Penny Taylor's Journey Back
Posted: April 3, 2013
It’s a quiet, cloud-free day in this section of Melbourne, Australia. Penny Taylor sits, just for a moment, at a café by the bay.
She watches the sunlight reflect elegantly off the water.
A gratifying sense of peace follows with each passing breath, but she makes a conscious decision not to let the (deserved) serenity morph into complacency.
“One year,” she mumbles gently to herself.
When that thought enters Taylor’s mind, her mood shifts. Her feeling of peace quickly turns into motivation and enhanced clarity.
Unlike the docile ocean she watches, Taylor’s journey over the past year hasn’t been nearly as tranquil. But to her credit, Penny Taylor has always understood, deep down, that there is immense value in the struggle – even when the night is at its darkest.
As author Sarah Dessen says, “When something is difficult to come by, you’ll do that much more to make sure it’s even harder – if not impossible – to lose.”
Penny Taylor started playing professional basketball in Australia when she was just 15. Since that time, the longest she’s been away from basketball due to an injury has been nine weeks (stemming from an ankle injury in 2009 which kept her from joining the Mercury until midway through the season).
Amazingly, Taylor has played basketball virtually every single day of her life since she was four-years-old.
One can imagine, then, how challenging the past year has been for the perennial WNBA All-Star. After Taylor tore her left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in 2012 while playing for Fenerbahce against Turkish rival Galatasaray, the progression back to full health has been a roller-coaster.
Taylor began rehabbing her knee immediately in Australia and continued while she was in Phoenix with the Mercury throughout the entire 2012 season. Unfortunately, for this type of injury, the rehabilitation process is mind-numbingly boring. The exercises are repetitive and remaining patient is easier said than done; weeks and months can go by without ever seeing visible progress.
“As an athlete, you tell yourself everything is fine,” Taylor said on the phone from Australia. “But for everything I was doing during the summer and autumn, my knee just wasn’t responding the way it should.”
Taylor said the internal battle she repeatedly faced during that timeframe is still tough to talk about. For over half her life, basketball has been intricately woven into her being. On one hand, she knew it was important to get her knee “right” and not rush back. On the other, this was completely uncharted territory for her. It was especially frustrating knowing there wasn’t anything she was doing wrong throughout the process.
“I kept telling myself that it just needs some more time,” she said.
But in November of 2012, it got to a point where Taylor knew that something wasn’t right. Finally giving in, an MRI revealed floating cartilage in her knee which required another minor surgery to repair. Sometimes, small pieces of cartilage can actually break off and float around in the knee, causing locking, catching, and in Taylor’s case, swelling. This isn’t uncommon with injuries like the one Taylor originally sustained, but that doesn’t mean facing it is effortless.
“It was a lot to handle at the time,” said Taylor, reflecting back during the most difficult part of her journey. “It’s been a test. I mean, I worked extremely hard to regain strength and mobility. I was doing everything correctly. Again, as an athlete, it’s disheartening to backtrack. I never doubted myself, but if I’m honest, it did test my patience quite a bit.”
Since that time, Taylor has felt increasingly better every day. In January, she hired a running coach who continues to help improve her mechanics while she runs in addition to maintaining correct posture, placement and form. Taylor has also been working with a strengthening coach in Australia who trains renowned “footballers” (in Taylor’s words) and weightlifters.
“The past three months have been really, really positive,” Taylor said confidently. “Looking at where I’m at now, it’s night and day from where I was at in November. I’m glad I took the extra time to get to 100% rather than returning to play at less than my best. I obviously didn’t know it at the time, but I now see that everything happens for a reason. It gave me some long overdue time with my family in Australia that I usually never get. Physically, I’m seeing my strength come back every day and everything has been responding incredibly well for months now. It’s a great feeling.”
A typical day for Taylor has consisted of two hours early in the morning with her running coach, another two hours of weights and Pilates (which Taylor said has been hugely helpful for her core and other nagging injuries), followed by treatment on her knee with a physical therapist. Over the past couple of months, Taylor has incorporated basketball workouts into her regimen with enormous success – and zero pain or swelling.
To be blunt, Penny is back.
“When the ball is in my hands, I don’t think about my knee,” Taylor said, her voice becoming strikingly more joyful. “That is so exciting for me. I feel like a basketball player again.”
After her multiple daily workouts are complete (usually in the late afternoon) the rest of the day involves icing her knee, resting and spending quality time with her mom, who continues to battle cancer.
“I have amazing people around me who have helped both from a physical and emotional standpoint,” Taylor added. “I get a lot of strength from them. Now, I feel as strong as ever in both regards. I know it sounds weird, but I do consider myself very lucky.”
Taylor has a lot to look forward to in 2013. The Mercury will add the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft to a squad of fully healthy players. Taylor said she doesn’t recall a time when she was more excited to get back onto the basketball court.
“Selfishly, I just want to be a part of the team again,” she said. “That’s what I have missed the most – being around the players and staff.
“I, literally, cannot wait to come back to Phoenix and get going.”