No one can say that Kelly Nolan traveled an easy road to play Division 1 lacrosse at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
The three-sport standout at John Jay always possessed the talent to play lacrosse on the college level. However, it was her body — her knees, in particular — that had other ideas and attempted to sidetrack that journey.
“I tore my left ACL during my sophomore year lacrosse season,” Nolan, who graduated this past June, said. “I was hustling back onto defense to try and stop a 1-versus-1 with the goalie when I planted my leg funny and went down.”
Once, though, was not enough for Nolan.
“I tore my right ACL playing in a summer lacrosse camp headed into my senior year,” she explained.
“I didn’t know right away. Someone hit my shoulder and I was off balance and stepped weird. It felt like I sprained something, but it did not feel like I tore anything.”
But she did. Coming back from one ACL tear is hard enough — mentally, physically and emotionally. Try doing it twice.
Both of her surgeries were performed at the Danbury Surgical Center. Nolan said, “I had the first surgery April 20, 2018, and the second surgery Aug. 9, 2019.”
Those are dates that a young athlete won’t easily forget.
Her surgeon, Dr. Andrew Bazos, “was the best possible person I could have had for both surgeries,” Nolan said. “He understood my goals and wanted to help me achieve them.”
Rehabbing from a major knee injury is time consuming, hard work. It is full of potholes and setbacks that can deter even the most hardened of athletes. Nolan, who excelled in soccer and basketball, in addition to lacrosse at Jay, remained steadfast in her approach both times.
“The rehab process was full of ups and downs,” Nolan said. “I went to professional physical therapy in Katonah both times. I worked with an amazing PT there named Vinni Beatty. I had to rebuild back my strength in my legs and relearn all the basics like how to walk, run and jump.”
She continued, “I always believed I would make it back, I just was not sure at times how long it was going to take. I got cleared to play, from both recoveries, five months post-op.”
Back on the field, her early experiences were not all smooth.
“My knee obviously hurt both times when I was first back playing, but it wasn’t a pain that I couldn’t tolerate,” Nolan said. “I was just so happy and thankful to finally be playing again, that the small amount of pain did not matter.”
The injuries did weigh on her mind when her thoughts turned towards her athletic future, especially her goal of playing college lacrosse.
“I was super lucky to have been able to play for Prime Time,” Nolan said, referring to her travel team that is based in Katonah and run by former Jay boys’ lacrosse standout and current assistant coach Nick Daniello. “The coaching staff there is absolutely amazing.”
It also helped ease her mind that the Sacred Heart coaching staff was supportive of Nolan throughout her ordeal.
“Throughout the second injury, the Sacred Heart coaches were super understanding and were so helpful with everything,” she said. “They were flexible with getting me on campus and scheduling around the surgery. It meant so much to me that they were so understanding.”
Going through the process has shed a light on what it means to be able to play a sport that Nolan loves.
“The injuries have just helped me to appreciate the sports I get to play,” she said. “I understood what it was like to be stuck sitting out. Every single game and every practice are opportunities to play, and I would not have understood that if it weren’t for these injuries.”
Nolan added, “This has made me a harder worker on the lacrosse field and a better player because I never want to be stuck sitting out again.”
Heading to Sacred Heart, she feels confident that she is healthy and ready to contribute to the lacrosse program.
“I do feel that now I can play with no doubt about my knees,” Nolan said. “Even when I would feel pain and get nervous, I had an amazing athletic trainer at John Jay who helped me to roll out and in general, get rid of any pain.”
Battling to overcome what could have been a pair of devastating setbacks has sort of set Nolan up as a point of inspiration on the Jay campus for athletes.
“I do not see myself as an inspiration, but I do hope that those who know my story are inspired to work their hardest, too,” she said.
“I learned a lot about myself during both rehabs. Although there were many times where I would feel really down about the tediousness and long timeline of the recovery, I discovered a new level of determination that really pushed me through the recovery,” she added.
Nolan continued, “I had such a good group of friends around me that helped me to understand the timeline better and reassured me that I would be back. With their help, I was able to only focus on the good and find positives during very tough situations. I learned how to motivate myself by thinking about the positives which I had never done before these injuries.”
What she does hope is that the student-athletes at Jay recall her as a person and athlete who did all that was possible to continue her career.
“I want to be remembered at John Jay for my tenacity,” Nolan said. “There was not a challenge that came in my way from playing that I did not overcome.”
She added, “I worked incredibly hard to be back playing with John Jay athletics, whether that was soccer, basketball or lacrosse, I just wanted to play. I hope the motivation and hard work that I put in are what I am remembered by.”