Track: All-Area runner on the mend after surgery

A scar is visible below the left knee as Marc Muzzarelli performs joint mobilizations on Samantha Zakaloski during a physical therapy session at Orthopedic Associates in Port Huron. / MELISSA WAWZYSKO/TIMES HERALD

Samantha Zakalowski had grand plans for the summer.

The soon-to-be Algonac senior was expected to use the summer to prepare for her final year of high school athletics. But Zakalowski’s summer got off to a tragic start, as she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee and also partially tore her meniscus while competing in the Division 2 state track meet June 2.

“When it happened, I didn’t think anything of it,” Zakalowski said. “I went to urgent care the day after because the swelling was pretty bad. They told me I partially tore my meniscus, but they didn’t know how bad. Then I got back the MRI results in mid June that I had tore my ACL. It was the first time I had ever really been injured. I had never had any broken bones, stitches or anything.”

On top of hurting her leg, the disappointment of failing to win a track and field state championship bothered Zakalowski. In the race she was injured, Zakalowski was leading the pack in 300 hurdles.

But entering the stretch run, her leg caught the last hurdle, and she did not place. Earlier in the day, she finished fourth in the 100 hurdles to finish all-state.

“Finding out I was hurt made it even harder,” Zakalowski said. “I’m not really sure what I did wrong. I kind of just ran the race like any other race. I was gutting it out trying to win. I’ve never run a race that hard before. I knew I could do it, but I had never gone out that hard.

“My steps weren’t off or anything. Maybe my body was either too tired or I over-strided and my foot got caught.”

Dr. Todd Murphy performed Zakalowski’s surgery on June 28 at Orthopedics Associates in Port Huron.

“It is unusual to sustain this type of injury as a hurdler,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a hurdler for this injury. She must have come down on it funny.

“If you look at how she’s put together, she isn’t someone that’s high risk other than being a female. In her situation, it was more bad luck.

“We get a lot of kids that are playing soccer, and they cut and pivot, and their ACL pops. It’s different from a hard crash going full speed and coming down.”

Samantha Zakaloski smiles as she performs a side plank during a session with Marc Muzzarelli on Friday during a physical therapy session at Orthopedic Associates in Port Huron. / MELISSA WAWZYSKO/TIMES HERALD

Zakalowski was at her best as a junior in several ways. She ran cross country for the first time to help train for the track and field season and ended up winning the Marysville, Port Huron and Center Line invitationals before ending the season on the Times Herald All-Area Cross Country team.

“In 33 years of coaching, what happened to Samantha is the most heart-breaking thing I’ve ever seen,” Algonac girls track coach Dan Shafer said. “I’ve never felt more sorrow for an athlete. But she has great resolve in her that she is going to come back.

“I’m confident she can come back with no problems in her recovery. She has to do what the doctors tell her. She is an impatient person, she just wants to be able to run. She can’t run cross country season, but she might catch the tail end of basketball season. I know she just wants to focus on track.”

For several weeks after the surgery, Zakalowski went to physical therapy five days a week. Now she is down to three, four-hour sessions per week and is looking forward to getting off crutches in a week or so.

But therapy is long and grueling, and Zakalowski knows she still has a long way to go to get back to where she was before. “Therapy is going pretty good, but I had a slow start,” she said. “They had to stitch my meniscus, and they didn’t want to tear the stitches, so I had to go slow.

“Therapy is pretty long. They start therapy by massaging it and then they put heat on it. Then they do an ultrasound of the back of my knee. Then I get it stretched and go to the gym for different types of stretches and strengthening. After that, they stretch me again, ice it and apply electronic stimulus, and then I’m out of there.”

In all, Zakalowski will spend hundreds of hours this summer in therapy. But she hopes when it is finished she will be a much stronger athlete overall.

“They are working on a lot of different things to strengthen my knee, but also my calf, quad and upper body,” she said. “They want everything to get stronger, not just my knee.”

Instead of focusing on other sports she has played in high school such as basketball, soccer and cross country, Zakalowski only has the 2013 track and field season in mind.

“I definitely want to go back and show everyone that tearing your ACL doesn’t mean you won’t be as good,” Zakalowski said. “I don’t want others to think I’m never going to be back to normal.

“It’s frustrating because I know colleges are not going to want to look at me until I’m running again. But that motivates me more to show them I can go back and do what I did before.”