By Ian Chiang
Injuries are a part of sports. Whether it is at the professional level or just high school athletics, injuries can plague athletes and prevent them from practicing and competing. Yet the toll injuries can take on athletes, both mentally and physically, is unknown to the average sports fan. What exactly does an athlete at a highly competitive level go through during the process of recovering from a severe injury? Marie Thompson, a senior on the Rice women's cross country team, experienced firsthand how serious injuries can be to an athlete but now focuses her attention to the current season post injury. On Sept. 14, Thompson and nine other runners competed for Rice at the Rice Invitational. With a time of 13:01 in a 3,800-meter race, Thompson led the Rice squad to a second-place finish. She finished seventh out of 138 runners, noteworthy considering this was her first race back after battling injuries for the last 18 months. "I was so excited to race - it was so fun to be back on the line again," Thompson said. "I was nervous a few weeks ago, but last week, we had a workout where I felt great, and something in my brain switched from 'I'm healthy' to 'I'm healthy, and I'm ready to race again.'" Head Coach Jim Bevan said he was incredibly pleased with Thompson's performance over the weekend. "She picked up where she left off. Thompson is going to be much better as the season progresses; she got started with a very good race after a long break, and I know she will only get better," Bevan said. Thompson, who said she had apprehensions about her first race back, was also pleased. "I think the race went pretty well," Thompson said. "Nothing can really prepare you for that special kind of race day pain, but overall, I thought it was a good effort, and I'm happy and relieved to have a solid start." Thompson said her injury was concentrated around her hip. "It's a long story, and we're not really sure how it started, but toward the end of my junior year cross country season, my legs were not right," Thompson said. "I continued to race into that indoor season, but by then I had a lot of pain in my right hip. Over the course of the next year, I saw a lot of doctors, trainers, surgeons, physical therapists and chiropractors who each had different opinions of what was going on." Thompson described the pain she persevered through last year as a junior. "Essentially, through over-training or bad shoes, the back part of my right leg had shut down," Thompson said. "My glutes and hamstrings were just not firing, and the front of my hip, quad and IT band had to compensate. By the time I stopped running and realized how serious the issue was, there were strains and inflammation in a lot of muscles in the front of my hip, and it was a frustrating trial-and-error process of rehab and treatment to see what my body would respond to." Injuries can be physically deteriorating for an athlete. However, injuries can also impact the mental toughness of an athlete. It can be extremely difficult to cope with missing competitions while enduring through the entire recovery and healing process. Bevan understands what it takes for an athlete at the college level to recover from injuries. "It is very frustrating for any high-achieving athlete," Bevan said. It is even tougher when they enjoy the basic act of running and they can't run without pain. It is very much a day-to-day situation, and not being able to do what is their instinct is very tough." Thompson went on to explain the other struggles she faced outside the physical pain of her injury. "It takes you away from a sport you love, from teammates you love, and from competition you love," Thompson said. "There were absolutely periods of time where I was really lost, in pain, cross-training alone and completely frustrated." Fortunately for Thompson, she had a supportive cast of coaches, teammates, friends and family that helped her along the way. This cast included Rice alumna and past All-American runner Becky Wade (Martel '12). Thompson said she was incredibly thankful for teammate Wade's support during the ordeal. "Wade, who graduated last year and went through a huge injury herself, had some great advice: Sometimes, you can't control the situation, but you can always control your perspective," Thompson said. "That was kind of the philosophy I lived by for a while, and even though there were bad days, in the long term, I knew it would be worth it." Bevan also said that Thompson was able to mature because of the experience. "Thompson has done a great job of learning about her body and where she is at and what needs to be done," Bevan said. "In addition, she has stayed optimistic about running and racing throughout her period of time away from racing," Thompson explained that she was able to learn and draw motivation from her teammates. "Being a distance runner is riding a fine line between hard training and injury sometimes, and some of the most talented friends and athletes I know on this team - Halsey Fowler, Keltie John, Jo Ohm, Gabe Cuadra, Matt Carey - have all been through some tough times with injuries," Thompson said. "Being there for each other and helping each other get back was huge for me." Competing at such a high level as the NCAA Division I means athletes need to put in extra dedication and hard work in order to put themselves in the game. Injuries may seem to derail athletes, but according to Thompson, the same amount of determination needed to compete needs to be translated to a strong impetus for recovery. "The discipline, motivation and just sheer work ethic it takes to rehab, get treatment and cross-train day after day can be mentally and physically exhausting," Thompson said. "We're not coming back because we want to be able to run again. We're coming back from injury because we want to compete with the best, and to do that, there's no cutting corners." In order to stay healthy for the rest of the season, Thompson said she has taken on a variety of injury-preventive strategies. "No distance runner is going to feel great all of the time, but I make sure I'm constantly stretching, foam-rolling and keeping up with my strength stuff," Thompson said. "I've learned to be completely honest with my coach and my trainer if something isn't right and that it takes more guts to call it and be safe than it does to train through the pain." While injuries are obviously never considered a positive experience, Thompson said that they do have certain positive aspects, including helping her to develop a new perspective and outlook on her passsion. "I've come out of this a stronger person and a stronger and definitely smarter runner, and that's invaluable," Thompson said. "My whole perspective about why I run and race has changed. I'm so happy and thankful to be healthy and to have the opportunity to run for Rice again with an amazing coach and an incredible group of girls."