Just a few months after back surgery, South Carolina junior Courtney Furlong is back on the volleyball floor. Furlong suffered a herniated disk while lifting weights in the offseason last spring, but her desire to compete helped her gain a new outlook, and she is ready to simply enjoy the game she loves.
"I'm just so excited that I can play again because I thought volleyball was over," Furlong said. "It's just awesome."
Last February, Furlong and her teammates were lifting weights during an offseason workout when something happened during a series of squats.
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"When I came up on the second squat, I felt my back pull," Furlong said. "I thought, wow, that doesn't feel good. For a while it was just tight and I kept playing on it for a couple of weeks. I did some heat and [electrical muscle stimulation] with our athletic trainer, and I didn't think it was going to be a big deal at first."
Unfortunately for Furlong, it became a big deal. While many minor back ailments will heal over time with treatment, her injury wasn't healing as they had hoped, and it became increasingly difficult for her to walk.
"Getting out of bed was really tough," Furlong said. "I couldn't really do basic things. I would drive myself to class, and I would try to park as close as possible because it would take me around 20 minutes just to walk a few hundred feet."
Furlong went with her athletic trainer to the doctor to get an MRI, which revealed a herniated disk in her lower back.
"That's when the disk pops out and is hitting the nerve," Furlong explained. "At this point I was hunched over. I wasn't sleeping because I couldn't lay down. There was a two week period where I would sleep sitting up in a chair."
She was scheduled for surgery on her back in early May, which came as a relief to Furlong.
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"When they scheduled me for surgery in May, I wasn't really nervous," Furlong recalled. "I was excited because, at this point, I wanted to get rid of the pain."
Dr. Gregory Grabowski, who is a spine surgeon with Palmetto Health USC Orthopedic Center, successfully performed the surgery.
"After surgery, I remember waking up and had no pain," Furlong said. "I started crying because it was so awesome! The next day I was walking around campus, and you wouldn't have even known that I just had surgery."
Her fight to get back on the court wasn't over, however. After surgery, Furlong was busy rehabilitating her back for at least two hours every day to regain the strength she had lost in her core. She admits there were times when she had to push back doubts and fears regarding her ability to play again at a high level.
"I thought about what would happen if I wasn't able to come back and play," Furlong said. "It made me depressed. While you're doing it, it seems really hard. There are days when maybe you don't want to do it anymore. But it made me realize that I really love this sport, and I'm not ready to stop playing."
Once she began to see the results of her hard work, Furlong's resolve and confidence grew.
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"The doctors told me that the risk of the disk re-herniating was rare, but of course from all of the constant jumping we do, my back is probably not what it should be for an average 20 year old," Furlong said. "I started passing without jumping by the end of June. I didn't start playing fully until our pre-season in August. I think the coaches were a little bit shocked that I could do everything and didn't need to sit out since I had just had back surgery a few months ago."
Since then, Furlong hasn't looked back.
"I never really thought about hurting my back again," Furlong said. "Sometimes, when I first started playing, my back would get really tight, but that was about it. I play without thinking about my back.
"In my first match back, [Coach] Scott [Swanson] puts the starters on the board. I saw my number, and I got really excited. I just wanted to show everyone I could still do this."
With the 2017 season in full swing, Furlong is excited about competing. If she needs to, Furlong won't be afraid to put the team on her back to get where the Gamecocks want to be.
"I just want to help our team win and achieve our goals," Furlong said. "I want to make it to the NCAA Tournament."