How I Recovered from Two ACL Tears and Came Back Stronger Than Ever
Angela Gargano shares the mental and physical steps she took to overcome not one but *two* severe ACL tears.
It goes without saying: No athlete ever wants to be diagnosed with a "career-ending injury." With an injury like that come months or years away from your craft-the thing that makes you feel alive-with no possibility of ever competing on the same level as before. It's like starting over again, hoping and praying that you'll be half as strong as you once were. And you can't help but feel like the years of hard work were a waste, since you somehow still got hurt.
For me, that happened when I tore my ACL in 2010. I was a strong NCAA gymnast who had never suffered a major injury. Then, while doing a double twist on the floor, I landed just right and tore my left ACL. Then came the even worse news: Later that day, sitting in the doctor's office, a sports physician told me that my career in gymnastics was over. I couldn't believe it at first-I clung to the idea that I could still be a gymnast someday. But a series of MRIs proved that the likelihood of complete recovery was small.
It's no secret that this happens to even the best athletes. Like many others, I couldn't help but wonder: Why me? My legs were strong. I spent months training lateral movements. I ate right and made sure that I was well-rounded in all aspects of my sport. But, for some reason, my ACL was unimpressed with it all. (Related: Why Rest Days Aren't Just for Your Body)
I didn't take the news well. Gymnastics was all I knew. And to top it off, I had never actually worked out (I simply practiced gymnastics) so I didn't know how to keep myself occupied. Naturally, being in college, I turned to drinking and partying-but that got old, fast. After undergoing surgery, I was forced to re-evaluate what I was doing with my life. Once I regained my mobility, doctors advised that I start working with a trainer to turn my situation around. I did, and six months later, I was back doing gymnastics. I was lucky that I was still able to practice my sport, but I wasn't even close to the level I was before. I went from being on my college team to doing routines five times a week for, well, nothing. That transition was hard for me and made me realize I needed to find a new passion to keep me active. (Related: My Neck Injury Was the Self-Care Wake-Up Call I Didn't Know I Needed)
That's when I turned to the world of fitness. After college, I heard about a local fitness competition through a friend. I was instantly intrigued. It sounded right up my alley since these competitions are usually a blend of fitness and bodybuilding-and even involve some gymnastics based moves. So I made it a goal to become one of the top competitors. And that's exactly what I did. It became the perfect opportunity for me to make working out in the gym fun and to be a competitive athlete again. Fitness became such a big part of my life that I decided to become a personal trainer and help other people reach their goals too.
Fast forward to today, I've held several World Fitness titles and recently became an American Ninja Warrior competitor. In May, I was competing on the ANW course in Philadelphia when the worst happened: I felt a pop in my other knee.
Going into the competition, I was the strongest I'd been in my life. I had been training for years and intentionally spent a lot of time working on lateral movements to protect my legs and ACLs. I was soaring across the course and on my way to being one of the top five females when, suddenly, my body collapsed after dismounting "The Wingnuts" (an obstacle that requires you to jump a on trampoline, grab a wedge that's shaped like a wingnut and swing horizontally to grab the second ledge).
When I fell, I instantly knew I'd torn my ACL, but I was in complete denial. I went to the ER, and they told me I had just sprained my MCL and that I'd be fine in a few days. I breathed a sigh of relief thinking that maybe it actually wasn't my ACL this time. But the next morning I woke with a lot of swelling. I stepped out of the shower and my leg completely gave out. At that moment, I knew I had been misdiagnosed. When I went into the hospital again, doctors confirmed: I'd torn my other ACL.
After officially getting the diagnosis, mentally, I wanted to give up. I was so close to my goal of being a top competitor and, just like last time, I was robbed of it all. There was definitely a moment where I thought: "I'll never be able to compete again," but it didn't last long. I remembered what it was like getting over my other injury and quickly decided to change my mindset. I told myself that not only was I going to become an ANW competitor again, but I was going to come back faster and stronger. When I tore my ACL the first time, I felt embarrassed. It was something I viewed as inherently negative, and-in one way or another-my fault. I allowed it to take me down a dark path. This time, I decided to look at it as an opportunity, rather than a setback.
