Cardunder gears for counties after return from ACL injury

By: Justin Feil
   Just happy to be here sounds like a defeatist attitude, but that’s not the way that Melissa Carduner is treating her return to swimming this year.
   Carduner, a junior at Princeton High, really is thrilled to be participating with the girls’ swim team. In that respect, she’s already won.
   She missed all of last winter after suffering a torn ACL near the end of soccer season. She made it to four or five regular-season swim meets, but couldn’t go cheer on the Little Tigers at the Mercer County Championships because the crowds would have been tough to navigate on crutches.
   Carduner makes her first appearance in the counties since her freshman year in the girls’ preliminaries that begin at 4 p.m. today at Lawrence High. Boys’ and girls’ finals are Saturday also at Lawrence.
   "My first counties, it was a lot of fun, but I wasn’t as into it," said Carduner, who competed as a freshman 50-meter freestyler then. "It’s not just that now I love swimming, it’s also rehabbing my knee. Swimming helps a lot of injuries."
   Six months after the injury, she was able to swim again — it was another two months after that that she could begin soccer again — and both she and her doctor agree that swimming has been the best thing for regaining her strength, flexibility and mobility.
   "We all know that the ACL used to be a career-ending injury," said PHS head coach Greg Hand, who also coaches girls’ soccer. "Now they’re not. The recovery though is a long one. Melissa did a great deal of physical therapy. She did a lot of weight-lifting. She did all the things she was asked of and other things on her own.
   "She came out (for soccer) still substantially less mobile and weaker than she’d been. She sort of was testing her stopping and cutting and seeing what she could do. Now in swimming she’s worked hard and gotten rally fit and she’s completed cleared. Next year’s soccer season will be a terrific one for her. She should be able to come back even better than she ever was."
   Carduner, who will be a soccer captain next fall, credits a lot of her recovery to swimming. It’s one reason she’s already been cleared to play without a knee brace.
   And her swimming workouts have made her better in the pool. Though she is a long shot to reach the county finals, she’s thrilled with the chance to see what she can do at the ultra-competitive counties. She’ll swim the 50 free as well as the 100 backstroke, something that she added to her repertoire this year, and a relay or two.
   "I’ve always been a sprinter," she said. "I’ve always done the 50 back over the summer, but Mr. Hand never put me in it until this year. The 50 free used to be my favorite, but the back is now since I started swimming it in high school. I just hope to do my personal best at counties."
   Carduner will be taking aim at a best of 27.17 seconds in the 50 free and 1:08 in the 100 back, both times she hit in the last two weeks.
   "As the year goes on, I keep getting stronger," said Carduner, who is a year-round soccer player but a winter and summer swimmer.
   "She’s a really good athlete," Hand noted. "She has very quick muscles, and you can see that when she turns over her strokes very fast. That’s a good thing as far as her potential to swim fast. She can be more effective with longer strokes."
   She’s already seen a lot of improvement since her freshman year, when she recalls just trying to break 28 seconds in the 50 free. Now, sub-27 is her goal.
   "I’m more ready this year," Carduner said. "Freshman year, I didn’t know what to expect. I’m more prepared now."
   Carduner has put more time and effort into her swimming than she did two years ago, but even she is surprised with how much better she’s become since coming back from her ACL injury.
   "I actually was really nervous," she said. "I thought I’d be worse than freshman year. I think I’m a lot more serious. I’ve always been a year-round soccer player, but now that I have two individual events I’m more serious (about swimming). It’s definitely more important to me."
   Part of Carduner’s successful comeback can be traced to maintaining the same attitude no matter which sport she’s training for. Hand, as coach of both sports, can see the similarity.
   "Just as on the soccer field, she goes all out," he said. "She enjoys training and pushing herself. She’s rehabbing it and she has a lot of confidence."
   "I’m not quite back to full strength," Carduner said. "But I don’t have to wear my brace and my muscle mass came back. I think mostly you have to get your confidence back. You don’t know what you can do. Everything is harder. The biggest thing is confidence."
   Carduner is confident now that she’ll be back at full strength for her senior season of soccer. In large part, that confidence has been regained by how well she’s done in her junior year of swimming.
   She’s gained confidence and strength with each day, and returning to the Mercer County Championships is the next in a line of big steps back. She’ll be shooting for two new personal bests, but in light of where she was last year, Melissa Carduner really is just happy to be there.