Steamboat Springs Jaclyn Etzler knows what it feels like to win. The junior sprinter at Hayden High School made her mark in the 100- and 200-meter races as a freshman and sophomore.
Her perspective on winning changed somewhat last summer when she underwent a series of four surgeries to correct scoliosis.
Etzler ran track this season despite the two pencil-sized titanium rods that stretch from the base of her neck to the bottom of her spine.
She cannot see the rods, but she can feel them.
They serve as constant reminders of the physical limitations that held her back. But Etzler has no intentions of giving up. She wants to win again.
Doctors never anticipated four surgeries, but numbness in Etzler's left side necessitated a second surgery to tighten the screws in her back.
The numbness persisted after the second surgery, so doctors ran a series of CAT scans and other medical tests to determine the cause.
A third surgery removed the rods but left Etzler's back so unstable and weak that standing proved to be a challenge.
Etzler was suddenly faced with the choice of wearing a brace for six months or consenting to a fourth surgery that would return the rods to her back.
Don and Dixie Etzler wanted their daughter to make the decision.
The enormity of her decision would have seemed daunting to any teen-ager, Dixie Etzler said.
"She really is a determined young lady," she said.
The thought of wearing a brace and missing out on fall, winter and spring sports cemented Jaclyn Etzler's resolve to live with the rods.
She wasted no time returning to volleyball in the fall after a few weeks of recovery at home.
Hayden volleyball coach Kipp Rillos said Etzler's biggest struggle was giving herself time to recover so she could progress without injury.
"She is a very competitive girl, and it was hard for her not to play like she had the year before," he said.
Rillos said he encouraged her to use the season as a conditioning tool.
By the end of the basketball season, the junior had set her sights on track and field.
She said she approached the sport knowing she had no control over what might happen during the season.
She could, nevertheless, control how she reacted to her circumstances.
"I knew I needed to have a positive attitude," she said.
Etzler said she accepted the fact her times on the track would be slower.
She battled a hamstring injury last year but still finished her sophomore track season with sixth- and seventh-place finishes in the 100- and 200-meter races at the State Track Meet in Pueblo.
She intended to use the new season to build on those performances, she said.
Instead, she learned the importance of small gains that cannot always be measured by seconds on the clock.
Etzler struggled at the beginning of the season to bend down enough to get in and out of the starting blocks.
After weeks of stretching, she developed enough flexibility to take off without faltering.
Sprint coach Sally Brach-Morton said Etzler's biggest physical breakthrough came when she corrected her stride.
More gains will follow, she said, and much of the speed Etzler lost after her surgeries will eventually return.
But the physical gains haven't been quite so big as the mental gains.
"The emotional part, for Jackie, has been really hard," Brach-Morton said. "She's had to have tremendous emotional stability.
"At times it's just been frustrating and disheartening."
Kevin Kleckler, head coach for the Tigers track team, said the coaching staff understood Etzler's return to the track would tax her both mentally and physically.
"We knew she wasn't going to be at 100 percent," Kleckler said. "We knew we would have to take it one meet at a time."
Every meet provided more opportunities for Etzler to shave some time off her sprints and relay splits, he said.
But every meet also provided fresh reminders of her surgery.
The people Etzler once handily beat now provide stiff competition.
Athletes from other high schools ask why her times are slower, she said.
She doesn't like to use her surgeries as an excuse, she said, but their questions are sometimes hard to swallow.
Etzler's teammates are also more competitive.
It forces her to work even harder, she said.
"It's heart-wrenching to see a kid not perform as well as he or she is accustomed to," Kleckler said.
He said the coaches gave Etzler no special treatment.
"And she's never once faltered."
This year's track season provided a stepping stone to her recovery, Etzler said.
Surgery forced her to take a big step backward, and now she needs to concentrate on taking small steps to return to where she once stood, she said.
Instead of holding high expectations for herself, she decided to concentrate on helping her teammates qualify for the state meet in the 100- and 200-meter relays.
An individual qualification seemed a bit beyond reach, but Etzler reached a bit deeper at the regional track meet to qualify for the State Track Meet with a second-place finish in the 100-meter race.
"I was mainly focused on my relays, and I knew that would be the way I would get to state," Etzler said. "But I never expected this."
The rocky road to Pueblo was softened by support from doctors, family, coaches and friends.
Friend and teammate Kristin Brown watched Etzler struggle with physical limitations brought on by her surgery.
"She has always been hard on herself," Brown said. "She's always pushed herself to be the best."
Brown, a senior at Hayden High School, said her friend didn't want the rods in her back to be reason for her teammates to treat her any differently.
"She doesn't want to use it as an excuse," she said.
Brown said she often reminds Etzler to be patient about her recovery and know that progress will come eventually.
"It has come," she said.
"I am very proud of her, to see her go through a lot and not give up."
Brach-Morton said Etzler's struggle to return to the top has only strengthened her resolve to win again.
"She's a fighter, and that's the side of Jackie that I've always known.
"And she will continue to fight."