The Loss Within

Before stunning defeat, Wash. U.'s Robin Lahargoue blew out a knee, ending solitary sacrifice for a team that defines gender difference in athletics

Her knee shifted apart like a doll's leg yanked from its socket.

"When there is no ACL [anterior cruciate ligament], nothing stops the tibia and femur from moving apart, shearing the cartilage," Lahargoue explains, the cool science carrying her through the tears that well up periodically. She makes no fuss or apology, just swipes at her cheeks and keeps going. "The doctor rotated the tibia, putting pressure on the cartilage, and it hurt really bad. So he was suspicious."

Injured top scorer Robin Lahargoue, still focused on the fortunes of her team
Jennifer Silverberg
Injured top scorer Robin Lahargoue, still focused on the fortunes of her team
Senior Kristi Eller and the choreographed swirl of practice.
Jennifer Silverberg
Senior Kristi Eller and the choreographed swirl of practice.

An MRI was scheduled for the following Tuesday, and Lahargoue spent the weekend trying to figure out how to prepare herself for bad news. It was worth it, she told Stuber, just to play those two games.

"Besides," she added, "it's character-building."

She stared down at her swollen knee and sighed:

"Enough damned character."

Lahargoue went back to her ice packs and hot pads and stretching, and the pair decided that Stuber, who's majoring in biomedical engineering, would invent an artificial ACL that could never be torn. Women are tearing ACLs four times as often as men playing the same sports. Some blame biomechanics, saying women rely more heavily on their quadriceps than on their hamstrings, land on flat feet after jumps, have more elasticity in their ligaments. Others blame body structure itself: a smaller notched opening for the ACL inside the knee, and wider hips, with a pelvic tilt designed for childbearing. Nobody likes to emphasize those differences; biology has too often been used as excuse. Women talk instead about stretching and strengthening and balance and strategic muscle recruitment.

But when the legs angle from a wider, tilted pelvis, the torque puts extra pressure on the knees.

In another tendon, Lahargoue's tear wouldn't have been as serious. But the anterior tendon didn't have the blood supply to repair itself. And when the ACL wasn't working, worse damage could occur.

Tuesday morning, Lahargoue held her breath and slid into the tunnel.

The MRI report left no room for argument. She now had a complex medial meniscus tear. In other words, the cartilage had been sheared, and all the rehab and strengthening in the world wouldn't fix it. She needed surgery.

She had played her last college-basketball game.

Almost as upset as Lahargoue, Stuber reminded her of their mid-May trip to Europe, the hikes they'd planned through Switzerland as her new motivation for rehab. She was having the surgery at home in California -- maybe she should do it right away, over spring break, so she'd have longer to heal.

No, she couldn't do that. It would mean missing a practice and maybe one of the NCAA games. She'd talked long and hard with Coach, trying to figure out what her new role was, how she could still support the team. She refused to withdraw; listening to them debate the scout reports and strategize might feel lonely and disconnected, but her loss would sting even more if she wasn't there with them.

She postponed the surgery.

Saturday, March 2, the Bears' first NCAA playoff game. Lahargoue wakes dry-eyed and clear, eager to see her team win. They're ranked No. 1, and they're playing No. 9, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

They're tall -- they start three 6-footers -- but they only play seven people. The Bears will run them.

She feels the way she felt when they lost at Fontbonne: relieved that the fuss is over, ready to let the real events unfold.

It's cold outside, threatening to sleet, but the gym is an island of warm yellow wood and bright light. Lahargoue hugs her teammates and sits down. The buzzer shakes the air, and, in seconds, Stevens Point scores.

The perspective is maddening: On the court, she was always caught in the game's immediacy, half-aware of who was behind her and who was in front, but focused down, her eyes on the wrinkled sweaty jersey of the player she was guarding, her mind tracking her position in relation to the basket.

Now she sees all 10 players in relation to each other: who's where, who's forgetting what.

And she can't do a thing about it.

Shine and Sully are starting -- Jennifer Rudis and Meg Sullivan, who arrived together as freshmen and stayed attached at the hip. Crowley's out there too, giving her usual 200 percent.

Stevens Point scores again, and again.

Kristi Eller comes in and charges, penetrating a tangle of muscled legs. Hallie Hutchens comes in, a promising freshman with a sweet face and legs longer than a giraffe's. They play hard.

Stevens Point plays harder.

Soon people are murmuring about "an awful lot of unforced turnovers" by the Bears, saying there's "a lid on that basket." The crowd is shocked: They, like their Bears, expected to win. Had grown used to winning. "DE-FENSE!" they shout. Snow swirls outside, coming down harder, another surprise.

At halftime, the Bears are down by 11.

Lahargoue's hands, used to seeking the ball, clench tight in her lap. She's not worried, she tells herself: They've come from behind several times before. She doesn't even have that queasy heavy feeling she had at Fontbonne last year.

The Bears rally, execute several strong neat plays. The score seesaws, but they climb back, and in the last half-minute they're down by only two points.

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