For an athlete to come back from a two-year, injury-induced absence and attempt to compete at the Division-I level is difficult to fathom, regardless of the sport. But when that sport happens to be one that requires running a five-minute mile for the span of six miles, such a recovery is nearly impossible to imagine.
Yet, such is the case of CSU senior and cross country athlete Paul McNeely.
In 1998, as a senior at Loveland High School, McNeely became the first Colorado prep athlete since U.S. Olympian Adam Goucher, to win consecutive state cross country titles.
It was with those credentials that McNeely chose to come to CSU and compete as a Ram under the direction of CSU track and field coach, Del Hessel.
“We knew Paul would be an excellent competitor,” assistant cross country coach John Carter said. “He was running great before his injury. He was in the top seven for cross and had just come off a great indoor (track and field) season…then came the injury.”
According to Carter, McNeely’s last race – prior to his injury – was at a pre-NCAA cross country championship meet in Iowa during October.
“He ran great (in Iowa),” Carter said. “We were really excited to see what he could do the rest of the year.”
The opportunity, however, never materialized.
When he first felt pain in his left ankle, McNeely said he went to the team trainers, who diagnosed it as tendonitis.
“When (the trainers) first told me it was tendonitis I just started cross-training really hard and focused on a quick recover,” McNeely said. “I figured I’d be back racing by the late indoor or early outdoor track season.”
Unfortunately for McNeely, his would be anything but a quick recovery.
According to Hessel, the diagnoses of McNeely’s injury went “completely full circle.”
“Initially he went to the team’s trainers and they were unsure (about the injury),” Hessel said. “Then he went to the team doctors and they were unsure. Not even X-rays could detect a problem.”
With the prognosis up in the air, McNeely continued to cross-train as best he could while doctors tried every method at their disposal to help aid McNeely’s recovery, Hessel said.
“Everyone tried something different,” he said. “They tried standard therapy like rest and cross-training and that didn’t work. They put him in a boot to stabilize (the foot) for a few months, but about two weeks after he started running again, he was hurting just as he was before.”
It was then, after five months without progress, that McNeely decided to see a specialist and get a magnetic resonance image exam done on the foot.
“Finally I went and got an MRI and they found I had a stress fracture,” McNeely said.
Even though he had finally received a firm prognosis, McNeely said it had become clear that the extent of the fracture’s damage on his foot was worse than he had originally imagined.
All of which would lead to a prolonged recovery.
“(The specialists) spent six months working on the fracture,” McNeely said. “By that time – after being out over a year – I was getting really depressed. Then they told me they would have to perform surgery.”
Though the prospect of surgery and another full season of recovery would devastate the hopes of most people, McNeely said it actually brightened his mood.
“I knew surgery would be the last straw,” he said. “(The fracture) would either heel or it wouldn’t and that would be it.”
In December 2001 – nearly 14 months after McNeely received his initial diagnosis – doctors preformed surgery to clean up the troublesome injury once and for all.
Two cross country and track and field seasons have come and gone since McNeely first felt pain in his left heel.
During that span CSU’s men’s track and field team has gone from an also-ran to a yearly competitor for the Mountain West Conference crown, leaving McNeely with an overwhelming desire to be a part of it.
“I want to be where I was,” he said. “I don’t like feeling weak and tired after only one hard workout per week. This team is great, just to run with them reminds me where I was and where I can be.”
Hessel said he has noticed McNeely’s desire and is very impressed by it.
“The thing that impresses me most about Paul is that he has never given up,” Hessel said. “He always believed he would be running for the team again. Honestly, I think that in the length of time he’s been out, most athletes would have given up by now.”
However, Hessel quickly added that McNeely still has a long road in front of him.
“He is dedicated to getting into training and racing form, but it’s very difficult to recover fitness and racing ability in the matter of a few months,” Hessel said. “For every month off, it’s going to take a comparable amount of time to get back into racing form.”
McNeely said he knows his road to recovery is a long one, but he believes he has a gift and it is his job to use it until it no longer exists.
“God gave me the gift to run,” he said. “I feel I would be letting him down if I didn’t do it as long as I could as hard as I could.”
As for the immediate future, McNeely said he plans to continue to train through the 2002 cross country season and appeal for a sixth year after its conclusion.
“I hope to get one year back,” he said.
Even if he never manages to run at the varsity level again, McNeely said he is willing to accept that and move on.
“My faith in God has helped me a lot during this time,” he said. “If I’m never able to run again, I’ll accept it because I know its what he wants.”