“Uncle” was Andover senior Hayleigh Rider’s safe word during her rehabilitation sessions with physical therapist Steve Vequist. If he pushed her too far and if the pain became too intense, she could say “uncle,” and he’d stop.
“It was when I absolutely couldn’t take the pain,” Rider said. “I never said it. I wanted to keep going and keep getting better.”
Rider, a pitcher/first baseman and four-year starter for the Trojans, is back playing softball, the sport she loves and will play at Butler next year. She has hopes of then playing Division I softball, fulfilling a longtime dream.
Getting to this point, though, where she’s nearing 100-percent health, hasn’t been easy.
Rider’s initial injury happened in seventh grade when she was stretching out for a ball. It was a low grounder and as she stretched, she twisted her left leg awkwardly and dislocated her kneecap.
She had surgery shortly thereafter, which is when she first met Vequist.
In October, though, Rider had surgery again because she was having problem with her range of motion in the left knee.
“(It) was a surgery to help the alignment of the knee cap,” Vequist said. “She was having problems with her knee cap wanting to go out of place. So they go in and make a small incision and try to tighten up the on the inside of the tendon that attaches to the knee cap.”
Recovery was expected to be quick, maybe three months.
“For her, it’s gone on at least twice that long,” Vequist said.
And there was nothing easy about it for Rider.
“I was having a bunch of complications,” Rider said. “I couldn’t bend my knee. They kept saying, ‘It’s all in your head, you’re too scared.’ No, I know when it hurts or not. I had to dose up on pain pills.”
Her love for softball kept her pushing through, battling those long days where she didn’t do much and had little control over anything.
She longed to be out on the softball field, or at least in the batting cage.
“When I’m pitching, I always feel like I’m in control and I control every pitch, every play. When I get up to bat, it’s just me and the pitcher. I almost think of it as an individual sport,” Rider said.
Her body responded to the surgery by producing a lot of scar tissue, which kept her from bending her knee. So about seven weeks after the first surgery, she had another to clean out the scar tissue.
“Unfortunately after that surgery, because they had to scope the knee, it created more scar tissue,” Vequist said.
Rider was on crutches for 3½ months and in therapy five days a week. Despite going into therapy with a perpetual smile and a willingness to work no matter what challenge Vequist issued, there was little improvement.
“She has handled it so well,” Vequist said. “She’s been so tough and had so much drive to get back…. You ask her to do a task or challenge her to do it, she’ll get right out there and do it. She’s very tough, and I admire that about her. You wonder how tough a person is, then you see how much scar tissue they have.
“She wasn’t held back by pain. She was held back by scars.”
Three weeks after the second surgery, and instead of another surgery, Vequist bent her knee back to loosen up the scar tissue while Rider was under anesthesia.
“They said they heard a lot of popping and it was really hard to get it to the bending position,” Rider said.
Finally, she could bend her knee. Finally, that awful tightness started to lessen. Finally, Rider’s physical therapy started paying dividends.
She ditched the crutches and started focusing on increasing not only her range of motion but on building strength.
“After two or three surgeries, you have no leg muscles,” she said. “… A few weeks after I got off the crutches, I went to work out. I was on the treadmill and then this girl gets on right next to me. I’m so competitive. I started thinking I had to go faster than her. ‘Really Hayleigh, you just got off crutches.’”
Rider has been pain free for about a month. She’s focused on enjoying her senior season, which she has high hopes will be a winning one.
She’s not pitching as much because her left leg is her push leg and it still doesn’t have the kind of strength she needs. She’ll be over at first base, a position she’ll play in college.
“She’s a really good player,” Andover coach Max Hamblin said. “Good hitter, good pitcher, and she’s one of our leaders. Obviously she just has the desire to win, which we haven’t done here in a long time.”
So many times over the past six months, Rider has been driven to push through difficulty simply because of her passion for softball.
She’s given everything she has to get return to the high-level player she’s been, all because of that love for the game.
There was no crying “uncle,” and now she’s back.