The long road back from recovery

Steamboat grad Heckbert battles wrist injury to return to tennis action

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— Kim Heckbert can remember the night she thought her tennis career was over.

Sitting in her room at Ohio Northern University - a small college in Ada, Ohio, located an hour and a half south of Detroit - Heckbert sat and tried to squeeze a stress ball with her surgically repaired right wrist.

Two squeezes. Nothing.

"I couldn't do it anymore and I broke down," said Heckbert, a 2003 graduate of Steamboat Springs High School. "I knew I could. I was telling my mind I could and my wrist just wasn't responding."

Although quitting the game had crossed her mind, it wasn't her style.

Heckbert decided that her wrist wouldn't stall her career. Instead she'd use it as a learning experience.

"It's giving me a love and passion for tennis," Heckbert said. "I thought I might never play again. Never being able to play again crossed my mind and then I thought, 'no I've put too much sacrifice into this game.'"

Heckbert started sacrificing for the love of tennis after her freshman year of high school. Having to pick between horseback riding and tennis, Heckbert went with the latter.

"When she was 14, she had quick feet and great hands," said John Aragon, Heckbert's teaching pro in high school and current girls tennis coach. "Once she decided that's what she wanted to do, she liked coming to practice and working."

Heckbert - who was the first Steamboat girls tennis player to play in college - decided to go to Ohio Northern after liking what she saw in then second year coach Scott Wills.

"Her energy is contagious. There's not a time she isn't upbeat and focused," Wills said. "Kim's a good example of why I coach. It's a pleasure to have her as part of the team and part of this school."

After finishing her freshman year 16-8 in doubles play, Heckbert had a breakout sophomore year. She finished 25-8 in doubles play - the second best single season doubles win total in Ohio Northern history - and 10-2 in singles play.

But then the thing that had gotten Heckbert to this point proved to be the thing that would put her career in jeopardy.

Working at a tennis camp in Vermont, Heckbert worked feverishly at her game. Serve after serve after serve, until something in her wrist didn't feel right.

She tried to play her junior year, but the pain was too much. She had surgery on her right wrist in December of 2005 to fix a break.

But by February, her wrist didn't feel any better.

"It was like, 'this isn't right,'" she said. "I couldn't bend my fingers."

She flew back to Steamboat in early March for another surgery, but right before the surgery, the doctor suggested she try hand therapy.

For the next three months, Heckbert saw a hand specialist in Ohio three times a week.

"I basically had to re-teach my hand to do the simple things and build all the muscle back," she said. "Throughout all of my hand therapy, I'd still try to go and hit. I kept trying to do it, and it got better and better."

After experiencing her low point in not being able to squeeze a stress ball just three months earlier, Heckbert found herself on the opposite spectrum of things, playing in the Ohio Athletic Conference No. 1 doubles final.

"I went out there and I played the best I played in over seven months and we won it," she said. "All my shots were perfect."

Now heading into her senior season - and with a real shot at sending Ohio Northern to its first ever appearance in the NCAA tournament - Heckbert said her time playing tennis has helped put things in perspective.

"It's incredible," she said. "When you're at your lowest point you don't know what's going to happen. Now that I'm playing it's like a sigh of relief. It's like the hard stuff is over and things are starting to get back to the way the were."

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