The summer following her freshman year as a basketball player at Saginaw Valley State University, Emily Wendling returned home to Swartz Creek to hone her game at The Cage, an indoor sports facility where many of her peers improved their skills.
She had just completed her first season as a Cardinal in 2012-13. Wendling was the team’s leader in points, rebounds, field goal and three-point percentage. Largely due to her productivity, the Cardinals finished the year with a 13-14 record, a significant improvement over the team’s 6-20 record the previous season.
That summer, things were looking up. And then she fell down.
Midway through a game at The Cage, while driving to the basket in an attempt to score, Wendling felt a sudden, sharp pain in her left knee that sent her collapsing to the floor.
“It simply gave out,” Wendling said of the knee. “I knew right away what I had done.”
She could not walk. Others carried her off the floor and drove her to a nearby emergency room. Tests taken there confirmed what she already suspected: Her left ACL — a piece of ligament tissue that keeps the shin bone from sliding in front of the thigh bone during the simplest of leg motions — was torn.
It was the kind of injury that could end athletic careers and leave athletes with lifelong limps.
“I was so upset,” she said.
But while some may have seen her collapse on The Cage floor that day as the possible end of her outstanding promise as an athlete, Wendling knew something they did not. Playing basketball, after all, was not the only skill she had mastered by that summer.
Behind the story of her outstanding freshman season as a collegian was an earlier rise from adversity that helped shape her life ambitions. Still ahead was a sequel to her story of overcoming setbacks that would see her break records.
Wendling was only in eighth grade when she tore her right ACL, coincidentally while performing the same move that would injure her other knee years later. The months-long physical therapy that followed her first ACL tear gave her an appreciation of the hard work necessary to overcome such challenges, as well as the support of the professionals who helped her recover. The next year, her high school aptitude test revealed that occupational therapy would be a good career fit for her.
The physical therapy sessions had made her “good as new.” She was able to join the Flushing High School varsity squad as a freshman. During her prep career, she led her team to three Big Nine conference titles.
Jamie Pewinski, SVSU women’s basketball coach, scouted Wendling and immediately saw star potential.
“Wendling was 6-foot, 3-inches, with great ball handling skills,” Pewinski said. “After watching her dominate the court, I could tell right away she would be an asset to our team.”
Attracted both by the opportunity to play collegiate basketball and SVSU’s occupational therapy program, Wendling enrolled at SVSU in 2012. She was named GLIAC Freshman of the Year and made the First Team All-Conference roster — all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.
The ACL injury that occurred the following summer put her basketball life on pause, causing her to miss the entire 2013-14 season. Although devastated, Wendling showed her determination in other ways, turning an unfortunate situation into a positive period of growth. It was common to see her exercising aggressively in Ryder Center facilities, vigorously pursuing a comeback even before doctors removed the body casts from her leg.
“She couldn’t do anything on her feet at first,” Pewinski said. “She wore a massive leg brace and had to use crutches. While the team practiced, Wendling would sit in a chair on the sidelines and dribble under her legs and behind the chair to hone her ballhandling skills.”
Despite being sidelined, Wendling attended every practice her sophomore season.
“She embraced her physical therapy and did every single thing she could to get stronger,” Pewinski said. “Not only was she a 4.0 student, but she pushed herself to another level physically.”
Wendling’s teammates leaned on her for support during practices and games. She would watch and learn the game, seeing opportunities for her teammates to improve.
“When you focus on what everyone else is doing, you see the game in a different way,” Pewinski said.
Although on the sidelines, Wendling was not dwelling on her injury; she was learning. She was not sulking; she was encouraging others. She was not resigning herself to never again participating; she was growing as an athlete, a teammate and a future health care professional.
“Her freshman year, Wendling was very talented,” Pewinski said, “but after recovering throughout her sophomore year, her fitness took a serious step up her junior year. When Wendling came back to the game, she was extremely athletic and fit — even more so than before.”
Everyone seemed to notice the change. Her physical appearance was more “cut” and she had a look of determination in her eyes. “I’ve never seen a kid work harder than when she was injured,” Pewinski said.
When Wendling returned to the court during the 2014-15 season, it was time to see if all her hard work would pay off. Again, she led the team in several categories, improving on many of her numbers from her freshman season.
In her third season, her scoring average improved to 18 points per game (from 15.7). More impressively, though, she led her team to one of its winningest seasons. The Cardinals advanced to the NCAA Division II national tournament during a 22-9 campaign. It represented the team’s best record since 1987.
Wendling’s final season in 2016-17 included other impressive milestones. During a victory over Northern Michigan University in February, Wendling eclipsed a 30-year-old record to become the team’s all-time scoring leader. By season’s end, she finished with 1,973 points in her SVSU career — with 1,568 of those points coming after her ACL injury.
Along with the records broken, she received several individual awards during her career, including her inclusion on two CoSIDA Academic All-America and three First Team All-GLIAC teams. Coaches and teammates, though, say Wendling’s perseverance, leadership and example may define her Cardinal legacy.
Katelyn Carriere, an exercise science major and Cardinal teammate, is proof that Wendling’s perseverance rubbed off on her teammates.
Carriere injured her foot during her sophomore year, resulting in her sitting out the following season. Wendling was a guiding force as Carriere attempted her own comeback.
“My worst fear was coming back and not being as good as I was before,” Carriere said. “I had watched Wendling get into even better shape than she had been before her injury. She motivated me to do the same, and we were able to finish our senior year together and end on a great note. She was there for me.”
Carriere graduated shortly thereafter, earning her bachelor’s degree in exercise science in May 2017. And Wendling is not far behind. To earn her master’s degree in occupational therapy, she needs to complete her field study requirement by working at the Medilodge of Montrose rehabilitation at the end of the fall 2017 semester.
Wendling looks forward to walking across the stage in the December 2017 commencement ceremony that will take place in the Ryder Center’s James E. O’Neill Arena, within view of the same basketball rims where she set new school records and where she proved — yet again — that she could bounce back from adversity.