence is a multi-sport varsity athlete – a fearless soccer goalkeeper by fall, and an offensive dynamo for the women’s hockey team by winter. She is perhaps the first hybrid player of her kind to wear the blue and gold, and undoubtedly the most successful. She turned heads as a first-year athlete in 2014-15, winning the OUA’s rookie of the year award in hockey while holding down the starting keeper job in soccer. She shone in her sophomore year, being named to the OUA second team of hockey All-Stars and winning her first scoring title. Her coming out party, however, happened in 2017 – the year that made her face recognizable through campus and her name tightly nestled in the last half-decade of Lancer lore.
Lawrence’s junior campaign was generational. She first gave an unranked Lancers’ soccer team a fighting chance at the OUA title.
“In 2016,” she says, as her eyes light up, “we were not expected to make it far. We beat MacMaster in the OUA quarterfinals in a shootout, and moved on to play York. They were nationally ranked – everyone had them beating us. The game was tied, 0-0, and again we went to penalty shots.”
She stops and lets out a giggle.
“Shoutouts in soccer are a lot of luck for the goalie. Their first shooter was Nour (Ghoneim), one of the best soccer players I have ever seen, and somehow I saved her shot. Everybody was going crazy. We then go and score, and their second player missed the net.”
For the first time in history, the women’s soccer team had made it to the OUA final four. Although they were eliminated after losing the following game, Lawrence’s efforts in goal granted her first team OUA All-Star honours.
“Everyone battled hard, we exceeded expectations,” she says with a smile, before pausing for a moment. “I will never forget that.”
Barely a week later, approaching 2016’s holiday break, Lawrence was shining on the Lancers’ hockey team. She posted a season for the ages, winning the OUA scoring title by recording 32 points – including an astonishing 23 goals – in 24 games. Her play earned her OUA Player of the Year honours, and one of only three nominees for U SPORTS player of the year.
“Winning that award was special,” recalls Lawrence. “(Former Lancer) Jenny McKnight won it in her fifth year when I was a rookie. I strived to follow and become like her.”
Unequivocally, Lawrence was given the Banner Shield, granted to the Windsor Lancers’ female athlete of the year.
Nearly 18 months removed from her year of triumph, Lawrence’s aura is still one of a person excelling in her milieu and craft. She looks directly at you when she speaks, exudes confidence, and walks with something of an assured strut. At first glance, one cannot notice that her strut is in fact a limp. Even at second glance, you could never tell that Lawrence has been torn apart from what made her rise to prominence – what she loves most – for well over a year now.
“It happened three games into my fourth year soccer season, so fall 2017,” she says, between sighs. “We were playing Brock, in St Catharines. They get a penalty kick. I go to my right – I always go to my right, and shift left if the shooter goes left. This time, she’s going right so I move. My cleat gets caught in the turf, and my knee snaps and buckles under me. I tried to get up, and collapsed. I was in disbelief, thinking ‘this is not happening right now,’ but with the pain I was feeling, I knew I was done.”
The diagnosis: a torn MCL and meniscus, and a bone contusion.
“We wanted to build on our (OUA) final four finish, and the season was over for me like that.”
The injury forced Lawrence to miss out on her hockey season as well. Despite her year being written off, she worked throughout the winter, spring and summer to resume her career in the fall. She elected to forego the 2018 soccer season to secure a long, injury-free hockey season.
Fate unfortunately had other plans. In only her third hockey game of the 2018 campaign, disaster struck again. Standing on the bench while waiting her turn on the ice, an awkward weight shift made her collapse over her same knee.
“The MRI showed more tears,” she says. “This time in the ACL and meniscus. As it turns out, the knee had not yet healed.”
What was supposed to be a triumphant return to play has become a saga of frustrations. For the second straight year, the Lancer athletics program’s deadliest asset is sidelined. She is scheduled for surgery on January 6, and the operation comes with a lengthy rehabilitation period that will keep her away from soccer and hockey for several more months.
Lawrence finds it difficult to communicate her pain to close ones – a pain unique to those coming down from the constant high of sustained dominance.
“Many people don’t understand what’s going on in my mind,” she says. “You just can’t understand it. People want to help me, but they have not been in the position I am in. I know I need help mentally through this, and sometimes it’s even hard to talk to my best friends about it.”
If someone can come close to fathoming her agony, it’s Candace Kourounis. A senior with the Lancers in Lawrence’s rookie year of 2014-15, Kourounis keeps in touch with her former linemate on a daily basis, despite living in Toronto.
“Krystin and I have a close relationship,” she says. “We have conversations about injuries, and the mental side of things… how to get over the pain of it. I think it’s important that Krystin surrounds herself with friends in times like these.”
Kourounis could tell that, even as a rookie, Lawrence was a special player.
