STRONGER ON THE OTHER SIDE -by Lizl Kotz
It had been a long, grueling day on the tennis courts. Spirited cheering could be heard throughout Flamingo Tennis Center. German, English, Spanish, Afrikaans. Different sounds with the same urgent message-“come on, every point counts!” The World Cup Tennis tournament draws the best of the best from across the world. The women’s US team decides dinner and dancing would be in order after the last ball was struck. We all agree that there would be no time to return to the hotel for a shower. After all, cleaning up may infringe upon the hours of sleep needed to recover for play the next day.
I sit down with Kaysie Smashey taking in the evening sounds and smells of South Beach. The intensity of the day still replaying in my head. The salty rim of my margarita the perfect conclusion to a long day. I am eager to hear about Kaysie’s radical comeback story. A very accomplished tennis player with titles too many to list undergoes massive shoulder surgery. She comes back to place second in the world cup 35’s singles championship, first in the doubles championship with Anda Perianu and third in mixed doubles with Brandon Blankenbaker. Her shoulder able to generate power with unexpected moments of finesse over the course of fourteen matches in seven days. A medical victory that keep the bounce in the steps of orthopedists and rehab specialists.
I enjoy the vibe of South Beach in very limited quantities. Kaysie on the other hand, a true extrovert, comes even more alive. I watch her eye a woman in very high heels wearing barely a skirt walk by. While I am still processing the skirt, Kaysie is up and talking to the woman flashing her big smile. The women hands over her stilettos, Kaysie proceeds to try them on. She starts moving her body to the music. My jaw drops. For starters, who convinces a stranger to let them try on their shoes? Surely this woman can guess by Kaysie’s tennis uniform that there has been no foot scrubbing on Kaysie’s part. Kaysie gives the women a big thumbs up, returns the shoes and they part with a hug. This scene gets etched in my memory and my brain affirms what I already know-sports give people an extra shot of confidence. My thoughts drift back to how I met Kaysie in the first place.
The Flamingo Tennis Center is hustling and bustling with tennis players from all around the world. Miami ranks in the top ten most humid cities in the United States, but for a few minutes players forgive Miami for its damp air. The rekindling of intimate friendships is one of the rewards of being an adult athlete. Soon these players, eager to represent their country will battle these same friends for victory.
I carefully make my way across the porch, trying not to trip over one of the millions of enormous tennis bags strewn across the floor. The multilanguage chatter reminds me of the Tower of Babel except with a different ending. Instead of people scattering across the land, frustrated with not understanding one another, competition brings athletes together and highlights our basic humanness and not our differences. Amongst the chaos my eye catches a dark-haired girl, wearing a USA uniform, pull out a resistance band. Her posture is confident, her smile big and friendly. Her eyes are dark and they keep going-it seems they’ve seen a lot. I watch her run through a shoulder rehab-routine with a fervor only a physical therapist could appreciate. Since much of my time is spent treating and preventing injuries in athletes, I make a mental note to learn more about her injury. The next day I see the dark-haired girl icing her shoulder. I overhear her cheering on one of her teammates: “come on Julie, get your shit together.” I smile and sit down on the carpet-like St. Augustine grass, excited to talk shoulder rehab. Kaysie introduces herself and as she launches into her story, I hear words punctuated in gratitude. A gratitude that makes its home in athletes who have been given a second chance.
Kaysie Smashey played basketball, soccer and tennis throughout elementary and middle school. At age twelve her tennis coach sat her down and told her that even though she is a talented athlete and good at all three sports, she will need to pick one if she wants to be great. “Something told me that this was a big decision. I went home, spent some time thinking about my future and decided that tennis seemed like the best choice. As a young tennis player, I liked seeing adults at my club still working hard on their skill. I decided I wanted to pursue tennis-a lifetime sport. As much as I enjoy people, I liked the idea of battling it out alone on the court-not needing to depend on anyone else. I loved the idea of committing to one sport. I couldn’t get enough of tennis and my parents and coaches had to beg me to take rest days.” She progressed very fast and at age 15 won a Texas State 5A State Championship, a USTA National Championship, and a professional tournament. Kaysie agrees that playing multiple sports into her teens developed her well-rounded athleticism which allowed her to accelerate in a very short amount of time. In her junior year, the decision to play college tennis or enter the grind of professional tennis presented itself. Kaysie chose to play tennis for the University of Texas in Austin desiring the college experience and the insurance of a degree in case of future injury. Her foresight at age 17 would literally and figuratively serve her well. She earned her business degree and chose to continue with tennis instruction as a profession desiring to teach and mentor players of all ages.
