WASHOUGAL — When the calendar flipped to basketball season, Chloe Johnson’s willpower won out. Nothing, not even a chronic injury, prevented her from playing one last season with Washougal.
The Panthers’ senior point guard, who recently became the program’s all-time leader in assists, goes to battle every game she plays. She routinely dives to the floor for loose balls, attacks the basket on offense and never shies away from crashing the boards. She is, according to Washougal coach Tim Melcher, a warrior, the epitome of toughness.
It would be hard to imagine this Washougal team without her, but just months before the season started, the Panthers were preparing for her absence at least until January, if not longer.
Johnson’s knees have given her problems going back to her freshman year. First was her left knee, then by overcorrecting to the “good” knee, her right began hurting too.
“Basically, I’ve spent all four years hobbling on both of my legs,” Johnson said.
As a multi-sport athlete who also completes in softball, track and field and cross-country, Johnson had always found a way to push through.
But the pain intensified during her junior basketball season, when, at times, she was fighting to hold back tears while playing.
While Washougal was at the Class 2A state basketball tournament in Yakima, she made a visit to the athletic trainer’s tent. The trainer made one motion on her knee, and she screamed in pain.
He suspected a torn meniscus. A subsequent MRI confirmed a full tear. It also revealed a rare condition in both knees called “discoid meniscus,” meaning the meniscus is abnormally shaped and more prone to injury.
Johnson had surgery on her left knee in June, but the desired outcome of a full heal didn’t happen. She’s still uncertain if she wants to go through the same ordeal with her right knee, which also has a torn meniscus.
“It’s something that’s supposed to be completely healed in six to eight weeks and I still have problems. It’s not much of a success,” Johnson deadpanned.
So in the fall, Johnson didn’t compete in a sport. She received platelet rich plasma therapy in September, which helped to an extent, according to her dad, Erick Johnson. They’re also looking into stem cell therapy in the future, he said.
Basketball season was coming up, and she hadn’t played since the previous winter when the Panthers were at state.
She wasn’t able to do anything at tryouts, either, which made the next part all the more remarkable.
On opening night Dec. 2 in a home game against Tumwater, Johnson was back on the court donning her number 0 jersey with a brace on each knee. Nearly eight weeks later she’s still playing.
“I needed to build strength, and I’m completely blown away and shocked how I’m actually holding up,” Johnson said.
“I kind of just flipped my mindset around. I want to play my senior season. I don’t care (about) the pain. I’ve always done it. I’m used to it.”
While Washougal (8-8, 7-4 2A Greater St. Helens League) is currently battling for a top-four finish in league and a spot in the district tournament, the leadership of Johnson, the team’s lone returning starter, has been crucial.
“I want to build more of a bond,” Johnson said. “It’s crazy, because I haven’t played basketball ever with any of the younger girls … and I think we’ve done a really good job connecting. If I can help build for them next year, I’ll be happy.”
Melcher said Johnson’s season isn’t a case of a player simply trying to survive while dealing with an injury; she’s bringing her best every night.
In a Jan. 20 win over Hudson’s Bay, Johnson set a new career program record with 222 assists. She also recorded first known triple double in program history with 11 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists and eight steals. The 10 assists were also a single-game record.
“It’s not about records and it’s not about these things, but when you set one like that, it speaks to the volume of who you are and what kind of teammate you are,” Melcher said. “I was really proud of her that she got that record because she didn’t know what she could do this season.”
Johnson’s post-game routine always includes ice packs on both knees and occasional doses of ibuprofen. The day following a game, Melcher asks his senior point guard how the recovery went. Johnson rarely lets on how her knees feel, but the head coach said he’s at the point now where he can usually read her and manage her activity level.
Because of her condition, Johnson thought idea of playing basketball in college seemed like a long-shot months ago. But in a conversation earlier this week, Johnson told Melcher she was surprised with what she’s been able to do on a nightly basis. Soon, Melcher will be making some phone calls to college programs.
“I think people wrote her off,” he said, “but you can’t write off the heart of a warrior.”
Johnson hopes to find a better solution for her knee injuries by the end of the school year. But for her to be on the court right now is no small feat, and she knows it.
“It really means everything to me to be able to play basketball right now,” Johnson said. “It was my first sport, I’ve met most of my best friends from basketball. I would be very upset if I didn’t get to play for my school one last year.”