For starters, that meant finding new and creative ways to stay active. I realized that my body is still capable of moving, even if it wasn't in the same way as before. I couldn't use my leg, but I could still use my arms and my core. While undergoing rehab for my right leg, I could still continue to strengthen my left leg so that I wasn't totally starting from scratch after recovery. Within a week of my surgery, I was already back in the gym on my crutches. I got creative with my workouts and realized that simple exercises I could do seated on a bench were key. I also kept setting different attainable goals so I felt like I had something to work for. As my knee became more stable, I began working on my pull-ups and push-ups, and learned how to do a better handstand. (Try these trainer-approved moves for stronger hamstrings or this leg workout for knee pain.)
Another huge part of my recovery was connecting with other people who'd been through a similar situation. I knew that females are six times more likely than males to tear their ACL. But I had no idea just how many female athletes had gone through or were going through the same thing. Overcoming severe injuries just isn't something a lot of people talk about. So, being a personal trainer, I took the initiative to connect with others, reaching out to physical therapists, athletes, and fellow Instagrammers within my community. Turns out, many had gone through or were going through the same thing.
Connecting with others through my recovery was a game-changer for me.It gave me a whole new perspective as I began rebuilding mentally and physically. Not only did it give me the comfort I needed mentally, but it also motivated me to keep going to the gym each day. I could talk to other people from all over the world who could relate to what I was going through. I even met up with someone I met on Instagram and did a one-legged workout together.
Through my recovery, scores of people reached out, asking: "How do you prevail after suffering from a career-ending injury-an ACL tear or otherwise?" "How do you stay strong mentally?" "Can you still work out?"
The answer: Of course you can. Some of the best athletes return from an ACL injury to have their best seasons ever. The bottom line is, whether you're an athlete or not, you can grow from an injury like this and become a better version of yourself.
But where do you start? From personal experience, I can say that the number-one thing you should focus on is your mindset. Overcoming an injury is much harder mentally than it is physically. For an athlete, having to rest and rehab can be tedious and boring, which can lead to depression and grieving. (Here's how to get the most out of your physical therapy sessions.)
You can also suffer from body dysmorphia, a fixation on your perceived flaws that reinforces critical thoughts about your body. As an athlete, watching the muscles in your legs slowly disappear can lead to a quick downward spiral. It's the same for non-athletes. The inability to do everyday activities like going to the grocery store or walking up and down stairs can feel frustrating and defeating. (Related: Lili Reinhart Made an Important Point About Body Dysmorphia)
So how can you overcome these natural and normal emotions? First things first: Accept your injury and recovery. It's okay to feel down, but don't get stuck. Cope with your depression and frustration by leaning on friends and family or even reaching out to a therapist. That's the first step in moving on. There's no sense in continually reliving the moment of injury and asking "Why me?" Instead, reflect and move forward. You're on a new journey now and you will come out stronger than before-if you do it right. (Related: How to Stay Fit and Sane When You're Injured)
It also helps to prepare for detours and delays in your recovery. Yes, in physical therapy, there are recovery timelines, but everyone is different. Understand that no matter how fast or slow your process is, you will get to your destination. And in the meantime, ask for help and connect with others going through the same thing. For me, sharing my journey and my scars was liberating-and you'll be surprised by how many people have gone through the same thing.
I hope that people are inspired to realize that a "career-ending injury" doesn't mean your life has to stop or that you can no longer be an athlete. You have the power to use your injury as an opportunity to build strength in ways you might not have imagined before. If I've learned anything from my multiple rides on the ACL-injury roller coaster, it's that you have to be patient and treat yourself with grace. Your injury doesn't define you. It's a stepping stone for shaping you into the person you're yet to be.