Finishing strong: Brenna Detra and Ebony McClendon
Two of the fastest sprinters beat serious injuries
Usually after a fall on the track, Brenna Detra can get right back up. But when the University of Wisconsin-Madison sprinter and hurdler began to fall on hurdle No. 3 at the 2017 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon, she knew something was wrong when she couldn’t catch her feet.
As the crowd watched, Detra tumbled and fell to the ground in four or five precarious steps.
“I was like, ‘I can’t get up,’ ” Detra says. “‘I can’t walk. What’s going on?”
She had torn her ACL, MCL, LCL, a little bit of her meniscus and had chipped a piece of bone. The doctors said she wouldn’t run again for another nine to 12 months. But after retraining herself to walk and then run, Detra was back practicing hurdles at eight and a half months, and was race-ready in nine. “Whatever she could do to mess her knee up, she did it,” says Kareem Jackson, assistant coach for sprints, hurdles and horizontal jumps for UW-Madison’s men’s and women’s track and field. But after a rigorous training regimen and with the help of a talented medical and training team, Detra came back to compete in this year’s NCAA championships and ended her career as the second all-time fastest in the women’s 400-meter hurdles at UW-Madison. She also earned All-American status.
Defeat after injury is barely considered an option for this team. The same can be said of Ebony McClendon, who is the fastest female sprinter in the history of UW-Madison’s track program in the 60-meter dash, 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and the 4×100-meter relay. McClendon suffered a shoulder injury last fall and then pulled her hamstring in January. Just as she was turning a corner, she injured her foot right before the indoor Big Ten championships. “Ebony’s a hard worker. It was just going to take her some time,” says Jackson.
McClendon made a full recovery and competed in this year’s NCAA outdoor championships, where she and Detra participated in the 4×100-meter relay at the NCAA Championships. Now, McClendon is looking forward to her last year as a red-shirt senior.
What fans didn’t see were the hours of practice and training both Detra and McClendon put in to bounce back from their injuries. Detra trained her quad muscle, which had shut down, in order to trust her recovering knee. McClendon ran miles and miles on an underwater treadmill while she was in and out of a medical walking boot.
Then there’s the mental part of the game. “I think the mental part is a lot harder than the physical part,” says Detra. She and McClendon both recall being worried that their competitors, who had been training the entire time during their recoveries, had an automatic leg up.
But Jackson wasn’t about to let Detra and McClendon allow their heads to get in the way of coming back stronger than they were before. He made Detra jump over at least 1,400 hurdles in practice before letting her compete. He kept McClendon out of some events to make sure her body had time to heal, even though she wanted to compete.
“They’ve been able to work through the challenges of being told, ‘Hey, you’re not going to be able to do this anymore, and if you do, it definitely won’t be at this level,’ ” says Jackson.
But both did. Jackson recalls watching Detra compete after her injury in order to qualify for the Outdoor Track and Field Championships. She ran the 400-meter hurdles in 57.42 seconds, which was a blink of an eye away from the school record, and good enough to get her back to Eugene. “I wish I had it on film,” Jackson says. “When she crossed that line and looked up — you could see it on the big screen — she threw up both hands and she was just looking like, ‘I did it.’ The hairs on my arms stick up, even right now.”
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