“She’s one of the most talented players I had the opportunity to play with. She is a hard worker in all aspects of the game, and she’s a communicator on the bench. I think all those pieces came together to make her great. To see this happening to her right now is frustrating.”
“(Candace) always says the right things to keep me going,” says Lawrence. “She gets what I’m going through… she’s gone through a couple injuries herself. I’m very thankful to have a friend like her in my life.”
Not everyone that sees Lawrence’s situation from such a privileged vantage point; the consummate and compelled 22-year-old varsity athlete is often misunderstood in society. She teeters the line between still-teenaged dependent and 20-something-year-old assumed worker and contributor. The importance she places on her craft puzzles some, who see her dedication to sport as a futile hobby with an imminent ending.
“Now that this injury has happened, some people expect me to hang up the skates,” says Lawrence. “Deep down, it gets me asking ‘should I?’ They’ll say ‘you had a great career, you won all these awards… what else could you want?’ But they don’t get it. It’s not about the awards, or what you’ve done. It’s about doing what you love. I am not ready to move on from sport right now. I am not ending my career like this – I can’t. I have to keep working.”
Thankfully, Lawrence has an ability to find light in the darkest of situations. It is perhaps how she finds a way to crack jokes on a dreary Halloween afternoon, and how she justifies to herself that her current battle, though long, is worth fighting.
“Sometimes I think my career is over, but every injured athlete gets to this point. There are highs and lows. It’s about pushing through it and getting through tough times. I try to surround myself with positive people and make little steps every day. Mentally I am in a much better place than I was in last year. The only thing I can control is showing up to therapy every day and doing my work. Progress is progress.”
Kourounis thinks it is just a matter of time before Lawrence will be back intimidating penalty kickers and stumping goaltenders, even if the road back seems arduous. “It’s going to be a challenge,” says Kourounis, “but I know she wants to get back to the point where she was at a few years ago – back when everyone hated playing against her. She works this hard so she can get that back. I have no doubt that she will be back.”
For now, Lawrence tackles her rehabilitation feverishly, the only way she knows how to approach sport. “I’m down (in the therapy room) all the time,” she says with a shrug. If I have an appointment at 2:00, I’m there at 12:00. I meet the new athletes down there, and we support each other. Our therapists are awesome and they amaze me every day with how much they know.”
Natalie Paladino, the athletic therapist Lawrence has worked with most, praises her work ethic. “(Krystin) embraces each challenge we have given her,” says Paladino. “She always asks really good questions, and is not afraid of hard work.”
“The main points to focus on with rehabbing an ACL tear, in the beginning, is to help decrease pain, swelling and any secondary complications, then establish knee range of motion again, then progress into strengthening and correction of movement patterns.”
Paladino and Kourounis hope to see Lawrence return to play, even if she does not come back dressed in blue and gold. After five years of schooling in Windsor, her time as a Lancer will come to a close by the end of the winter semester.
“Moving on is not an easy task,” says Lawrence. “I put my heart and soul into both the hockey and soccer teams to help continue to build them into championship programs. Leaving just feels weird.”
Lawrence has lived in Windsor her entire life and has achieved many of her goals in the varsity sport. She cites her need for change and personal growth as her main reason for seeking a new experience.
“Change is always good in one’s life. I have done my time here and it’s time to give someone else the opportunity to fill the shoes that I’m leaving behind.”
What Lawrence also leaves behind is an impactful legacy, whether she can finish her career as a Lancer healthy or not. When asked about this legacy, for the first time, Lawrence looks down. It is a difficult question. How can one admit to one’s own acclaim and value to a people without sounding conceded? Somehow, Lawrence shares her truth with no hint of arrogance.
“As an athlete, I surpassed Jenny McKnight for most goals scored by a Lancer women’s hockey player. A lot of girls looked up to me to be the player and goalkeeper that I am, so I am proud of that. But really, my favourite thing to do is to help others get better. Now another girl will come in wanting to beat my records. It’s cool to think my name might live on like that.”
As she exits the therapy room, only to come back tomorrow, Lawrence adjusts her hat, grasps her water bottle, and rests a hoodie on the midsection of her left arm. It covers up all tattoos but one. Her forearm is inked with the face of a tiger – her favourite animal. To her, it represents strength.
“I feel like my strength is both mental and physical,” she says, displaying the artwork.
That mix of strengths helped her burst onto the scene four years ago and claim rookie of the year honours, and then made of her the University’s top athlete in three short years. It aided her in overcoming her first knee injury, and now it will guide her through this second one. That strength will follow her in whichever path she takes, while simultaneously living on in the South Windsor Arena, on the Lancers’ soccer pitch, and in the St. Denis Centre Therapy room.
Mental and physical strength. In the face of every goal, every save, every injury, and every gloomy October afternoon. That is her legacy.
And records get broken and ligaments heal. But legacy, that’s forever.
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