Jan 29, 2015Devin Carter
By R.J. Anderson
R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].
A two-time All-American wrestler at Virginia Tech, Devin Carter is adept at executing reversals on the mat. But this winter, the 141-pound redshirt junior surprised even himself in completing the ultimate turnaround. After suffering what was diagnosed as a season-ending hamstring tear, he worked his way back to win a 2014 Atlantic Coast Conference wrestling title and reach the final match of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. Carter’s comeback story began on Dec. 6, 2013, at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational, which he entered ranked third in the country. “I was beating my opponent pretty handily when we got into a scramble position and my left leg was bent behind my head,” he says. “I felt a pull in the back of my leg and thought it was a cramp. After winning the match, I went to stretch it, and my leg just kind of gave out. That’s when I knew it was something a little more serious.”
Meet physicians confirmed Carter’s fear that the injury was worse than a cramp and scratched him from the rest of the tournament. When the team returned to Virginia Tech, there was significant bruising around Carter’s hamstring, so an MRI was scheduled. The results were not good: He had completely ruptured the semitendinosus and semimembranosus muscles at the pelvis and partially torn the tendon where it connects with the biceps femoris. Carter had surgery to suture the tendon to the pelvis with a tendon-to-bone graft on Dec. 16. Afterward, Virginia Tech Team Orthopedic Surgeon Tony McPherron, MD, told Carter it would be six to nine months before he could return to the mat. With his junior campaign deemed over and his pursuit of a national championship put on long-term hold, Carter was distraught. “The prognosis brought me to tears,” he says. “Wrestling is so important to me, and this was the first time it was taken away. You get only four years to wrestle in college, and it really hurt to think that I was going to lose one.”
After the surgery, Carter spent six weeks wearing a lockable knee brace and avoiding weight-bearing activities to allow the injury to heal. It was a frustrating time for him. “After the surgery, my body got a little softer because I was laying around and not doing a whole lot,” he says. “I was on crutches and it took me a lot longer to do everything.” With no expectation of a return for the season, Carter’s rehab plan was designed to be methodical. “With an eye on being ready for next season, we took a very conservative approach that first month and a half,” says Virginia Tech Assistant Athletic Trainer Sean Collins, ATC, who works with the wrestling team. “Those first six weeks, his rehab consisted of very simple low-impact exercises, including isometric strength work for his quadriceps and ankle pump exercises.”
Despite the prognosis, Carter was a constant presence at practices and in the athletic training room. To keep his spirits up, he would joke with Collins and the wrestling coaches that he still had plenty of time to get ready for the conference tournament in March. If he won a match there, he would qualify for the NCAA Tournament. “Every time I heard that, I would roll my eyes and say, ‘Okay, Devin,'” says Collins. “Still, he calculated that because he was ranked so high at the time of his injury, he would only need to win one match in the conference tournament to earn one of the at-large spots for his weight class at the NCAAs.” His sense of humor at full strength, Carter looked forward to his hamstring being the same. The first step was graduating from crutches, which provided his rehab a much-needed shot in the arm. “When I started walking on my own, not only did I feel better physically, but mentally I was in a much better place because life became more normal,” he says. “We started doing more strengthening and range-of-motion work, and I realized I could push harder and harder.” A week later, Carter shed the brace he had been wearing, and the wrestler and his sports medicine team received a welcome surprise. “At that point, Devin’s range of motion was really good and from the research we had done, he was four to six weeks ahead of schedule,” says Collins. “I’d love to say it was due to our rehab efforts or a great surgery, but I think most of his healing can be chalked up to superior genes and his pre-injury fitness levels.” Reinvigorated, Carter asked Collins if he could begin doing twice-a-day rehab sessions with him. Collins happily accommodated the request, and the two began spending three and a half hours a day together. At that point, Carter’s workouts included isometric exercises, protected hamstring curls, four-way hip machine work to strengthen the abductor and adductor muscles, and closed-chain exercises to protect the hamstring. The next big milestone in Carter’s recovery came on Feb. 10, when he convinced McPherron to clear him for hand-fighting, a wrestling training technique where the athletes use stand-up wrestling moves without going down to the mat. “The day I did my first hand-fighting session was the first time I was back in practice working with my teammates and going through drills with them,” says Carter. “That was also the first time I put wrestling shoes on since I got hurt–which was the best feeling in the world.”
Collins says the hand-fighting clearance represented the turning point of Carter’s rehab. “He handled the hand fighting so well, and looked so good, that we made the decision to get more aggressive with his rehab,” he says. “In addition to adding wrestling-specific drills, we did more one-legged isolation exercises and more functional work. That’s also when we decided that returning for a postseason run wasn’t a joke.” Carter was also cautiously optimistic. “I said to Sean, ‘There’s probably only a one percent chance–and I’m not getting my hopes up–but let’s work toward being ready for the ACC Tournament,’ which was about three weeks away,” Carter says. “At that point, I think Sean made a commitment to do everything in his power to safely get me as ready as I could be.”
With athletic trainer and athlete now eyeing a new shared goal, Collins was presented with another challenge: keeping Carter from overdoing it. “It was hard to hold him back once he got the bit in his mouth,” Collins says. “I’d look over and he’d be doing something that the surgeon and I didn’t think was possible at that stage of his rehab. Still, it was my job to remind him that we did not want to re-injure the surgical site and that the ultimate goal was to be 100 percent healthy for next season.
