Back in Action

A disc injury couldn’t stop Rio Grande star Meghan Kolcun.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 10.8, November 2000,

Two years ago, Meghan Kolcun was eagerly anticipating the start of the 1998-99 women’s basketball season at the University of Rio Grande. A senior forward on the team, the 5’10” Kolcun (pronounced “Cole-son”) had helped lead the Redwomen to the NAIA national tournament during her junior year, and was preparing for a return trip to the postseason.

But on October 28, 1998, those plans took a sudden detour. Kolcun was running down the court during a preseason practice when she looked left and threw a pass to the right. As she made the move, she felt a sharp pop in her lumbar region and collapsed to the floor.

“She fell to her hands and knees, and once the initial pain subsided, we slowly worked her to a standing position,” says Shane Wells, ATC, who was then Head Athletic Trainer at Rio Grande. “She had no radicular symptoms at the injury, so we walked her to the training room. It took about two hours to get her from the middle of the gym to the training room, which was just off the gym, because of her pain.”

But Kolcun was determined not to let her college career end in the training room. Instead, she embarked upon a grueling rehab. Although her comeback was marked by a major setback that led to back surgery and a redshirt season, she ultimately returned to help Rio Grande reach the 2000 NAIA postseason tournament.

For her perseverance and fortitude in getting back on the court for her final season, Kolcun has been named Training & Conditioning’s College Female Comeback Athlete of 2000. Also honored are the members of her comeback team: Wells, who’s now Head Athletic Trainer at Shawnee State University; Bret Ferree, MD, Orthopedic Surgeon at Wellington Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Cincinnati; Shailen Metha, MD, Specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Holzer Clinic in Gallipolis, Ohio; Karen Meadows, LMT, Massage Therapist at the Holzer Medical Center; and David Smalley, Head Women’s Basketball Coach at the University of Rio Grande.

After her initial injury, Kolcun was sent for an MRI, which showed she had a herniated disc in the L3-L4 region along with bulging discs in the L4-L6 region. Despite the injury, Kolcun was determined to return for the second half of the season. So, she endured a series of three painful epidural spinal injections with a mix of sensorcaine, celestone, and Depo-medrol administered by Dr. Metha in an attempt to rehydrate the discs that had become “dry” and to help relieve the radiating pain. Her goal was to return to play by January 5, 1999.

At the same time, Kolcun embarked on a rigorous rehab program under Wells’ supervision as prescribed by Dr. Metha. “We did a lot of lumbar stabilization programs and abdominal exercises to compensate for weakness in the back,” Wells says. “Her flexibility was really bad when we started, so she did a lot of hamstring therapy. We also worked with the massage therapist to help push out some of the swelling that was developing after the injections in her back.” After several weeks of rehab, Kolcun was tested on a B200 isokinetic testing unit and rated in the 94th and 95th percentile for strength. With that success, she was pronounced ready to return to play.

On January 5, Kolcun played about 20 minutes of a game at her usual level of intensity. The next day, she was unable to walk because of the pain. “She was playing so well that she probably overplayed,” Wells says. “We had been told that there was a chance she could reinjure herself. She had a lot of numbness down her right leg, and stabbing pain that shot down her legs. That’s when her mom asked for another opinion, so we sent Meghan to Dr. Ferree.”

Dr. Ferree suggested Kolcun have surgery to remove the herniated disc, with the idea of returning to play the next season. After acquiring redshirt status, she continued lumbar strengthening exercises while awaiting surgery, but had a lot of trouble walking and sleeping.

“I slept propped on my couch,” she says, “and some mornings I couldn’t get up. I would have to call my mother—‘Mom, I’m stuck again.’ Or the coach or Shane would come to my dorm room and help me up.”

On February 26, 1999, Dr. Ferree performed a microscopic L3-L4 lumbar laminotomy and discectomy—which produced immediate results. “The herniation had been fused to my sciatic nerve so my whole right leg was numb,” Kolcun says. “The day after the operation, I was sore from the surgery and felt really weak, but I could get up and walk to the bathroom, which I hadn’t been able to do for more than a month.”

Kolcun then plunged into the second round of rehab. For six weeks after the surgery, she was limited to upper-body exercises in the supine position. In mid-April, she resumed her lumbar-stabilization program, and when she completed that, she incorporated Swiss ball workouts along with an overall conditioning program that ran through the summer.

“She got really advanced on the Swiss ball,” Wells says. “She started with lumbar exercises, arm swings, and arching. Then she got to the point where she was doing pushups with just her toes on the ball—she would roll herself back and forth with the ball.”

During her rehab, Kolcun’s conditioning program was limited due to the arthritis that had developed in her back from the chronic pounding she had taken over her career, so Wells had her working out in the pool. “That was the only way we could keep her in shape,” Wells says. “She could keep moving without taking a pounding and do all of her drills. When we got closer to the season, they shut down the pool for a few weeks, so we had to move everything over to a bike. But she did all her conditioning without running.”

As the 1999-2000 season approached, Kolcun was apprehensive about getting back on the court. “I was getting nervous, because I wasn’t allowed to run and wasn’t fully rehabbed until the season started,” she says. “I didn’t get to run until a week before my first game. My mom would say, ‘What if you get hurt again? You need to worry about the future.’ But my biggest worry was getting hurt and having to miss the season. I knew we were going to have a pretty good team.”

The turning point came during the first scrimmage a week before the season started. “I was nervous and afraid I couldn’t do certain things, like play defense,” she says. “I would stay away from everyone because I didn’t want to get touched. The first time I got knocked down, I was like ‘Ohmigosh’—it hurt, but I was OK.”

To ease the transition, Smalley moved Kolcun from small forward to the wing, where she would face less pounding than in the paint. “Being on perimeter eased her mind a bit, knowing she didn’t have to bang against taller kids,” Smalley says. “But she didn’t let up on her play. Every time she dove for a ball, we hoped she’d get back up. But it never affected her—she never backed away from a loose ball to protect herself.”

That’s not to say the season was effortless. “She’d arrive two hours before the game and go through her routine,” Wells says. “She’d start out with warm whirlpool for 15 minutes, then a stretching program, then electric stim, then massage. We had it down to where she finished with more stretching underneath the basket until the buzzer blew ending the final warmup, then she’d get in the huddle to start the game. After the game, she’d go straight to a cold whirlpool to try to keep the spasms down as much as she could.”

“Even though she’d sometimes miss the team warmup, I never had to worry about if she knew the pregame scouting report—she knew what needed to be done,” Smalley says. “It was reassuring to have a kid like that in the situation she was in. Nobody else could’ve gotten through it as well as she did.”

Kolcun went on to lead the NAIA in three-point percentage for the 1999-2000 season, and passed the 1,000-point mark for her career while leading the Redwomen to the NAIA Division I women’s postseason tournament.

Although she’s completed her career at Rio Grande, Kolcun continues to rehab. “I still do all my back exercises,” she says. “I put on my ankle weights and do lifts every night, and I’ve got a Swiss ball at home, too. Even though I’ve hung up my basketball shoes as far as playing competitively, I still like to go out and shoot HORSE. And I’ve picked up other things, like biking and rollerblading.

Nonetheless, Smalley is glad Kolcun will remain close to the team. “I look back in amazement at what she did, devoting all her spare time outside of class to rehab,” he says. “She went through a lot of excruciating pain. Even when she sat out her redshirt year and couldn’t play, she was at every practice she could attend and was such an inspiration to the other players. It was just an amazing comeback.”