In 2015 she was representing Texas at a regional event as an adult athlete when she felt discomfort in her right bicep muscle. She assumed it was muscular in nature and continued to play with the pain for two years treating it with massage. The pain progressed into the back of her shoulder and she knew there was no more denying a serious shoulder injury. Discomfort is no stranger to athletes, which is why many athletes deny the signs of injury and unknowingly push their bodies beyond repair.
Her MRI revealed a barely attached biceps tendon, a shredded labrum and a torn rotator cuff. No way around it, she knew she would need to go under the knife to repair the damage in her shoulder. Her long time friend and tennis foe, Julie Thu was ready to help in any way, shape or form. I remembered Julie as the girl who was Kaysie’s arch enemy on court yet clearly a pillar of support outside of competition. It’s the camaraderie shared by high level athletes that enables this paradox. Julie’s husband, Dr. Chris Thu, recommended colleague Dr. Eddie Seade for her shoulder repair which was to take place on August 4th, 2017. Kaysie was scared but found comfort in that Dr. Seade was a former All American track runner. She knew that he understood her strong desire to compete again. She also learned that Dr. Seade’s training in the shoulder is beyond extensive. Not only did Dr. Thu serve as Kaysie’s anesthesiologist but the Thu’s also opened up their home and took care of Kaysie for three days following this brutal surgery, easing both her pain and fears. During a phone interview Dr. Seade told me that the secret sauce for a successful outcome is to choose the correct procedure and to have a motivated patient who will work hard during the painful rehabilitative process. “Another factor is to minimize the amount of time the shoulder is open during surgery. Kaysie’s shoulder was repaired in only ninety minutes and then I closed her shoulder up.”
“For 6 weeks following surgery, my shoulder was in a sling. No tying shoes or putting my hair up in a ponytail without someones help. It’s a hard role to except for an athlete who is stubborn and used to running the show.” Her occupational therapist Matt Wymore at West Texas Rehab contributed with the following inspirational statement: “After Kaysie’s complex shoulder reconstruction, never playing tennis again at a high level was surely a possibility. This was a difficult journey filled with tears and laughter. We had weeks where Kaysie could not lift her arm up to scratch her nose, but together we focused on ‘winning the day’ and focused on what had to be done to get where she wanted to be. It brings me a lot of joy to see all of the pictures of her winning large tournaments, top rankings, and beating everyone badly now that she can serve overhand versus underhand. Kaysie would be the first to tell other patients that this journey is not easy, but so worth putting your heart and effort into”.
True to her fighting-fierce on-court personality, Kaysie set a very steep goal to compete in the Houston Clay Court Nationals, which was set to take place a mere 6 months after her surgery. Kaysie’s medical team released her to play doubles in order to ease her way back into competition. Physically Kaysie felt great; mentally she was a nervous mess. “I’ve never been a nervous player and all of a sudden I had to deal with nerves causing my legs to visibly shake. I tried to stop the tremor in my legs but I could not control it.” Kaysie eventually overcame the mental fight and won the doubles finals along with her partner Julie Thu. A few months later, the USTA informed her that she was selected to represent the USA 35’s team for the world competition. In preparation for this big event, Kaysie continued to strengthen her shoulder even though she no longer had pain. Her diet was clean as she believes eating a diet free of sugars and preservatives keeps the inflammation in her body at bay. Icing her shoulder after each match became routine even though it wasn’t hurting any longer. Playing for the United States is such an honor and she did not want to leave any stone unturned. She believed that the detailed self-care had to pay off.
The air feels thick yet positively charged, the St Augustine grass a thick carpet underneath our tired bodies. I glance at the ice on her shoulder- now a symbol of fortitude and not just an injury. Together Kaysie and I cheer on the United States. Our skin clammy, our hearts filled with gratitude to be doing something we love.