COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (April 13, 2016) – Tori Dixon (Burnsville, Minnesota, Twitter, Instagram) knew in an instant on Jan. 23 that something went horribly wrong and it could impact her dreams to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games for the U.S. Women’s National Team.
Playing in her second to last regular season match for her professional team Toray Arrows in the Japan V-League, Dixon went up to swing and powered down a kill like she had so many times before. However, this time was different as she came back to earth landing awkwardly on her left leg and immediately grimacing in pain with her Toray teammates surrounding her and her U.S. Women’s National Team teammate Kelly Murphy on the opposite side of the net playing for Ageo Medics.
In the immediate aftermath of the injury, Dixon hoped for the best possible prognosis. To her disappointment, doctors delivered the news she didn’t want to hear – ACL tear. Her emotions ran the gamut in hearing the unwanted news. However, she quickly turned the page to what’s next.
“I was initially disappointed, mad, sad, the works,” Dixon said. “I was hoping for something minor. When I found out it was a major injury, I was sad but I immediately switched my mindset focusing on the next steps. How to get home to the U.S. to have surgery? Where I am going to have surgery, etc.”
At the time of her injury, Dixon had helped Toray to the top spot in the V-League standings and was named Best Spiker at the conclusion of the V-League playoffs that she missed. With the U.S. Women’s National Team, she had been named Best Blocker in both the 2015 FIVB World Cup and the 2016 NORCECA Olympic Qualification Tournaments. She was turning into an international force at middle blocker even though she was just in her second year on the team.
Despite her rising role with the U.S. Women’s National Team, Dixon’s dreams for the Rio Olympics changed that January day in Japan. Yet, she is not lingering in the negativity of the injury, but looking forward to the next time she can play the sport she loves.
Dixon did receive a sliver of a silver lining from her doctors in that the injury could have been worse.
“This was a standard ACL tear,” Dixon said. “I was lucky and I had zero damage to any other parts of my knee. Normally with an ACL, there can be damage to other structures around the knee. I was lucky to have a clean tear.”
Dixon had surgery on her left knee on Feb. 1, nine days after the injury. She has not completely given up on her dream of playing in the Olympics, but knows it will be a long process and even a longer shot to be ready this summer to make the 12-player roster that will compete in Rio.
“Right away I knew (my chances of making the Olympics) would be impacted,” Dixon said. “But at the end of the day, volleyball is a sport. These things happen. Once I found out it was a definite ACL tear, it was next steps. To this day, I am still focusing on next steps and working as hard as I can to continue to get better. The big picture is to be ready by the Olympics. However, I can recover only as fast as my body allows. Only time will tell. So I guess my approach is to take every day one day at a time.”
Dixon started rehab after the surgery, and a month later, she said she was “allowed to stand and pass, and stand and set” a volleyball. As a middle blocker, these were skills that she didn’t have a ton of focus on prior to the injury. “It was a lot about keeping my touch on the ball and making sure I don’t forget how to play volleyball,” she said with a smile.
Dixon’s national team career almost did not have a start if not for a decision to have heart surgery during spring of her junior season at the University of Minnesota in 2013. She suffered from atrioventricular nodal reentrant tachycardia where an extra node in her heart would fire up and cause her to have a rapid heartbeat. What started as infrequent episodes in 2008 where she thought it was fatigue or dehydration started to become more frequent in 2013 to the point her playing career was threatened without fixing the problem.
While the heart issue was not life-threatening, Dixon elected to have the intricate heart surgery to be able to keep playing volleyball. During a seven-hour operation, the extra node was essentially fried into several pieces.
Months later Dixon was back on the volleyball court as she was invited to train with the U.S. Women’s National Team in Anaheim, California, the summer before her senior year with the Gophers.
As Dixon used the heart surgery to extend her volleyball career in college, now she hopes her volleyball career can once again be extended following ACL surgery – whether for this year or later in 2017. She credits her teammates on the U.S. Women’s National Team for being a driving force in this second challenging medical scenario.
“Helping my team,” Dixon said in reference to what sparks her motivation on coming back. “My team will be going to the Olympics with or without me, and I know that they will be successful! So I guess my focus has been getting back to help out however I can. This was definitely an eye opening experience. I haven't played in a while and I really miss being on the court, and being around a team.”
Dixon is quick to point out that the road to recovery will be long and the 2016 Olympic Games may not be in the cards for her. Yet, she has not completely removed the dream from her rehab process.
“An ACL is a very serious injury, so looking back, I'm proud of the work that I've put in so far,” Dixon said. “However, I know it will be a long road to the Olympics. But, I'm still excited about the possibility, and excited for the USA Volleyball program.
“Whether selected to an Olympic roster or not, I will be very proud of the work I've put in here at Minnesota (during rehab),” Dixon said. “I've worked so hard and have recovered as well as I physically could be recovering.”