BY MATT KANE
DELANO, MN “You heard the break echo throughout the gym and my ankles looked messed up. You could tell something was wrong.”
Indeed, as Delano gymnast Alaina Johnson explained, something was wrong. Those ankles (notice the plural) were broken in a way that left the souls of her two feet facing each other.
“They looked liked two Ls,” said Johnson’s mother, Roxanne of her daughter’s ankles.
“I think I was in shock because I had never been injured,” said Johnson of the initial moments following the injury. “I just sat there staring at everybody because I didn’t know what just happened.”
Medically, Johnson suffered a closed bilateral distal tibia-fibular fracture from an inversion injury in both legs. In general terms, she suffered mirror-image breaks of the tibia and fibula in both legs.
“They said they had never seen both ankles with the exact same break before,” Johnson, a senior, said of the surgeons at Tria in Bloomington. “It was unique.”
It was Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014, just before the start of Johnson’s sophomore season at Delano High School. Johnson was finishing a workout at North Shore Gymnastics Club in Maple Plain, getting in one more tumbling pass, when SNAP, her ankles folded in and the upcoming season was over.
Oh, wait, no it wasn’t. Her season was not over, as, just 126 days after breaking two bones in each leg, Johnson was swinging from the uneven parallel bars Feb. 12, 2015, at the Section 5A Championships at Breck High School.
“The injury happened right before the season began. I was disappointed that it happened, but I knew that, if I worked hard, I could get back,” said Johnson.
“I don’t think there was any doubt from me whether she would come back, the question was when,” said Delano coach Jamie Greenberg. “I think a lot of people were surprised she competed at sections that season, but, looking at her routine, she earned the spot.”
The 7.075 Johnson received for her bars routine at the 2015 section meet may not be one of her higher scores, but it may carry the most meaning because of the work it took to get to that score.
The early stages of Johnson’s road back progressed from surgery, where screws and plates were inserted on both ankles, to full-time in a wheelchair, to walking boots, to re-learning how to walk correctly.
“I was proud of how she handled it,” said Roxanne Johnson of her daughter. “She never cried and never complained. She was rock solid.”
The younger Johnson was following the example set by her father, Jay, who successfully battled bone cancer in his hip. Jay Johnson deflected the credit back to his daughter.
“I am very proud of Alaina and her perseverance and determination to not let her injury hinder her athletic goals,” he said. “Her disposition and positive outlook is an inspiration to me and those around her.”
Mentally, Johnson kept her mind in the sport of gymnastics by attending every practice and every meet in support of her competing teammates.
“It was absolutely an inspiration,” said Greenberg of Johnson’s effect on the team. “The fact that we saw her come to the gym every day in her wheelchair. And then to come with her boots on. And to encourage other people every day, and support them and cheer them on, despite her own circumstances.”
As the days and weeks of therapy passed, Johnson gained strength in her ankles and clearance from her doctors.
“As soon as she got clearance to start swinging on the bars, we put her up on the bars with her two boots on. She did a lot of bars. A lot of bars,” said Greenberg. “Slowly, she got more clearance from the doctor and freedom to where we could get her going more.
“Watching her start to swing on bars and start to get back, it was amazing.”
The swinging part was fine. The part when Johnson was to let go of the bars had Greenberg worried.
“I am pretty sure that every time she dismounted, I ran over there and held onto her and gently set her onto the ground,” the coach said.
Nobody carries more nerves about the possibility of another injury than Roxanne Johnson, who works at the scorers table during home meets.
“I was petrified and at every meet there are lots of prayers,” she said. “I am a nervous wreck. When I watch her, all I can see is her feet.”
Johnson competed through discomfort with the screws and plates on her ankles as a junior but had them removed before her senior season. Those feet and ankles both clearly striped on the interior sides with vertical scars have gotten stronger and stronger, and now carry and support Johnson in all four events bars, vault, balance beam and floor exercise.
Isn’t the ability to overcome an injury part of any gymnast’s mentality?
“I don’t think it necessarily is. It’s the mentality of Alaina,” said Greenberg. “To see the drive that she has; I think that is rare.”
Rare, but not unique.
While Johnson prepares for the closing weeks of her senior season of gymnastics, up the hill on Tiger Drive, fellow senior Andrew Kruse will be doing the same with the No. 2 ranked Delano hockey team.
