Q&A: Tori Dixon Discusses her Road to Recovery from ACL Tear

By Bill Kauffman (bill.kauffman@usav.org) | Jan. 31, 2017, 11:40 a.m. (ET)


Tori Dixon was a major weapon at middle for the U.S. Women's National Team in her first two years, including here swinging against China in the 2015 USA Volleyball Cup. Now, she is working to fully recover from an ACL tear suffered in January 2016, and that includes better mechanics and technique.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (Jan. 31, 2017) – Just over a year ago Tori Dixon (Burnsville, Minnesota, Twitter, Instagram) was among a select group of athletes being highly considered for the U.S. Olympic Women’s Volleyball Team to play at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. But in an instant on Jan. 23 of last year, she knew something went horribly wrong and it could impact her dreams to compete in her first Olympics.

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. 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.

Related: U.S. Women's National Team Home Page | April 2016 Feature on Tori Dixon | U.S. Women's National Team Open Tryouts

“I was initially disappointed, mad, sad, the works,” Dixon said back in April 2016. “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.

Dixon recently took time for a Q&A describing her path to recovery over the last 12 months, and she is confident that she will be ready this spring when the full U.S. Women’s National Team reconvenes in Anaheim, official host city for the U.S. Women’s and Men’s National Teams.

Check out her insightful answers below. To read a feature USA Volleyball posted on her back in April 2016, click here.

USA Volleyball: You were injured in January 2016 and pushed yourself to rehab quickly trying to make a comeback in time for the Olympics. In hindsight, would you have done the same thing knowing the recovery process for an ACL injury?
Tori Dixon: Yes. I went into my recovery knowing it was going to be very hard. I made the decisions with my short- and long-term goals in mind. I wanted to make it back before the Olympics, but I wasn’t willing to risk my future to do so. I pushed the envelope in terms of time, but I didn’t want to put my knee in jeopardy, and I worked hard to develop some long-term gains as well such as good form, technique, etc. If I were to do it again, I would approach it the same way.

As of today, how you would you rate the progress of your recovery? Would you say your knee is back to being 100 percent?
It has been going well. I would say in terms of strength/stability, my knee is close to 100 percent. However, I don’t think as a volleyball player I’m back to 100 percent. I started hitting and blocking in September, but only recently started hitting slides – jumping off my ‘bad’ knee.

What have been your toughest moments in your recovery?
Developing good technique. I’ve always been a very strong and physical athlete, but I never had great form. Landing on one leg, off-balance, stiff-legged, etc. It’s been a hard mental challenge to make sure I do the right things every time I play to change my old habits.

How were your emotions during the Olympics knowing how close you were to a spot on the roster just eight months before the injury?
I was bummed I wasn't there, of course! But I’m also very realistic, and I knew I was not anywhere near ready to compete at that high of a level in August. Every girl selected to the roster deserved to be there, and I was so excited for them.

Did you watch the Olympics and support your teammates? If so, did you have a routine in your watching patterns and sending messages to your teammates?
Yes, I watched the Olympics! I didn’t really have a watching pattern. I talked to a lot of the girls throughout the Olympics, but a lot of the time it wasn’t even about volleyball stuff. Of course, I had to get photos from opening ceremonies, people that they met, and things they saw. But, it was my goal to be an open ear to whatever they wanted to talk about, and support them through this very exciting time.

Being you are not playing pro this season and with limited players training at the American Sports Centers in Anaheim, what is your typical training day and week like? Are you getting a good number of volleyball touches and playing?
I lift four days a week, and currently play volleyball three times a week. We typically have about five people practicing, including two coaches. But Alisha (Glass) has been around to set for me, and Karch (Kiraly) steps in to set whenever Alisha can’t. We have some outsides and liberos who can pass and help out when they can. It’s been awesome having so many people to train with.

Do you think you are ready to play for a pro club team right now if a team inquired about your availability? What would it take for you to play this spring before the National Team reconvenes in April?
I think I’m ready. I’ve looked into a few potential contracts. But, I’m so happy with the progress in Anaheim. I’m probably never going to get another year to just focus on myself, and fine tune a lot of technical things to help me in the future. I’m trying to take advantage of this time, because we only get a few weeks ‘off’ while competing for the National Team and also playing overseas. It would take a lot for me to go overseas right now, but never say never.

For your road to recovery, do you think it is absolutely necessary to be back on the court in a team environment such as a pro league before rejoining the National Team, or are you willing to take it gradually and continue your rehab and training regimen?
Gradually. The only component that I’m missing is 6-on-6 volleyball. Although that is a big component, I think everyone on our team would agree that the resources that we have here in Anaheim are far superior to anything I would get overseas – Karch, our strength coach, team doctors, trainers, nutrition staff, our facilities and equipment are all here. I think I gain a lot more than I lose by training here. Plus, as people start to finish their pro seasons, I think there will be more and more girls in the gym.

Besides rehabbing and training, what else have you done during the summer, fall and winter months to stay busy?
Enjoying life! I travel to Minnesota a lot, hang out with friends and teammates in the SoCal area, go to the beach, shop, and basically live a normal life outside of my gym. I have a dog, Finn, so he takes up a lot of time, as well. It’s really nice being in America. I haven’t been here for this long since college.

What have you learned from this injury setback?
The importance of good technique, and patience with the process.

What advice would you give to athletes who endure a season-ending injury?
Trust the process, be overly optimistic, and listen to your body! There are going to be good days, where you feel like you’re on top of the world. Then, there will be bad days where your knee swells up to the size of a balloon. Do the work, and trust that your hard work will eventually pay off.

What are your goals for 2017?
Get back to playing the volleyball I was playing in 2015, while helping all of the new faces in the gym.