Kelsey Rees is a scholarship athlete at the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence and was named in the All Star Five at the FIBA Oceania Under 17 Championships in New Caledonia last year. About to embark on her US college career, Kelsey shares some insights of her journey.
I began my scholarship at the CoE just before my 16th birthday at the beginning of 2018. Coming in, I knew very few people, almost everyone was older than me and there was only one other person from my state.
I am grateful for the group of coaches and girls that I had around me in the early days
I was competing everyday against girls who were stronger and more skilled than me, which pushed me to get better. However sometimes in those situations you fail to see how far you have come. It would have been easy for me to judge my progress on the people around me but with the help of everyone I was able to see how much I had improved and focus on myself instead. One of my favourite things about the group was in the gym everyone would hype you up and take notice as you got PB’s (personal best) no matter if it was 20 or 40 kg, if it was an achievement for you everyone would get around it.
Playing in the SEABL and then NBL1 was awesome. Some of my favourite memories were from the triple header road trips down in Melbourne. Playing against older people the pressure was off and we went into every game with the desire to compete and get better. The experiences we all gained from playing against people who had played professionally were immense and it was so exciting to be able to test ourselves against them. Many mistakes were made but they allowed us to see what we needed to work on, what things worked and what needed to be changed in our games. When we were not as strong we had to work smarter and harder, and I grew to love competing for every possession. From here I learnt to play with smarts, play to my strengths and play to the game scout.
One of my favourite parts of the CoE program is Team Day. Team Day occurs once a year and it is a test of mental and physical strength. These days push you as far as you can go and then show you that you can in fact go further. You learn to lean on your teammates and to trust both them and your own abilities.
I had many great times but there were also bad days. I was cut from three junior Australian teams and dealt with different setbacks. Being away from home at such a young age wasn’t always easy either but fortunately I was surrounded by a good group of people. There have been many sessions where I felt as though I could not breathe or was unsure of my ability to do something. I think some people are embarrassed to be seen to be struggling and do not want to appear to be worse at something then others. However you gain a lot more respect from pushing yourself to the limits and in the end it does not matter how good or bad you are at something at the beginning as long as you push yourself and continue to work to improve.
Near the end of 2019 we took a road trip down to Echuca to play an exhibition game against the WNBL side Bendigo. It was an amazing experience to play against a team of that level. The one thing that sticks out to me though was after the game we were eating food in one of the rooms and talking to Shyla Heal, who had been at the CoE at the beginning of my time in 2018. She walked up to me and told me how much I had improved. Coming from her, that was huge to me and it made me stop and think about how far I had come as well as giving me confidence that everything was worth it.
The second half of 2019 was when I started to see my own improvement, with more confidence I played some good games against the touring college and overseas teams, gaining even more experience playing with some of the Canberra capital girls in a exhibition game against Japan. I was given the opportunity to represent Australia at the under 17 Oceania championships and to top the overall team victory, earnt All Star 5 honors. From there we moved into term 4 and began Summer Slam. I had an awesome time meeting new people and was able to play a lot more freely and learn more from everyone’s different styles.
At this point I knew I was coming back to the CoE for the first six months of 2020 and I felt like everything was beginning to fall into place. I was playing well and excited to train hard over summer and return ready to really get everything I could out of the end of my time. I spent the start of summer in Adelaide before going up to my Grandparents in country NSW. Here I borrowed some weights and began working on my ball handling and conditioning. Everything was going well. College visits were planned and I was excited to make a decision about my future.
I traveled to the US in mid January to do visits. I had an amazing experience touring four unique schools and being shown around. Then on the last day everything came crashing to a halt. During a team activity I landed heavily dislocating my shoulder, luckily it went straight back in and at the time I did not realise how bad it was. (Disclaimer it was a freak accident and I do not blame anyone). Back in Australia I got a scan and it showed the bad news, I had done some real damage and surgery was recommended. I had a few big events early February that I badly wanted to be a part of but in the end the choice was made that the possibility of long term damage was not worth the risk. Once I got the news I was devastated, sure I was in some pain but it wasn’t bad and I felt as though I would be fine. Quickly I came to terms with what had happened and reached a point where I knew everything was on pause and I just wanted the recovery clock to start ticking.
So on the 11th of February I went in for surgery. While it was successful they found significantly more damage then they were expecting. I had extensively torn my labrum as well as partially tearing my biceps and rotator cuff. But with surgery out of the way the clock to my comeback began.
I am not going to tell you it hasn’t been a hard journey. At the start I kept thinking about how upset I was with how it had happened. I wondered whether the outcome could have been different. However as soon as I had surgery I realised that it didn’t matter what had happened and I stopped thinking about it, this was the reality and from here I had to do everything I could to work on my rehab and come out the other side stronger.
The first six weeks were the easiest. I was in a sling with my arm fully immobilised. I had some pain but it was manageable and not as bad as I had expected. As a right hander I had to learn to do things with my left hand. I learnt how to do many things from cleaning my teeth to tying my shoelaces with only my left hand, the one thing I never managed was putting up my hair. I am beyond grateful that I spent the majority of these weeks at home, I enjoyed many laughs as I taught my younger brother to do my hair and as I constantly tried to learn to do new things.