Like Johnson does on both, Kruse now carries one of those distinct burgundy scars, on the exterior side his right ankle, a permanent reminder of his 12-week road back to the ice, where he is the Tigers’ top defenseman.
“It was rough timing, at the beginning of the year, but it could have been worse timing,” said Kruse before a practice recently from the Tigers locker room.
The date of the injury was Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. Skating with the Northwest team in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League, Kruse was routinely chasing down the puck near the boards when his skate slipped, sending him feet first into the boards.
“He was grimacing pretty hard when he came back to the bench, so I knew he hurt it pretty bad,” said John Keranen, who was Kruse’s teammate that day with the Midwest team and who has been his teammate in Delano every day since they were in youth hockey. “It didn’t hit me at that point that he could be out for our Tiger season. When I found out, it was a big blow. It was tough to hear, but he got through it just fine.
“He’s a key player for our team, and we need him out there.”
Kruse broke the fibula bone, which then shifted, forcing surgery. Despite the injury, which is somewhat common in hockey because of a skate’s resistance against the ankle bone, missing the high school season was never a thought of Kruse’s. In fact, he was thinking just the opposite.
“I thought I wouldn’t miss any games,” he said.
Kruse’s intention was to lace up the skates for the season-opener Nov. 26 at Blake (a 9-0 win), but he missed that game and the 5-2 home win over Breck before making his return.
“I didn’t think it would take three weeks of skating to strengthen it,” he said.
The reconditioning was not only physical.
“You have to get over the mental part of it,” he said. “It’s mentally difficult to go hard on it after you have been off it so long, so there is that part of it, too.”
Eighty-seven days after breaking his ankle, followed by surgery, a soft cast and therapy, Kruse was back manning the blue line as a senior captain for the Tigers.
“It’s as hard a thing as any for a hockey player, but he stayed tough through it,” said Keranen, who certainly pushed Kruse at practice at the Delano Area Sports Arena and during the countless hours on Kruse’s backyard rink, which is a common gathering place for the Tiger players. “He kept working and was working out in the gym and he made it through it.
Kruse looked healthy in his return Dec. 6, scoring a goal and adding two assists in a 10-1 home win over Bloomington Kennedy.
For the season, through last Thursday’s 8-4 home win over St. Cloud Cathedral, Kruse had two goals and 27 assists for 29 points in 16 games. More importantly, the Tigers were 15-2-1 as a team.
The success of the team is attracting eyes from scouts and recruiters, but not as many eyes that watched during Kruse’s Elite games.
“I’m sure I lost a little exposure (due to the injury), but I don’t think that really wrecks anything,” he said. “I think I still have opportunities that I would have had, they just might be delayed a little bit.”
Listed at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, the strength of Kruse’s game is his quick, agile skating ability. The required rest following the break and the surgery that followed forced Kruse to stay off his foot, and zapped him of some of the physical progress he had made over the summer.
“It’s tough to get back into shape. You have lost all the improvements you made, physically, over the summer,” he said. “But, again, a lot of people have problems like this, so it is what it is.”
That positive attitude must be contagious at Delano High School, because Johnson used it to get back into the gym, and Kruse used it to get back onto the ice.
“It was hard, but you spend a lot of time away from the game, so you can improve in some ways,” Kruse explained. “You can get mentally tough from it. There are definitely some positives you can get from the negative.”
One positive that helped Kruse recover physically was that he plays hockey.
“On ice is a lot better than off ice, because off the ice there is not much support,” said Kruse, referring to the very same boot of his hockey skate that broke his ankle now stabilizing it. “I am lucky I played hockey because my skating got back quicker than my running. My running still isn’t very good.
“On the ice, I can’t really notice (the injury).”
Keranen offered an opinion on the status of Kruse’s skating ability, declaring, “I can still burn around him, but he seems to be doing pretty well out there.”
From a teammate in the game of hockey, that is a compliment.
Kruse hopes to keep opponents from burning around him for the final six games of the regular season and throughout the Section 2A tournament, which begins Wednesday, Feb. 22. The No. 2 ranked Tigers are looking for their first state appearance in program history.
Johnson and her Tiger teammates wrap up the regular season this week, at Litchfield Tuesday and at Annandale Thursday. They will compete for a spot in the state tournament at the Section 5A Championships Saturday, Feb. 18, in Howard Lake.