One tiny movement completely changed the next year of her life.
Natalie Whalen, IU women's tennis junior, was playing doubles against Michigan State the spring of her freshman year when she lunged to a shot hit toward her, and she herniated a disc in her back.
Whalen and her partner, then-senior Sarah McLean, were winning 4-1 in a six-set match, and Whalen tried playing two more games despite the pain she felt. She described the feeling as a numbing pain shooting up and down her legs. Whalen focused on lobbing the ball over the net and trying to get through each point, but eventually she collapsed and could not finish the match.
“I couldn’t feel my legs at all,” Whalen said.
Whalen was immobile. She had to be wheeled out of the MSU Outdoor Tennis Courts on a cart.
In that moment and the months after, the future of Whalen’s young collegiate tennis career was uncertain. One wrong twist, and Whalen was facing pain medication and rehab just to be able to move her legs. One play, and her tennis career hinged on her body’s ability to respond to rehab and rest.
* * *
Whalen picked up her first racket when she was 4 years old. She was in Florida and her grandmother put her in tennis lessons.
Whalen said at first it was mostly her mom pushing her to play tennis, but when Whalen turned 14, tennis became less mundane to her and more personal.
“When I got to the age where I could travel on my own more, I crated good friendships with all the girls in Chicago,” Whalen said. “That is something you don’t wanna miss out on. No matter how good you are, if you really like getting to play and foster friendships with people in your sport, you’ll keep wanting to train.”
Colleges started taking notice of Whalen’s skill, and she took her first unofficial visit to IU at the end of her sophomore year. She committed to IU the summer going into her senior year.
“I was in a cab on a way to my friend’s house,” Whalen said. “I called coach and I was like, ‘Hey, by the way, I think I wanna come to IU.’”
Whalen committed to IU because of the coaching. Lin Loring was the head coach at the time and held the most wins as a head coach in collegiate women’s tennis. Loring retired from the helm of the program in January 2017. Ramiro Azcui, the current head coach, was the assistant, and Whalen said she knew she was going to be treated right because they all had the same priorities: a commitment to giving Whalen the opportunity to play her best tennis.
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Prior to Whalen’s commitment, she herniated her disc for the first time at one of the biggest tournaments of the summer. She had tremendous pain in her legs and was out for a month.
Whalen likened the disc in her back to a donut between the vertebrae and spine. There’s gel inside of the disc that is supposed to lubricate the spine. When she herniated her disc, the gel seeped out and hit the nerves that cause the severe pain and muscle spasms in her legs.
Whalen said she freaked out and spent that month lying in bed. When she was cleared to hit again, she could only play five minutes a day, which was frustrating for her. Whalen was used to hitting and practicing for hours, and now she was limited to minutes.
When Whalen arrived at IU, Azcui and Loring were understanding of her situation, and they knew they would need to be cautious and take it slow, because a herniated disc is easy to rupture again if not properly rested and monitored.
Whalen said she had back problems throughout the fall of her freshman year, but they were manageable, and she was eager to prove herself in her first year on the program.
Whalen made it through her first fall season, and it was time for the main portion of the season — dual-match play in the spring against Big Ten Conference opponents.
Whalen had played three sets at Michigan the day before the Michigan State match, but she told her coaches she was good to play in the Michigan State match. Then, she twisted wrong in doubles.
“I looked at coach, and I was like, ‘I know exactly what happened,’” Whalen said.
The numbingly painful feeling in her legs was the exact same feeling she had when she herniated her disc in the summer tournament in high school. Her mom helped her off the court in high school, but this time, Whalen needed a cart.
“Seeing that happen is one of the most horrifying things you can watch,” Natalie’s mom, Lisa Whalen, said. “When your kid is unable to move and you don’t know what is going to come out of this, it is one of the worst feelings.”
Whalen was constantly feeling a pain shooting down her legs. She said sleeping was uncomfortable, and it took months for her to even be able to tolerate the pain of bending and extending her legs. She had to study for classes laying on her stomach on her bed because sitting was so uncomfortable.
“Putting on socks or getting to prop my feet on a chair — those tiny little things were so awesome to me when I was able to do them again,” Whalen said.
Whalen realized her body would not be 100 percent for a long time, and she took the rehab process much slower than she had with previous disc injury.
Whalen could not touch a racket for six months after the injury in March 2016. The initial weeks following the injury, she said she did not get out of bed much, because even something as simple as walking was painful for her.
As isolating and lonely as rehab was, she still made an effort to attend practice. Even if she would end up sleeping on a couch, she was still there.
Whalen said she struggled mentally post-injury. Toward the end of her first spring semester, she had a moment of doubt, telling herself she did not want to come back here.
It helped having another teammate dealing with an injury. Sophomore Caitlin Bernard was recovering from an ACL tear, and they both supported each other. Whalen said it was nice to have someone recovering from an injury too, because nobody else really understood what she was going through except for Bernard.
Although the elliptical is no substitute for training on a tennis court, Whalen would not give up on her dream of playing again.
“I asked myself, what if I do get better?” Whalen said. “What could happen if I get back on the court? I wanted to know that outcome.”
After rehabbing all summer going into her sophomore season and the fall of her second year, Whalen went 11-6 in dual match play, winning her singles match against Iowa in the Big Ten tournament to help IU secure a first-round victory.
Now, in her junior year, Whalen said she is finally playing pain-free. Whalen rotates in the No. 2 and No. 3 singles spot with Bernard this season. At the top half of the lineup, Whalen is constantly facing opponents' most talented players. At No. 5 Northwestern a few weeks ago, Whalen beat the No. 85 ranked player in the country.
Azcui said he is so proud of Whalen for overcoming that type of injury. With the physical limitations of a back injury, there was a risk she might not come back the same player, but he said her desire to get better every single day made is why she’s performing even better than she had before the injury.
“Ever since she got on campus, she has always wanted to contribute to the program,” Azcui said. “She is now a valuable piece in one of the top spots of our lineup.”
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