Aubree Brown always knew she was going to struggle with injuries.
But she never knew she would never play a competitive match again after her sophomore year at Waynesburg university.
After going 3-7 in singles and 2-9 in doubles, Brown suffered from a career ending shoulder issue. What was once a promising career in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference as Waynesburg’s No. 1 came to a premature close.
“It’s kind of disappointing when your college career ends with an injury and you don’t have that next season,” said Brown.
As a kid, Brown was primarily a softball player, but also ran track in middle school. When she began her tennis career as a freshman in high school, Brown started dealing with injuries.
“I was playing in the first match of my season and I hit a ball awkwardly,” Brown said. “The way I hit it I dislocated my shoulder and it popped back in. I went to the emergency room and they put me in a sling and said if [it was] still bothering me in a few weeks to get it checked by an orthopedic surgeon.”
A teammate’s parent was an orthopedic surgeon and told Brown to get her injury checked out soon. That’s when she was diagnosed with multidirectional shoulder instability mobility [MDI].
MDI happens when the ligaments that hold the shoulder in place are loose. In addition to MDI, Brown also has hypermobility, which gave her more than normal range of motion in her shoulder.
“Going into college tennis it never really bothered me too much, but I ran track in high school too,” said Brown. “So, I always had that break from tennis to rest versus in college where I was playing full time year-round and that was added stress.”
After only one year of playing in high school, Brown had worked her way into the top two of doubles and by her junior year, she was one of the better players on the team.
In the second round of her WPIAL tennis match her senior year, Brown and her teammate were eliminated in the quarterfinal and didn’t qualify for states. That was the only loss on the season for the two of them.
Physical therapy trained Brown to deal with the pain. So, when her shoulder dislocated for the sixth time, she walked it off and slept on the injury. The next day, however, the pain was overwhelming.
“I hit a shot awkwardly and I felt my shoulder slip out so it was only a partial dislocation,” Brown said. “But it was the sixth partial dislocation I had from freshman year of high school to end of sophomore year of college, so it popped back in—it’s okay and it felt fine.”
Brown said she usually feels a dead feeling in her arm but the pain was worse this time.
“I woke up the next day and I couldn’t lift my arm up,” said Brown. “It was the worst pain [I felt] in a really long time.”
At this point, there were only two weeks left in the school year and there wasn’t much athletic training could do for Brown. When Brown returned home, she went back to physical therapy and the dislocation wasn’t improving, which led to a final option: a cortisone shot.
This was Brown’s last chance to play her junior year, but after two weeks the symptoms returned.
Brown came to Waynesburg University on a visit before her senior year of high school. From the recruiting process of former head coach Ron Christman, along with the scholarship she received from Waynesburg, she picked to attend the school.
Brown helped with the tennis rebuild after Christman left, even after she thought about walking away from tennis amid uncertainty of the team’s future. The new head coach, Ron Headlee, reached out to Brown and asked her for help with the transition.
After hearing that Brown wouldn’t play her junior year due to MDI, Headlee was devastated that he would lose her for the season. Brown was going to be the part of the number one doubles team, which meant she would play the opposing team’s best players. With Brown out for the season, it meant others would have to fill her spot.
“She was playing number one, I thought her and Wendy [Wall] were a good team playing doubles then we lost her,” said Headlee. “With her being a one that’s the weird thing about tennis, you lose one then everyone has to play up a higher position.”
Recovering and being in good health has always been Headlee’s number one concern as a lifelong coach.
“I’ve been talking to her after and before the surgeries—you hope the best they can come back and I think she’s being precautious with the injury,” said Headlee. “That’s the thing and I am the same way. [If] you feel a little hinge in your knee you’ve had something it takes a while for you to get over it.”
Brown went from being one of the best on the court to her career ending with two years of eligibility left in her career.
“It was a very humbling experience because you get out of the sling and you have absolutely no strength in your arm,” she said.
The day of the surgery wasn’t bad, Brown said. She was preoccupied preparing for the surgery during the day, it was the night before where the fear of being under the anesthesia put her in a crying panic.
“I texted my roommates and I was freaking out, I started crying,” said Brown. “I am a control freak, whenever I am not in control I was just like ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ It could go well, it could go badly. It was at that point I was absolutely terrified.”
Although Brown’s parents tried to comfort her, she said it was difficult because she was afraid of losing capabilities as an athlete, with the rehab process coming after the surgery.
After two months, she was still unable to do some of the simple exercises, such as lifting her arm up.
“I was in so much pain, I remember my goal through all of rehab was to not cry in athletic training,” said Brown. “I remember as soon I left athletic training my arm was throbbing so bad, just everything was aching, I remember going back to my apartment and laying on my floor for an hour crying because I was in so much pain.”
The emotional trauma got even worse when talk started about possibly going into surgery again to break up scar tissue. By this time, Brown was questioning whether the surgery was a good idea in the first place. Her physical capabilities were so limited.
“I had such a reduced range of motion for such a long time,” Brown said. “Everything hurt.”
Once symptoms returned and the steroid shot didn’t work, the discussion began for Brown on whether or not it was time for surgery going into her junior year.
“We decided surgery was the best option even though it was risky,” said Brown. “It’s a really long rehab and there is no guarantee you can return to your sport at the same level.”
The surgery took place five days before Christmas. Even after the surgery, getting back to normal tasks was difficult.
“You get off the sling and you have absolutely no strength in your arm,” Brown said.
She was in the sling for four months. As of Oct. 1, Brown has begun doing light swings with the tennis racket. After a year of sitting out due to recurring injuries and a 12-month recovery from surgery, Brown made the difficult decision to officially end her career on the court.
“As much as I love playing tennis and at the level I can, there is a certain point you have to function normally too,” Brown said.