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Focus set on recovery: Prairie volleyball player shares story of recovery from ugly knee injury

Amelia Renner — ‘the girl in the video’ — hopes sharing journey from traumatic knee injury helps others

By Tim Martinez, Columbian Assistant Sports Editor
Published: April 11, 2020, 6:06pm
4 Photos
Prairie High School senior Amelia Renner is pictured at the school in Vancouver on Wednesday April 8, 2020.
Prairie High School senior Amelia Renner is pictured at the school in Vancouver on Wednesday April 8, 2020. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Amelia Renner has worked to be noticed on the volleyball court ever since she was in middle school.

Last fall, she got more attention than she ever expected, but not for the reasons she had hoped.

“We had a match at Evergreen, and when I entered the gym, I had part of the football boys from Evergreen saying to me ‘Are you that girl in the video?’ ” Renner said. “And I’m like ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ ”

The video. Those who have seen it won’t soon forget it.

It shows the play last September — a play like hundreds Renner had made as a member of the Prairie High School volleyball team — that ended her high school volleyball career, threw a monkey wrench into her senior year and altered the course of her future.

Renner joined a long list of local athletes who have suffered major knee injuries. But Renner’s injury was unique, and the video reveals that.

“I think she was scheduled to get an MRI when I watched the game film,” Prairie volleyball coach Jen Palmer said. “But I didn’t need to wait for the results after watching that. Anyone who watched that would know it was bad.”

Renner’s recovery involved more than physical trauma. Her journey was fraught with repeated frustration before finally reaching a place of hope.

Always an athlete

Sports have been part of Amelia Renner’s life for as long as she can remember.

“This is the first time since second grade I haven’t been playing a sport of some kind,” she said.

But it was seventh grade when volleyball became her passion.

Renner played her freshmen and sophomore seasons at Mountain View High School in Bend, Ore., before joining Prairie for her junior season as a middle blocker.

She jumped at the chance to move to outside hitter as a senior. To prepare for the position change, Renner spent last summer working with a trainer to add four to six inches to her vertical leap.

“She put in so much work last summer and had such a great attitude,” Palmer said. “I felt like she was going to be a huge asset for us.”

Renner’s senior year started well in Prairie’s opening match on Sept. 12 against Camas.

“That was the best I had ever seen her play,” Palmer said.

Amelia’s parents, Tommy and Karalee Renner, were in the stands. Tommy was keeping stats for the Prairie team.

“Amelia was just on fire, like five or six points in a row,” Tommy said. “Jamie (Packer) just kept setting her the ball. So this (play) came up, and she just creamed (the ball for a point). The crowd went crazy. I’m not watching her. I see the hit and follow the ball. I go to mark the point. …

“Then I heard the scream over the top of the crowd.”

As Amelia went up for a cross-court kill, she drifted slightly to her left.

“I came down on one foot, but I came down on the inside of my left foot,” Amelia said. “When I did that, my knee went inwards 90 degrees toward my (right) knee. Then I collapsed on top of myself.”

Her knee buckled laterally the way it’s meant to bend forward. But at the time, no one knew that, not even Amelia.

“I just remember going up, hitting the ball, coming down and going to the ground,” she said.

Tommy Renner dropped his clipboard and raced to Amelia on the court.

“The gym was just crickets,” Palmer said, “except for Amelia’s screams, which were bloodcurdling.”

Amelia was eventually stabilized and moved to the bench. The decision was made to take Amelia home that night and visit a doctor the next morning.

The next day, Amelia’s doctor ordered up an MRI, and Tommy and Amelia were sent to pick up a brace. On the way, Tommy received a text from Palmer.

“She sent me the video, and the message was something like ‘Watch at your own risk,’ ” Tommy said. “So I pulled into a gas station.”

Amelia said: “But we didn’t need gas. My dad said ‘you want something to drink?’ and I said sure. Then he left to get a drink. When he came back, he said ‘I’m so sorry. That’s really bad.’ ”

Amelia insisted on watching the video, but Tommy was reluctant to show her. Eventually, he relented, allowing her to watch it as she sat alone in their truck.

“When I came back, she was crying,” he said. “Then we were both crying.”

The video began making its rounds on social media. After a while, Amelia said it felt like everyone had seen it.

Well, not everyone.

“Mom has not watched the video,” Tommy Renner said. “I won’t even watch it anymore. People will ask to see it. I’ll bring it up on my phone and hand it to them. But I don’t watch.”

Surgery and recovery

Amelia went to see an orthopedic surgeon.

“She told me I tore my (anterior cruciate ligament) completely, tore my (medial collateral ligament) and tore it off my femur,” Amelia said. “I tore patella tendons, and I shredded my meniscus.”