“It helped that I knew Devin pretty well and could recognize when he was struggling,” continues Collins. “Plus, he was always honest about how he was feeling. There were a few times when we progressed to a new exercise and he reported feeling sore and tender the next day, so we backed off and instead did some active rest.”
With so much at stake, and no experience rehabbing this type of injury, Collins made sure to keep McPherron in the loop at every step. “We communicated at least every other day, and I regularly used my smartphone to capture and send video of what Devin was doing on the mat and in the athletic training room to Dr. McPherron,” Collins says. “He would give me feedback, like emphasizing the importance of synching hip flexion and knee extension during movements to keep the hip joint protected.”
After two weeks of twice-a-day rehab sessions in addition to wrestling drill work at practice, Carter had an appointment with McPherron on Feb. 26 for a return-to-play evaluation. In order to clear him, the surgeon wanted to see that Carter’s hip flexion and strength were nearly equal bilaterally. McPherron also wanted the girth measurement on Carter’s left thigh to match his right and his patient to move without a limp or compensation. “Dr. McPherron was confident the surgical site was healed and strong, but he needed to see that Devin was balanced and able to move fluidly enough to defend himself on the mat,” says Collins. “You can be as strong as you want, but if you can’t defend yourself, there’s no point in being out there.”
Carter satisfied all of McPherron’s requirements. He was cleared to immediately participate in all drill work with the team and then begin live wrestling five days later. McPherron also told Carter that, barring any setbacks, he could participate in the ACC Wrestling Tournament, which began March 8.
The week went without a hitch, and heading into the tournament–which Virginia Tech hosted–Carter was the top seed. Despite his lofty ranking, Carter estimates he was operating at about 65 percent of his pre-injury ability when he returned to the mat. “The best way to get in shape for wrestling is to wrestle or run, and during the last few weeks of training and rehab, I could only do so much of either before my leg would get sore, and we would have to shut it down,” Carter says. “Also, my technique was rusty and I wasn’t able to go as hard as I was used to. Before my injury, I would fire off an offensive attack every couple of seconds, but in the ACC Tournament, and later at nationals, instead of exerting a lot of energy every time I saw an opening, I was a lot more selective in the shots I took.”
Despite not being 100 percent, Carter showed his teammates and the raucous hometown crowd that he still had what it took to win. Following a first-round bye, he handily defeated his semifinal opponent 23-8. In the final, Carter became a three-time conference champion, prevailing 6-1 in a hard-fought match against a nationally ranked wrestler from the University of Pittsburgh. With Carter back in the fold, Virginia Tech captured its second consecutive ACC team title. For his efforts, Carter was voted the meet’s Most Outstanding Wrestler by the league’s coaches. Winning the individual title gave Carter an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, which would be held 11 days later in Oklahoma City. As the fourth-seed in the 141-pound weight class, he could potentially wrestle multiple matches a day for three consecutive days if he did well. “After ACCs, we knew we had to hit the ground running to improve my stamina and technique,” says Carter. “At the same time, we had to balance that with making sure I didn’t get too sore and didn’t miss any workouts. “So leading up to the NCAA Tournament, I did three days of wrestling work in a row, then one day of rehab and cardio, then three more days of wrestling followed by another rehab and cardio day,” Carter adds. “It definitely helped me reach my peak.”
During rehab sessions, Collins had Carter do a lot of stretching and manually massaged the scar tissue around the surgical site. “And we really listened to how Devin said he was feeling,” says Collins. “He was very good about communicating what he thought would help him at the time. At that point, we were completely focused on getting him to feel as good as possible on a day-to-day basis.”
To start the NCAA Championships, Carter, who estimates he was at 75 to 80 percent of his pre-injury form, easily defeated his first two opponents. Then, in the quarterfinal round, he had his proudest moment of the season. Trailing 3-0 heading into the third period, Carter dug deep and defeated his opponent 4-3, scoring the winning point in the match’s final 30 seconds. In addition to sending him into the semifinal round, the victory meant Carter had achieved All-American status. “I put so much emotion and hard work into earning that honor,” he says. “And making it even sweeter was knowing so many people behind the scenes were also very invested in my comeback.” After winning his semifinal match 12-3, Carter advanced to the final, where he finally ran out of gas, losing to two-time national champion Logan Stieber from Ohio State University. His head held high, Carter says the loss will only add more fuel to his fire for next season as he hunts that elusive national championship. But first, Carter, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s in psychology, returned to the athletic training room. “After the season, Sean and I picked up from the point when I started training aggressively for the ACC Championships,” says Carter. “We went back to focusing on improving my flexibility and range-of-motion, as well as strengthening my hamstring and the muscles around it. It wasn’t until May that I got back on the mat and started wrestling again.” As Carter prepares for his fourth and final season, he is thankful for those who helped make the fruits of his junior season a reality. “Sean was 90 percent of the reason why my comeback was so successful,” says Carter. “It’s hard to believe he has that many hours in a day, especially considering his wife had a baby the same week I was injured. It’s one thing for an athletic trainer to do his job and help a wrestler get back on the mat as soon as possible, but it’s another thing to put in the time and effort that Sean did to bring me back as far as I got.”
For Collins, the biggest takeaway from his work with Carter is the value of open communication. “No matter the injury or how complicated the surgery, you need to listen to the athlete and believe what they’re telling you,” he says. “And in this case, the biggest strength we had was the communication among Dr. McPherron, Devin, and myself. It was a team approach and we were all on the same page the entire time.
“It also helped that Devin is mentally the toughest kid I have ever met,” Collins adds. “I don’t think there are many athletes with the mental fortitude to even try to do what he did.”