North Carolina senior field hockey player Katelyn Falgowski is finally getting the senior year she deserves.
The top-ranked Tar Heels are headed to the NCAA semifinals for the third consecutive year and are seeking their third national title in the past five years — and seventh overall — at Louisville’s Trager Stadium beginning Friday. UNC will face fourth-seeded Connecticut, while Maryland and Old Dominion will tangle in the other semifinal.
The opportunity to compete for a national championship might be most rewarding for Falgowski, who had to sit and watch her teammates from the sidelines during all of last season after suffering a preseason concussion.
In August 2010, Falgowski was at the top of her game. A native of Landenberg, Pa., Falgowski was an All-America midfielder and a Dean’s List student; she had been a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team with plans of participating in 2012. Falgowski had just returned from a European trip with the U.S. National Field Hockey Team, and jumped right into preseason practice with the defending NCAA champion Tar Heels.
Emergency room visits are on the rise for kids with sports and recreation-related brain injuries, a CDC report said last month.
According to the study, almost 250,000 children were taken to the ER with concussions and other brain injuries in 2009, up from just 150,000 in 2002.
Dr. Julie Gilchrist, a pediatrician at the CDC, and lead author of the study says she believes the numbers are up because parents and coaches are better educated.
“Because of the increased awareness of concussions, we hope more people are seeking treatment and evaluation of traumatic brain injury,” she said. Early detection and treatment, she says, are the key to preventing serious complications.
“First is recognizing there may be a brain injury, and pulling that child out of play,” she says. “Then they need to be evaluated by a medical provider that’s trained in diagnosis and management of concussions.”
About a week into practice, the Tar Heels were holding an intrasquad scrimmage.
“I went to go intercept the ball — in retrospect, I probably left a little too late — and I ran into one of our assistant coaches at the time,” Falgowski said. “I thought she was going to be turning the other way when she received it. I went hard to intercept it and she turned right into me and the back of her head smacked into my front left-eye area. I went down and was out of it.
“It wasn’t necessarily a really hard hit, or something really brutal — it was just something normal that happens when two players run into each other.”
Falgowski did not black out, but immediately did not feel well and suffered from blurred tunnel vision for about an hour after the collision.
After about five days of no activity, Falgowski underwent a gamut of concussion tests with the staff at UNC Sports Medicine, renowned for their work in concussion research.
“I took it easy for a few days and thought I was feeling fine,” Falgowski said. “I went into take the tests the first time, and came out and my scores were nowhere near where they should have been. It was definitely discouraging, but a lot people don’t pass it the first time.”
Most concussion symptoms subside in one or two weeks. Falgowski was not so fortunate. Her balance and visual acuity were nowhere close to her baseline numbers — every student-athlete is tested at the beginning of their career. There was more rest, and then more test-taking.
“For about two weeks, I had not been doing anything,” Falgowski said. “I started to just warm up, and one day I did some minimal activity, but I guess it was too much for me at the time. I plummeted again and had a big setback. I went back to really poor scores on the tests again.”
Falgowski stopped all activity, and worked with the UNC medical staff and trainers to alleviate the problem. Thankfully, she knew she was in good hands. Kevin Guskiewicz, chairman of UNC’s Department of Exercise and Sports Medicine, is recognized his work with sports-related concussions, and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for $500,000 in September.
“I knew I was feeling off, and I was still having vision issues,” Falgowski said. “The great thing about UNC is that we’re one top research centers for concussions in the country. I am so fortunate to be here with that staff and our trainers as well. I kept telling them I didn’t feel well, and the testing for it is so intensive that it is so amazing that it pinpointed the areas I was still having trouble with.”
Because of her slow path to recovery, Falgowski decided to forego the season and apply for a medical redshirt.
“Once we get outside of the normal recovery curve, we do not have a good litmus test for how long things are going to take,” UNC trainer Scott Olario said. “To guess at that is not something we want to do. The brain is a highly dynamic functional organ and once things break the normal recovery curve you expect, you’re going to get outliers. Katelyn was certainly an outlier.”