So within 10 days of her injury, Amelia underwent her first surgery to repair her MCL and try to fix her meniscus. Afterwards, she had to wear a brace on her left leg that went from her hip to her heel.

“I was told that only about 10 percent of patients have their meniscus regenerate,” Amelia said. “So we had to keep it as immobilized as possible to give it a chance to heal.”

Going to her bedroom on the second floor of the family’s Brush Prairie home was off limits, so Amelia began sleeping on one end of a sectional sofa in the family room, with Mom or Dad on the other end.

“She couldn’t do anything because her leg was immobilized straight,” Tommy Renner said. “Even sitting down was hard.”

Amelia missed three weeks of school after the first surgery. A second surgery, to repair her ACL, was scheduled in November.

In an ACL reconstruction procedure, the surgeon normally takes a hamstring tendon from the same leg of the injured knee to rebuild the ACL. But scar tissue around the Amelia’s knee prevented that. So the doctor had to go into the right hamstring to draw the tendon.

“I think that’s what upset me the most,” Amelia said. “I was like ‘Don’t let her cut into my other leg!’ But she did anyway.”

Tommy added: “It wasn’t like she had a choice.”

The second surgery brought good news. Amelia’s meniscus had begun to regenerate — “It was kind of like a miracle,” Amelia said — but that also meant a slower rehab process to allow the meniscus to fully heal.

“Normally, people who have ACL surgery are off crutches after a week or two,” Amelia said. “But I ended up on crutches for about four months.”

She’d also miss an additional three weeks of school.

Emotional recovery

After her injury, the Renners quickly got Amelia into see a counselor.

“We said all along that the emotional part was going to be the hardest part,” Tommy said. “These kids, they work their whole childhood for this dream, and now the dream is gone.”

Amelia said those discussions have helped, as well as talking with other athletes. Her physical therapy group ranges from patients 22 years old all the way down to a 9-year-old who blew out her knee playing rugby.

She’s even reached out to others, like Hockinson football player Peyton Brammer, who suffered a knee injury about a month after Amelia did. Amelia’s cousin is Micah Paulsen, a teammate of Brammer on Hockinson’s boys basketball team.

“When I found out that Peyton got hurt, I sent this big long text to my cousin and said ‘please send this to Peyton,’ ” Amelia said. “The surgeon who did my surgery did Peyton’s too. And then later, Peyton ended up in my group PT.”

These discussions, Amelia said, helped her realize there is more to life than playing sports.

“Now I’m just a student; I’m no longer a student-athlete,” she said. “I’m no longer the athlete that I was, and I’m never going to be the athlete that I was again. For me, the biggest part is realizing that.”

A new course

As one of the sports she played when she was younger, Amelia opted to play golf at Prairie last spring, earning second-team all-league honors.

Prairie golf coach Paul Shapard “told her if she put a quarter of the amount of time she put into volleyball into golf, she could maybe play at college,” Tommy Renner said.

So last summer, as she worked to strengthen her volleyball skills, Amelia also took golf lessons.

After her injury, Amelia thought golf might allow her to remain a student-athlete at Prairie.

When she finally ditched the crutches in January, she was cleared to begin chipping and putting. By April, she got the go-ahead to start a full golf swing and return to high school sports, once she got a brace for her knee.

“Like one of those braces linebackers wear,” Amelia said.

Then the closure of schools, and with it all of spring sports, ended that dream.

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But missing school is what hurt most for Amelia.

“I had already missed a third of the beginning of my senior year, and now I’m not going to have the rest of it,” Amelia said. “It’s awful.”

She worked so hard last summer to make her senior year of volleyball special, and in the first match, it was taken away.

Now working hard to get healthy enough to play golf, that was lost before it could even start.

But her athletic journey might not be over yet.

Last week, as she was resigned to just being a college student and attend Dixie State in Utah, Amelia was contacted by the volleyball coach at Ottawa University, a small NAIA school in Kansas, with a scholarship offer to play volleyball and golf.

“I called my doctor and asked her about it,” Amelia said. “She said ‘golf, I’m confident you could play anytime now that you have your brace. Volleyball, you’d have to redshirt a year and see. I can’t guarantee that you could come back and play at that level. But I’m not saying you can’t do it either.”

Amelia’s parents are apprehensive about the idea of her returning to volleyball.

“But ultimately, the decision is hers to make,” Tommy said.

Amelia added: “For me, now, having the opportunity to play in college, something I’ve dreamed about since seventh grade, and not taking it might be something I regret further down the road. So that’s where I’m stuck right now, trying to decide if it’s worth the risk.”

It’s another twist in a winding road for Amelia Renner over the past year.

In the end, she just hopes her story might help others just starting down their own road to recovery.

“I want other kids to know they’re not alone,” she said.