Carmen Backes recently reached one of those crossroads in life.
Should she take one path, hanging up her basketball sneakers for good, conceding that her severely damaged right knee had ended her University of Wisconsin women’s basketball career before it ever really started?
Or should she undergo one more surgical procedure, her fourth in three years, to give herself one more chance?
In the end Backes knew there was only one direction she could go.
“Basketball is the thing that makes me feel the most alive,” Backes said. “I’m very passionate about it.
“I had a decision to not have this last surgery and medically retire. But for me, I feel like there’s still hope and I wanted to give myself the best chance so that when I’m older I can look back and say that I tried everything. Even if I get one year of college basketball and even if it’s just practicing, for me, that would be worth it. This is something I’ve dreamed of since I was a little girl and I’m not ready to give it up yet.”
With that motivation Backes underwent surgery in November, performed by noted reconstructive orthopedic specialist Brian Cole of Rush University in Chicago, to have a knee cartilage transplant from a cadaver donor.
It is, the redshirt freshman admits, “a last-ditch effort” to revive her once-promising career and she’s trying to balance an optimistic and a realistic outlook on her future.
“There’s a high rate of success and it already feels really great,” said Backes, who finally was able to walk on her own this week after nine weeks on crutches. “I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m trying to look forward and stay positive and keep battling, but also not put a time limit on myself and make sure I get fully healthy.”
Backes has rarely been healthy since suffering a torn ACL in the middle of her junior season at Chisago Lakes High School in Lindstrom, Minnesota. At the time she was a consensus top 100 prospect, averaging 27.4 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.
She committed to UW coach Jonathan Tsipis after that season (over other finalists Minnesota and Princeton) and figured to be a centerpiece of his program.
Tsipis saw a rare combination in the 6-foot-2 Backes, who had the size and strength to score and defend in the post and the shooting ability to step out and score from beyond the arc.
Those skills were intact her senior year when she returned to average 22.6 points and 13.1 rebounds. But late in the season she felt some pain in the knee and had a minor procedure to clean out some cartilage that spring.
At least it was supposed to only be a minor setback. But the pain lingered, preventing her from participating fully in practices and ultimately causing her to redshirt her freshman season.
After another cleanup procedure failed to fix the cartilage issue, the decision was finally made to undergo the transplant.
Even as she faces an uncertain future, Backes concedes that the past two years have been trying ones. Beyond the physical issues, she said the mental struggles have been even more challenging.
“Your brain changes a little when you get injured,” she said. “You don’t have as many endorphins from the exercise you’re used to so that changes your mood.
“There have been the real down points, but we have a lot of mental resources here. It’s not always talked about but I see a sports psychologist very often. Just playing Division I sports is really a battle mentally. But when you’re injured it’s especially hard. So for anyone also injured I’d really encourage them to not try to do it all on your own because you don’t have to live in a dark hole. You can get help and get support.
“It is really hard and there have been times I didn’t think I was this weak and this broken down. A lot of that is just acceptance and humility and realizing that’s part of living.
“I really do think it has changed me. I’m really learning how to be present in the moment and not wish time away and learn who Carmen is outside of being an athlete because it’s not guaranteed that I’m going to be an athlete again. It’s still important for me to learn how to value myself as a human and know what I can give back to the team by being a person to listen to them or lean on or serve them in any way.”
While she hasn’t been able to help out on the court, Backes has focused her energy on encouraging her teammates, serving as a sounding board and coordinating game-day chapel services for the team. That impact has not gone unnoticed.
“She’s utilizing the other special talents she has,” Tsipis said. “She has very good leadership skills. That’s a really hard struggle mentally when you’ve done something and it’s taken away from you and you’re around it every day. But we want her to understand that without a ball in her hands how valuable she still is to our team.”
While her athletic pursuits are limited to rehabbing her knee and working on her core strength, Backes has been able to throw herself into her academic pursuits. She’s a 4.0 student, majoring in communication sciences and disorders, and plans to be a speech therapist. This spring she will be a research assistant for the language and cognitive neuroscience lab in the psychology department.
“I’m trying to use this time invest myself in research and other areas where I can give back,” she said.
And in a best-case scenario, her knee would allow her to play four years while eventually pursuing her graduate degree. “I’m hoping that works out,” she said. “I really love learning.
“It’s a very interesting waiting time. I obviously haven’t shut off the idea that I will be playing again and that’s what I’m working toward and that’s how I’m rehabbing.
“But another part of me knows that I need to deal with the reality that it’s not guaranteed and I just appreciate the moments now when I still have the chance to lift and get better. I do believe that the body has amazing ways of healing itself so I do trust that I can get back.”
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