“She never seemed a hundred percent after that,” Isabella Bersani, a sophomore teammate and friend of Caroline Feeley, says while recalling a match in December of 2012. Certainly, Caroline was less than 100%. On that day during the annual mixed doubles Christmas tournament, Caroline had hurt her MCL in nothing more than a game held for fun between the men and women of Princeton squash. She was a junior then, and the team was having a successful season. The Tigers would finish out the year ranked fourth in the nation, right below its rival, the University of Pennsylvania. Caroline had finished the previous season ranked 75th in the nation, having gone 14-2 in her matches.
But, Isabella continues, setting down her fork at brunch: “That’s kind of how injuries go. Like, they always happen when you’re just playing around.” A holiday spirit had filled the court and the sharp echoes of the hollow rubber balls hitting the walls somehow sounded jovial. All of the athletes smiled, happy to be playing with their teammates for nothing other than camaraderie and love of the game. Though of course, they still wanted to win.
Caroline especially enjoys a healthy sense of competition. She started feeling her injury during the tournament but kept playing. Perhaps her previous lack of injuries in college play had left her feeling safe. Maybe the team’s emphasis on “pre-hab” (techniques to decrease the likelihood of getting injured in the first place) had lent a sense of security in her body’s ability to cope. Regardless, Caroline hurt her MCL, and a downward spiral of injury began that would last through the end of the 2012-2013 season and beyond. “It was a pretty stupid way to get injured considering it was just for fun, but I did end up winning the whole thing with my partner,” Caroline mutters, and the slightest bitter edge of regret lies sinewy in her voice.
* * *
Her opponent was Alisa B. Agnew of Penn. It was February 17, 2013, and temperatures in New Haven had not yet climbed above freezing. Squash had reached its late-season climax: it was the match for third place in the National Team Championship. Princeton had lost to Trinity in the semifinals and the playoff with Penn was the last team event of the year. Caroline played in the number 10 position and the match began at 1:00 P.M.
Distracted by the pain in her knee caused by the injury to her MCL from the Christmas tournament two months before, Caroline hadn’t noticed the building hurt in her lower leg and ankle, running along the back muscle of her calf. “It was a pretty gradual injury and pretty rare as well,” Caroline says. The pain “was not awful” but was starting to throb. There was no precise instance in which the injury flared up, no dramatic moment where Caroline fell to the ground, the referee stopped play, and her career was over. Instead, the movement of her tibilias posterior (the most central of the lower leg’s muscles, allowing for the plantar flexion and inversion of the foot) slowly became restricted, like a rubber band stretched to the point of losing elasticity. The match against Agnew would be her last before she discovered that, in her own words, “essentially the middle of my posterior tib tendon was turning into a bone.”
Despite the beginnings of calcific posterior tibial tendonitis hardening in her, inhibiting her use of the lower leg’s key stabilizing muscle, she played on. “She doesn’t often make mistakes,” Isabella affirms, smiling at the thought of practices gone by. “She had a great cross court kill shot that beat me every time.” Described as a fast-paced, consistent player, Caroline first picked up a racket in 5th grade sports camp. After helping lead her high school back home in Connecticut, the all-girls Greenwich Academy, to three national championships in 2008, 2009, and 2010, she joined the Princeton squad under coach Gail Ramsay.
She is known as the sassy one on the team, the girl who sends the funniest emails and who isn’t afraid to talk smack. Isabella smirks. “Yeah, I loved playing her because I like to do a little trash talking before a match, and she always reciprocated. Not many other girls on the team do, because they’re much more serious.” She is 21 and studying history, specifically American history, and is thankful that her parents always introduced her and her siblings (including a sister who swims at Columbia and a little brother who also plays squash) to a wide variety of activities.
Caroline lost to Agnew in three straight games: 11-3, 11-4, and a last, hard effort ending in 11-9. Though the Tigers had taken the Ivy League championship that year and beaten Penn nine games in a row during their meeting during the season, Penn defeated Princeton as a team that February afternoon, 7-2. After the match, Caroline stepped off the court and headed out into the cold for the drive home. She hasn’t played since.
* * *
The Harrow Vapor racket weighs 140 grams when strung. “The frame is ideal for players seeking lightweight power with extreme maneuverability,” proclaims the vendor’s website. Average string tension for squash rackets is 28 PSI. Increasing tension improves touch; decreasing, power. On February 18, 2011 when she played her favorite collegiate match, Caroline’s posterior tibial tendon was not yet strung tighter than her Harrow’s Vapors synthetic cords; they had not yet begun to calcify into something similar to her racket’s multifilament nylon strings. She was a freshman and her career had just begun.
Her opponent was Hyland E. Murphy, a teammate of Agnew’s at Penn. This was Caroline’s first national championship and Princeton played Penn in the first round. Earlier that year, the Tigers had “lost to Penn during the regular season, and they were pretty obnoxious after they beat us,” explains Caroline. Now was their chance to beat them at home, in Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium, which features a 175-seat glass-backed exhibition squash court.
When this year’s season starts in late November, “[Caroline] will, I’m sure, be at every match,” says Isabella. But she’s unsure if she will see Caroline on the court again. “Well, if you think about it, in college you only have four years to play and for most people that’s the end of your career. So if you have an injury, it can take away from a massive percentage of your career here.” Back at the beginning of Feeley’s time at on the team, almost two years to the day to her last match last year, she beat Murphy in three straight games. She played in the no. 10 position and won 11-5, 11-6, 11-5. Caroline grins, a small thing, but you can see the pride in it. “It felt awesome to get a win for my team in pretty quickly.”
Now, Caroline feels a pain in her leg that would stab through her suddenly in the months approaching her surgery, shooting like a burning bullet through the muscles that once allowed her to move across the court with power and grace. Today she wears a bulky grey boot. She had the operation seven weeks ago and attends physical therapy three times a week. The walk to Jadwin is hard and far, but she still makes it sometimes. She stares with soft eyes down at the wood grain of the brown table, her hands laying half-opened in front of her. Soon, Caroline thinks, she’ll be able to help out Coach Ramsay, ride the bike, and maybe play again. Reminiscing on her most memorable match, that home court crowd, and the win against Penn isn’t enough. Her hands clench as if she feels the racket in them.
“I think it’s going to be a really long, tough road back.”