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Putnam County senior Claire Griffith (second from left) finishes the 100-meter dash April 13 at the Rollie Morris Invitational at Hall. As an eighth grader, Griffith tore her Posterior Cruciate Ligament in her left knee, which “makes up less than 20 percent of injuries to knee ligaments” according to WebMD.com, and injured her Posterolateral Corner, which “represents less than 2 percent of all acute ligamentous injuries to the knee,” according to SportsMD.com. This is the first year she’s run sprints since the injury. NewsTribune photo/Genna Ord
On March 23, Putnam County senior Claire Griffith got into the starting blocks at Illinois State University’s Horton Fieldhouse for the 55-meter dash.
She felt nervous, but also excited.
The gun went off, she raced down the track in 8.6 seconds and finished third in her heat.
When she crossed the finish line, she cried.
So did PC coach Missy Carlson.
It also was an emotional moment for her father, Trent, who was in the stands. The race was four years, 26 months of rehabilitation and a major knee surgery in the making.
“It means so much to me,” Griffith said. “It’s such a feeling of triumph. I finally beat this. Nobody ever thought I’d run again. My times aren’t good. I’m not the best one on the team, but it’s just the fact that I’m doing it and I’m out there. My times are getting better and better each meet. Even if I don’t win the race, I at least am doing it and I can try, and that’s a big thing for me.”
In May 2009, Griffith was practicing handoffs with her Putnam County Junior High relay teammates the day before the IESA Sectional in which she was a member of the No. 1-seeded 400-meter relay and the top seed in the 200-meter dash. After successfully completing a handoff, Carlson — then the coach at the junior high — had her squad run it again.
This time, Griffith collided with a teammate and her left leg came down hard with her knee at a 90-degree angle.
The impact tore her Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL) — which “makes up less than 20 percent of injuries to knee ligaments” according to WebMD.com — and injured her Posterolateral Corner (PLC), which “represents less than 2 percent of all acute ligamentous injuries to the knee” and can “have devastating consequences to athletic performance” according to SportsMD.com.
Initially, Griffith got up and tried to run again, but her knee locked up and she fell. “That’s when I kind of knew something was wrong,” Griffith said.
She woke up the next morning with her knee swollen to “three or four times” its normal size. After attending the sectional meet, Griffith went to the emergency room.
The original diagnosis was a bone bruise that would heal on its own, but a month later when Griffith still couldn’t walk correctly, she returned to the doctor.
An MRI revealed her true injuries and she was referred to Rush University Medical Center to see Dr. Brian Cole, who is the team physician for the Chicago Bulls and the co-team physician for the Chicago White Sox.
Griffith learned her true diagnosis in June, then went through rehabilitation until her November surgery, which replaced her PCL with an Achilles tendon from a cadaver and fixed her PLC with tissue from a cadaver.
Post surgery, she wore a hip-to-ankle brace for two months and was on crutches for an additional four months. She also underwent 10 months of physical therapy.
There have been several tweaks of the injury that have caused more rehab.
The injury derailed a career that — based on her junior high times — Carlson felt would have “definitely” included state trips and had a “great chance” to include state medals, and it dashed Griffith’s dreams of running track and playing volleyball in college.
“It was really heartbreaking to me to realize my dreams kind of got away from me because there was no way I could come back after that. It wasn’t feasible,” said Griffith, who will attend Monmouth College. “But at this point, it is what it is.”
Now, Griffith hopes to watch her younger sister, Paige, fulfill her athletic dreams. Paige is a PC sophomore who was NewsTribune All-Area in volleyball as a sophomore and a state qualifier in the hurdles as a freshman.
“I’m so proud of my sister for doing the things she does, and hopefully she can get a scholarship and pick it up where I left off and do her thing as well as mine so I can go watch her,” Claire Griffith said.
Despite her college plans being gone, Claire Griffith returned to play volleyball her final three years of high school and basketball for her sophomore season and part of her junior season before another knee injury relegated her to manager as a senior.
Even though she returned to volleyball and basketball, Griffith avoided track as a sophomore. She returned to the team as a junior but only threw the shot put and did not run.
“I was really scared of it,” Griffith said. “I was scared of the track. I was scared of getting out there again. I was still scared last year and I’m still scared this year. Every single time I’m on the track it freaks me out, but it’s getting better and I’ll get over it eventually.”
While away from track, Griffith turned her efforts elsewhere.
She focused on her academics and became an Illinois State Scholar and her class salutatorian, she reconnected with friends she’d lost touch with while so focused on athletics and she became one of the first two females to ever join the Standard Fire Department along with friend Alyssa Foley.
However, as a senior, Griffith decided it was time to test her knee again.
“Twenty-six months is a long time,” she said. “There was so much time and effort and money and sweat and tears invested into my knee that (I thought), ‘I’m not going to just give up because it hurts for a couple more strides.’”
Griffith had to relearn her block starts and adapt to avoid using her left leg on her first step and she had to alter her running form.
After running that first 55, Griffith built up to running the 100, and after a few meets with the 100, she added the 200 back to her repertoire.
Griffith’s times have gradually gone down, and Carlson hopes to have her in a relay by the end of the season.
“She had to work hard. That’s a big surgery. It was a very unusual injury,” Carlson said. “She’s had a long road. I think it’s scary to get out on the track and be able to trust that it won’t give out in the middle of a race. Mentally and physically, she had to overcome all that.
“She’s a great kid. She’s a hard worker. I’m going to miss her a lot next year. I’m very glad she’s been able to come back as a senior and meet her goals.”
Kevin Chlum can be reached at 220-6939, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsEditor.
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