No ACL? No Problem
March 4, 2009
by Kristin Gold
Santa Clara Media Relations
Fans gasp in shock and disappointment when their favorite player goes down with an ACL tear. Names like Tom Brady, Carson Palmer and Tiger Woods all come to mind. Seasons and sometimes, athletic careers have ended from this common knee injury. Three years ago you could have added Lena Gipson's name to that list.
In her senior year at San Joaquin Memorial High School, Gipson had it all going for her. She was the North Yosemite League MVP her junior year and led her team to the Central Division IV Finals. She had signed a national letter of intent to play basketball at Arizona State University. All that changed during a pre-season tournament in 2005.
"I was on a breakaway layup," Gipson said recalling in the injury. "I went up to shoot the layup, the girl in front of me stopped short and she kind of caught me, my lower leg, around my shin. And then the girl behind me ran into my back and kind of pushed me into hyper-extension of my knee."
Gipson tore her ACL, the anterior cruciate ligament. The ACL is the ligament that connects the femur and tibia. The main function of the ACL it to prevent the tibia from translating too far forward in relation to the knee. The ACL is especially important in athletics because it stabilizes the knee during sudden movements.
Routine ACL reconstruction surgery looked like the answer, until Gipson developed arthrofibrosis, a condition where there is extensive scar tissue buildup in the joint, causing the knee to stiffen up. Doctors then tried to remove the excess scar tissue, but to no avail.
Gipson was confident she would get better. She enrolled at ASU and was still a member of the basketball team. But, after three surgeries she had not regained the motion in her knee. A doctor at ASU then suggested taking out Gipson's ACL, in case the ligament had been impinging on the bone. The plan was to rehabilitate the knee without the ACL, and once Gipson regained her range of motion, she would have reconstructive surgery to replace the ACL.
"I did not have reservations taking it out completely because nothing had been working," Gipson said. "The therapy that I had been doing through the first, second and third surgeries wasn't working and that was the most idea change that they had had, I felt. It was a good thing to try and approach it from a different light."
But, the surgery was deemed unsuccessful. Gipson didn't get her full range of motion back, so doctors never replaced her ACL. In December 2006 she was medically released from the Sun Devils. ASU said they would honor her scholarship for the full four years, but she had to sign over her athletic eligibility.
"That was really really difficult. Being an athlete my entire life and signing a piece of paper that said I'm never going to play basketball here, I'm not going to do what I had been working toward...I was signing away that right and that was very difficult."
To keep her spirits up Gipson went to the gym. She continued to rehab her knee, but this time the intention was to simply reduce the pain. After she gained some strength back she started to play pickup basketball in the gym with a group of guys. Her confidence skyrocketed.
"I was like 'I don't need to stop playing basketball!' I can obviously still play."
Gipson called her mom and told her she wanted to transfer to a junior college so she could continue to play basketball. "I know she was not very happy to hear I was going to give away three years of a full paid education, but she never told me that I couldn't do it."
With the support of her family Gipson moved home to Central California and transferred to Fresno City College. After a successful year there she came to Santa Clara.
Since her transfer, Gipson has led the Broncos in scoring, rebounds and blocks. She's become a force to be reckoned with in the paint, all while playing without an ACL. "It feels good to be able to play again," she said. "I just want to keep looking forward."
Watch the video to learn how Lena can medically play basketball without and ACL.