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How to come back from a "career-ending" injury

This article was published by Saint Leo University. Therefore, all rights are going to Saint Leo.


Kunz Overcomes the Odds to Return to the Sport He Loves


SAINT LEO, Fla. – Senior Noel Kunz of the Saint Leo men's tennis team received to many what would have been devastating news during his freshman season at Saint Leo but through surgery, visualization, and belief in himself he overcame what many believed to be a career-ending diagnosis. A native of Meisterschwanden, Switzerland, Kunz made his first trip to the United States as a freshman in the Fall of 2018 to join the men's tennis program at Saint Leo.


Kunz grew up playing multiple sports in Switzerland, but as a young man, he had to make a choice to either pursue soccer or tennis and decided to put all his efforts into the sport of tennis. As he was making his way through his prep career, he saw many of his friends and opponents heading to the United States to pursue an education and a spot on a collegiate roster. After deciding he would like to do the same, he began looking for the right school and program and found a home at Saint Leo.


Almost as soon as he began practicing and playing for the Lions, he noticed some pain emanating from his right wrist. As an athlete, he was used to playing through various aches and pains but this pain did not seem to go away and continued to grow as the season progressed. He tried several different recovery techniques to alleviate the pain but nothing seemed to make a difference. Finally, in March of 2019, just a month into his first season at Saint Leo, he received a diagnosis. He was told he had Kienböck's disease, a rare, debilitating condition that can lead to chronic pain and dysfunction in the wrist.


Kienböck's disease happens when one of the eight small carpal bones in the wrist, the lunate bone, becomes damaged because there is no blood supply. It is also known as avascular necrosis of the lunate or osteonecrosis of the lunate.


Kunz was shocked by the diagnosis but powered through the pain to finish the season. As he did some research on his own, the information he found online made it sound that this issue could be a career-ending event.


As a native of Switzerland, Kunz sent several doctors back home the MRI and diagnosis with hopes of a solution but nearly everyone told him he would most likely never play tennis again. Every doctor he spoke with had a different opinion on how to fix it including taking out up to three bones in his wrist which would have shortened his arm and been very difficult to ever play the sport he loved again.


Over the summer of 2019 back home in Switzerland, Kunz tried every therapy he could find to restore blood flow to the bone without invasive surgery. The pain did not seem to be getting any better and a week before he was scheduled to return to Saint Leo he went for another MRI. After doctors examined the MRI, his disease had not improved at all, and Kunz began to worry that he would be sent home as soon as he landed in the States due to his inability to be a contributor on the team.


Head Coach Chad Berryhill was more supportive than Kunz could have imagined and helped Kunz tell the team at their first meeting of the year that he would never be able to play tennis again. Kunz then had a meeting with coach Berryhill and their sport supervisor Associate Athletic Director Mike Madagan to discuss his scholarship moving forward. The two, Berryhill and Madagan, approved Kunz's scholarship for the 2019-2020 year despite his inability to be part of the team.


Coach Berryhill, who had seen the hustle and passion Kunz displayed in practice and on the court, suggested Kunz try out for another program at Saint Leo, the men's cross country team. Kunz reached out to Cross Country and Track Head Coach Kent Reiber who offered the sophomore a tryout. After a successful tryout, Kunz joined a new team and new sport which fulfilled some of his competitive nature. One aspect of the sport Kunz loved was the ability to quickly see the hard work you put in pay off as seconds and minutes gradually dropped off his times as he practiced and competed. He also picked up several new supportive teammates and future friends along the way.


As he was competing with the cross country team, he slowly began to accept that he would never get to play tennis again but that feeling would not last too long as his passion for the game never went away. At some point in the Fall, he decided that the risk of surgery was worth the potential reward and contacted a surgeon back in Switzerland in November of 2019 to see if he could get the surgery over the winter break. Thankfully the schedule was available and in December when he arrived home he met with a surgeon who presented him four to five options of what they could possibly do.


The surgeon's top choice was removing three bones in the wrist including the dead bone which had been causing Kunz the pain. The surgery would have shortened his wrist which did not seem like a good option for Kunz who decided that he would rather have a donor bone placed in his wrist to replace the faulty one. The surgery was risky as the doctors were not sure if blood flow would be restored even with a donor bone. The surgery was scheduled for January 7, Kunz stayed in the hospital two days following the procedure to be monitored and then hopped on a plane for his spring semester at Saint Leo on Jan. 11, just four days after the surgery.


Due to the surgery, he was told he would not be able to restart physical activity, like running with the cross country team, for two months. The surgeon gave him all the rehab instructions and sent him on his way. During the two months off, he began to really miss his first love, tennis. With the mindset of wanting to prove everyone wrong while also getting back to the sport he loved, Kunz began putting his education to use. Kunz is a psychology major who plans to pursue a career in sports psychology and knows the benefits of visualization and belief in yourself.


Kunz began visualizing his return every day. He would close his eyes and see himself back on the court with his wrist stronger than ever winning matches and hitting great shots. Slowly over the two months, he began to truly believe it was possible to make his visions become reality. He spent time reading several stories about athletes overcoming what was thought to be career-ending injuries and knew in his mind he would join that list of athletes.


After the two months he finally was able to get his cast removed and despite all his belief and visualization his wrist barely moved but that did not stop him. He began rehabbing the surgically repaired wrist every day and filmed his progress so that he could see how much he had improved over time.


During this same time, the world came to a halt as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe. Little by little his international teammates began to head back to their home countries fearing the borders could be closed at any minute. With these flurry of departures, Kunz was unable to say goodbye to many of his teammates who he thought he may never see again as his scholarship was ending at the end of the year and he may not be able to return to campus.


Even before the pandemic, he and his parents had decided he would spend the Fall of 2020 taking online classes and stay home to rehab his wrist and avoid all the additional costs of attending school on campus before returning in the Spring of 2021 to complete his graduation. When he realized his scholarship would be coming to an end, he began taking additional classes in order to graduate in three years rather than four.


While home rehabbing during the pandemic, his wrist began to get better and better. He eventually made his way back to a tennis court in August where he was able to play for about 20 minutes before the fatigue and pain was too much but with time and practice that playing time slowly progressed. Finally, in November of 2020, Kunz entered his first competitive tournament since late spring of 2019 where he was able to compete fully. During this entire rehab process, he had kept coach Berryhill and his teammates in the dark not really telling them the progress he had made.


Another part of his visualization was that he wrote a text message that was intended for coach Berryhill early on in his return to Switzerland that said his wrist had returned to full strength and he was ready to return to the nationally-ranked Saint Leo men's tennis team. Kunz had to save that message for several months until that time in November when he finally felt his wrist was strong enough to send it.


Coach Berryhill was more than thrilled to receive the exciting news from Kunz and welcomed him back to the team with open arms. He and Kunz decided to surprise the rest of the team during a January Zoom team meeting where Kunz, who had previously had to get up before the team and tell them his career was over, announced he would be rejoining the team and that his risky surgery was successful.


Kunz says his wrist is still getting better and better every day and that this journey has given him the ability to enjoy the game of tennis so much more. He had all but given up on a chance to return to the courts but he willed his way back and can now enjoy every practice and match like never before.


Kunz was able to celebrate Senior Day with his teammates this past Wednesday, April 7, a feat that many believed was not possible just a few short months ago



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