Guskiewicz referred Falgowksi to Dr. Susan Durham, who specializes in sports vision therapy and has worked National Hockey League players that have suffered from concussions.
“Right away, she was able to determine so many reasons why I was having trouble with my vision,” Falgowski said.
Falgowski underwent rehabilitation for visual acuity and capacity. She had trouble transitioning her vision from different distances, and could not focus on moving patterns.
In the meantime, Falgowski was not doing any physical activity in order to limit the stress on her brain. Even light jogging could tamper with her progress because of the visual strain. For an Olympic-level athlete, complete rest may have been the most difficult part of rehab.
“It was such a different feeling,” Falgowski said. “There are always points when you want to take a week off because you’ve been working hard for a long time — but that is a choice. I didn’t have the option of wanting to go out for a run — I just couldn’t. It changes your body. It was very challenging at points to get through the whole process of resting. Obviously, you only have one brain, so it is important that you treat it and allow it to get healthy again.”
In December, after about four months of no activity, Falgowski was allowed to work out on the stationary bike. At the end of January, she slowly began the process of playing again, and eventually joined the team in February with some of their workouts.
“I don’t think I was worried about running into anyone again, but I was concerned about pushing myself too hard and regressing,” Falgowski said. “I had come so far and was finally feeling well. I didn’t want to go through what I had just done again. I was fortunate to know my body well enough to know what it could handle and what it couldn’t. I wanted to be smart about things, and trusted the staff.”
Falgowski went to vision therapy until May, and continued to do visual exercises on her own, as well as playing special computer games to help her recovery. She now wears special prism glasses that help her peripheral vision.
“Katelyn did an unbelievable job of coming in to work on her visual rehab,” Olario said. “It’s something that is not easy. If she was not so diligent – even though it took four to five months to return to normal — it was a daily grind for her. I would be worried that if it happened to another player that did not have her motivation, recovery would have not happened as readily for that person.”
“There are people that it takes years for their vision to come back after something like this,” Falgowski said. “It was really scary for a few months.”
Although recovery was a long process, Falgowski’s return to the field has certainly been worth the wait.
“It has enjoyable because I hadn’t done it for so long,” Falgowski said. “I wanted to get back into shape, and have that feeling of my body being tired. I actually missed feeling my muscles being sore.”
Since August, Falgowski has more than made up for lost time with both the Tar Heels and the U.S. National Team. She earned her 100th international cap playing against Germany during a European Tour this summer.
“It was really encouraging that I was able to bounce back and get back up to the standard I had been at before the concussion,” Falgowski said.
Falgowski returned to join the Tar Heels for the season opener on Aug. 27, but has spent the last several months juggling her time between the two squads. She missed seven UNC games in October while playing for the U.S. at the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, as the Americans won their first gold medal in the competition with a victory against top-ranked Argentina, earning a spot in the 2012 Olympics.
“I dedicated a month of my season to the U.S. and accomplished that goal and now with just three weeks left in the season and I still have another goal to accomplish,” Falgowski said following her return from Mexico. “I’m setting my sights on that right now.”
Two days after flying back from Mexico, Falgowski started for the Tar Heels against then-No. 1 Old Dominion and tied the UNC career record for assists as she helped on the game-winning goal in the 3-2 overtime victory on Oct. 30 to conclude the regular season. The Tar Heels then claimed their first Atlantic Coast Conference title since 2007, defeating Wake Forest and Duke in a three-day span. With a goal and two assists in the two contests, Falgowski was voted tournament most valuable player.
North Carolina earned the top seed in the NCAA tournament, and has rolled to wins against Ohio and Michigan to clinch a spot in the NCAA semifinals for the third consecutive year. The Tar Heels are just two wins away from taking the national championship trophy back to Chapel Hill. But regardless of how much those accomplishments mean to her, Falgowski knows that no gold medal or trophy or accolade can ever substitute living a full, healthy life.
“Any competitor or athlete is going to on the outside say they’re feeling OK even if on the inside they’re not feeling well,” Falgowski said. “They’re going to want to play in that game even if they’re not supposed to. My coaching staff and trainers took the matter seriously and I was fortunate enough to understand the situation as well. You only have one life, and one brain.”