“I felt a snap in my elbow, and I heard a pop.”
At that moment, Kallista Leonardos had been accepted to college and was preparing to join Emerson’s softball team. The recruiting process was over. Her senior season at Half Moon Bay High School in California was well underway.
As the game went along, Leonardos said her throws back to the pitcher became lobs, and at times, she resorted to using an underhand motion. But the catcher was determined to complete her final high school campaign.
“I ended up going three months without going to a doctor because I didn’t want them to say that I couldn’t finish my senior season of softball. I honestly didn’t think it was anything,” Leonardos said. “And then, it got so bad to where I was changing the way I was throwing. My throws were rainbows, and it was really embarrassing.”
Self-consciousness aside, Leonardos’ medical symptoms became far more serious than her mental barriers. She says she felt tingling in her ring finger and pinky, and her father, having experienced nerve damage in the past himself, urged her to consult a doctor. She learned that the ulnar collateral ligament in her elbow was torn.
UCL tears have become a commonality in the baseball world, but are far less frequent in softball. According to Pitch Smart MLB, a 2012-2013 survey revealed that 25 percent of major league pitchers have gone under the knife for Tommy John surgery. The operation is so-named because John was the first patient as a hurler for the Dodgers.
Leonardos said her choices were slim—the surgery or a future that didn’t include softball.
“It was that, or I could essentially learn how to throw with my left hand, or never throw a ball again,” Leonardos said. “It made me realize how much I love softball. When I was in the doctor’s office and I found out, I cried. If I [didn’t] get this surgery, I could essentially never be able to play softball and even teach my kids the sport.”
Leonardos said Dr. Sara Edwards, a California-based orthopaedic surgeon, performed the operation on July 2, 2015. She was given a nine-12 month recovery timeline, and began physical therapy while still in the Golden State.
Lions head softball coach Phil McElroy said the news came as a jolt to him—he’d never seen one of his players undergo the surgery in his nearly 25 years of coaching the game.
“I remember the day that she contacted me and told me she had this injury, and we were all devastated because I’d seen her play a couple of times and knew what kind of player she was and was really looking forward to having her on the team,” McElroy said. “It sounded like, at the time, we were not going to have her for this year.”
Determined to outrun that assumption, Leonardos met with the college’s head athletic trainer, Mandy Nicoles, upon arriving in Boston in August. The two communicated via e-mail over the summer, and Nicoles said the first sign that the freshman journalism major was serious about returning in nine months instead of 12 was her preparedness.
“She came with everything I asked for, which was step one. She took it even one step further,” Nicoles said. “She didn’t even wait to contact me until our compliance date, which was in the middle of her first week. She contacted me the day she got on campus and said, ‘When can I start?’”
Nicoles said compliance meetings are held with all student-athletes to allow the training staff to assess any injuries before the school year gets underway. As a trainer, Nicoles possessed previous experience with Tommy John patients, and said she knew Leonardos’ excitement had to be corralled.
“There are multiple times I told her during this process, ‘You’re going too fast. You’re able to do more, but I need you to hold back, because physiologically, your muscles and your ligaments aren’t ready for this next step,’” Nicoles said.
After months of rehabilitation, Leonardos finally gave her surgically repaired right arm a test run in early November. Over four months after the operation, she said she was a bit tense.
“It was scary. It was weird because I was trying to make sure my throw was correct and I wasn’t going to re-injure myself,” Leonardos said. “It was nice to see all the physical therapy finally paying off.”
The process had an added complication—Leonardos used a funky throwing method for years that may have led to her shoulder issues. McElroy said re-learning a softball fundamental is no small task, and he attributed the lack of concern for mechanics at pre-collegiate levels to an overly-competitive attitude.
“There’s just not enough focus, at the younger levels, of doing things the right way,” McElroy said. There’s a lot of rushing through things because we just want to play games instead of practicing the correct way.”
Nine months to the day after her surgery, Leonardos was medically cleared on March 2. She batted cleanup as the designated hitter in the team’s season opener in Clermont, Florida, just four days later. By the end of the road trip, Leonardos’ shoulder had warmed with the heat, and she was back in her usual habitat: the catcher’s box.
McElroy said Leonardos still requires extra time to warm-up before games and practices, while she admitted that getting her timing down at the plate was an adjustment after such a long break. Nicoles said Leonardos isn’t pain-free but that comes with the territory.
“She’s been having a lot of shoulder soreness, which she should—she hasn’t thrown a lot in nine months,” Nicoles said. “We just need to make sure that soreness stays soreness and doesn’t develop into anything more significant.”
Leonardos continues to attend training sessions three times a week, as she has throughout the process. Nicoles said Leonardos must emphasize transparency with medical personnel for the remainder of her career.
"She knows she will never be able to see how things feel," Nicoles said. "If her shoulder or her elbow starts bothering her at all, she never gets the freedom of letting it develop over a couple days. She knows she has to report anything day one, because she's just at more risk for chronic type injuries than somebody else who hasn't had the surgery."
Sporting a .317 average, and leading the team with four home runs, Leonardos will lead the Lions (6-8, 0-0) into action next when they host Newbury College for a twin bill tomorrow.