At around week two I saw a physio and began to start some small movements. During the appointment was the only time the pain got bad I remember being dizzy as she shifted my arm the smallest amount. Luckily after a few days the exercises became manageable.
Week 5 I came back into the CoE and here I had to rely on others to help me out. Luckily at this point I was capable of most things with only my left hand. One day in particular stands out to me. I had a conditioning session in the middle of the day so with all the girls at school, I managed to convince two of the boys to help me do my hair. I was struggling with a few things and them helping me just made my day. They had no idea what to do and it was quite funny, but I was grateful that they agreed in the first place and the end product was quite decent. Although I was still very limited it was good to get back into some conditioning and weights. However a week later as the pandemic hit Australia we were sent home.
The next few months presented a new set of challenges. At the end of week six I was allowed to hop out of the sling and begin working on my range of motion. I remember getting home and beginning my exercises nearly in tears as I used a pulley system to raise my arm. The first day I was nowhere near able to get even 90 degrees assisted range of motion.
I would do my exercises twice a day six times a week. Some days I was motivated to get better and other days I began to wonder whether all the pain was going to be worth it. My message for anyone rehabbing from an injury would be to ride the little wins and remember how far you have come on the hard days. For me I would film my journey every few days so I could see how much I had improved instead of focusing on how far I had to go. My rehab sessions would include blasting music and the occasional podcast to make it go quicker.
Because of the pandemic I didn’t have access to regular physio, instead roughly every 3 weeks I would go see the physio for my progress to be tested and get some new exercises.This meant that the work was on me, I had to put in the time and effort into not only just going through my exercises but doing them properly. I quickly learnt to correct myself and overtime got a better sense of what felt right and what didn’t. I was lucky to have contact with the physio staff at the CoE and be able to ask questions as I needed. The first few times after leaving physio I remember feeling slightly deflated. I had been working hard but I was still slightly behind the ranges I was expected to be at. The physio provided constant reassurance that this was not a bad problem to have and if I kept at it I would end up at a good place. By the fourth appointment I was right on track with where I was expected at that point post surgery. Everyone’s progress is different and it showed me that as long as I followed the program I would be back.
No one is going to be watching at all times, it is the way you work on your own that will decide whether you will be good or great. When you just want to give up but you finish off the set and when you take the extra five minutes to stretch and really look after your body. The time in lockdown really proved this and watching training it is easy to see who was working and using the hours to improve.
At 17 weeks post I returned to the CoE.
With the way timing goes I was lucky. I had just reached the point of my recovery where I was getting back into doing more. I was allowed some small jumping, I had recently been able to begin doing some dribbling with my right arm and I was at a point where I could shoot in very close range. I was excited to be back and ready to really push on and take the next steps.
The first few sessions were a shock to the system and I loved it. Fortunately for me very early in my time at the CoE I understood what hardwork meant and learnt that sweat and struggling to breathe were not something to shy away from but instead it was to be embraced. While I had been putting in as much work as I could at home with bodyweight exercises, homemade weights and single arm ball and boxing workouts, without access to a gym or stationary bike my conditioning was not where it had been in the past. After the first session my legs were feeling it and I was tired but it felt good to be back trying to push my limits and improve. In the individual court sessions I was slowly able to do more each time, and I would get glimpses of what I had been previously able to do coming back. Some days it was difficult as I was relearning movements which I had not done in closer to 6 months, which made me feel uncoordinated and wonder what all the work I had done in the previous 2 years had been for. Luckily I had people around me cheering me on and because of the work I had put in previously I was able to regain things quicker.
I have been back in Canberra for a little over a month now and each day I am able to do a little more. Some days it is hard as the instinct to protect my shoulder is still strong but I am learning what I am capable of and gaining back strength every day. The pandemic has made me even more appreciative of the world class facilities we have access to here and how lucky I am to be able to train and live alongside an amazing group of girls.
My comeback journey is not yet over and I have plenty of work left to go. But I know when it is over I will be ready. Injury has taught me many lessons and made me realise how much I enjoy playing the game.
You will always have times where you feel unmotivated and as though all the work is not worth it, but when things get tough learn to rest not quit and remember why you are doing what you are doing. Rediscover your love of the game and learn to love the work. Lean on the people around you and allow yourself to be helped as you are never fully alone. Enjoy the journey, celebrate the little wins and remember how far you have come and where you are headed. When you reach the end you will see how much it is worth it.
With the ongoing pandemic my future like many others is still uncertain. I do not know how long I have left in Canberra or whether I will be able to begin my college career at the University of Utah anytime soon. This year has taught me that there are some things that are out of your control and there is nothing you can do about it. You just have to run with what you are given and use it to make yourself better in every way. That is my plan, to use this injury to work on other things and for it to become just another rung on my ladder as I climb to my goals.