In a split-second, Madison Pierce knew the life that she had always known would be changed.
With four games left in her junior season, the EKU basketball player had been running down the court on a fast break, awaiting the pass from her teammate, Shay Solomon. Catching the pass, Pierce tried to jump-stop to make the shot. However, as she stopped, she knew something was not right. She shot the ball, fell to the ground and knew that she had torn her ACL.
“I knew it was the end of my season,” the senior forward said. “I just knew it was a tough surgery, a tough recovery, long road ahead.”
Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Pierce began her collegiate career at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa. Having had a very successful career with her team at Shelton State, Pierce had received several offers to different Division I programs. Of the many offers, it was EKU that she chose to be her new home.
“EKU really noticed how hard I play – the hustle,” Pierce said. “That’s really what I pride myself in. I guess they really saw me for me, not just the numbers I was producing.”
458 miles away from home, Pierce landed herself in a new state on a new basketball team and on March 1, 2018, the day of her ACL surgery, a new challenge to overcome.
Following her surgery, daily rehab started before practice. On some days, Pierce began as early as 5 a.m. Her rehab would push her to strengthen the repaired ligament. At first, it was difficult, but she was comforted in knowing that she could still cheer on her teammates in the last games of their season.
“Then after about a month and a half, it got really hard,” Pierce said. “They don’t really tell you the mental toll that it takes on you because as an athlete, basketball was my stress-relief.”
Though the end of the semester was one of the biggest challenges she had ever faced, she never walked through it alone. Her teammates, mother and other athletes who had gone through the same injury were always there to pick her up on the hardest days, she said. One of those athletes was EKU volleyball player Rachel Woody.
During her sophomore year, Woody had torn her ACL in a home match. Like Pierce, her sport had always been a huge part of her life, so the injury had initially been devastating.
According to the NCAA, over 2,000 NCAA student-athletes tear their ACL each year. At EKU, Pierce said that the group of the student-athletes who had torn their ACL around the same time would rehab together. She called them the “ACL Club.”
They would all share similar struggles and pain, but another important thing: positivity.
“Early morning rehabs, we would be like, ‘Man, I really don’t want to be here,’” Woody said. “We’d both just look at each other and be like, ‘You have to do it.’ We’d both want to get back on the court.”
Woody said that each day before she even got to the training room, she knew Pierce would be in there. Her hard work and persistent mentality helped push Woody on her toughest days, and Woody could do the same for Pierce too, she said. Especially for student-athletes like Pierce and Woody who are not from Kentucky, friends, teammates and other student-athletes are crucial in the recovery process.
One of Pierce’s teammates, senior Abby Wright, could also relate to Pierce, having injured her knee in high school and now sitting out with a fractured hand. When an athlete gets injured, all they can do is encourage their teammates and try to stay positive, Wright said, something that Pierce always tried her hardest to do.
“She kept her optimism about her,” Wright said, “And she was like, ‘I know I can’t finish the year, but I’m going to be here for my teammates, and I’ve got my senior year left. I’ve got 29 games in that season; that’s where I’ve got to make it count.’”
Then finally, after the countless early morning rehab sessions, days of extreme pain and feelings of doubt and defeat, Pierce finally made her post-surgery debut during their Thanksgiving tournament this season.
Though she is back on the court and working just as hard as she did before, she said she remains cautious and smart while playing in her final season, knowing that tough days will still come. That’s all a part of the process, Pierce said.
“The hardest part in those months was probably the lowest point in my life, so being able to bounce back, I feel like I’m stronger,” Pierce said. “I overcame something so big, and that’s really empowered me and made me more confident. Trusting the process, and it’s a sucky process, but at the end, I know there’s a reason for it.”