The date: June 1, 2019.
Alicia Campbell, at the time a junior at Snyder High School, was competing in the triple jump at the NJSIAA Group III state championships at Central Regional High School in Bayville.
Campbell was enjoying the best track and field season of her young life, coming off the heels of four Hudson County Track Coaches Association gold medals just two weeks prior at Secaucus High School, then earning Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week honors.
A week earlier, Campbell won the gold medal in the discus and silver medals in the long jump and triple jump at the North Jersey Section 2, Group III championships at Middletown North High School. So it was already a dream season before the Group championship meet.
Campbell remembers vividly what happened at Central Regional.
“It was my third jump of the prelims,” Campbell explained. “And I landed in the sand, in a divot of the sand. My left ankle went into the sand. I tried to get up, but I then felt this wave of pain.”
Snyder head coach Robert Arena also remembers the fateful jump.
“She had already qualified for the [NJSIAA] Meet of Champions,” Arena said. “She didn’t need it. She had qualified for the Meet of Champs in two events. An official radioed us and we got to her and she was already laughing. She wanted to jump through it. She wanted to keep going.”
Campbell had managed to reach 37 feet, two inches, which was already good enough to receive the silver medal in Group III. But what most people didn’t realize is that the fateful leap would result in a broken fibula in Campbell’s ankle, a break that would require surgery to repair and immediately ended Campbell’s dream season.
“When I heard she broke her ankle, I immediately thought that I screwed up as a coach,” Arena said. “I thought I pushed this girl too much. I thought she would never be able to jump in the sand ever again.”
About a week after the jump, Campbell had surgery to repair the break. She was placed in a hard cast for a month, then a compression boot for another.
“It was really tough,” Campbell said. “I had qualified for the Meet of Champions in more than one event. I had the nationals as well that I lost.”
But Campbell was determined to make a full comeback.
“The day after I got the cast off, I went straight to physical therapy,” Campbell said. “I was able to do some basic exercises. I started to rotate my ankle a little, just trying to get some strength back. When I was in physical therapy, I was ready to do so much more, but I was told to take it easy.”
There was a sad thing that occurred while Campbell was rehabilitating the injury.
“All of the offers from colleges dried up,” Arena said. “They usually do.”
After rehabbing throughout the summer, Campbell was determined to play volleyball in the fall.
“That was against my will,” Arena said. “But she wanted to do so.”
“When school started [in September], I wasn’t cleared yet,” Campbell said. “It was only a couple of days, like Sept. 10 or so. I was able to play volleyball.”
Campbell had a fine volleyball season for the Tigers, earning All-Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League honors as a middle hitter, but she rolled her right ankle in one of the last matches. Luckily, it was only a sprain, but she was still a little hobbled, now with two ankles to worry about.
When the indoor track season began in December, Arena had no idea what Campbell was going to be able to do.
“We started with Alicia throwing the shot put,” Arena said. “And she threw 35 feet right away. She was having a little trouble with the long jump.”
But Campbell was determined.
“It felt a little weird,” Campbell said. “I was so ready. I wasn’t focused on breaking any PRs [personal records]. I just had to get back to where I was. I was confident I could do that. I set high expectations of myself. I was a little frustrated for a while, but then I had to make sure that I realized that indoor track was for getting back to where I was.”
Campbell made sure that she got her surgically repaired ankle taped properly before she did anything. In fact, she became so accustomed to the preparations that she was able to tape the rehabbed ankle herself.
“Before I do anything, I make sure I get my ankle taped,” Campbell said. “And after every practice, I go to ice it.”
Still, there had to be some apprehension before Campbell could realize if she was really ready.
“I’m not going to lie, but I was a little worried,” Campbell said.
Last week, Campbell made sure everyone knew that she was back and ready for action.
At the Hudson County Track Coaches Association’s championships at the New York Armory, Campbell proved that she had indeed returned.
She won the gold medal in the shot put with a throw of 39 feet, six and ½ inches, finished third in the hurdles and fourth in the high jump.
But more importantly, Campbell went right back to the long jump pit and jumped an astounding 17 feet, 11 inches, which won the gold medal and placed her fourth currently in the state overall.
And for her efforts, Campbell has once again been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Campbell knows she’s not all the way back. But she’s back enough to make her mark.
“I feel that there are going to be times when I’m still a little shaky,” Campbell said. “But I feel like I’m getting back up there.”
Arena was obviously pleased.
“I said, ‘Alright, we’re back in this,’” Arena said. “I think she’s ready. I went up to her and said, ‘Do you understand what just happened? You jumped up 18 spots in the state, from No. 22 to No. 4.’ She also qualified for the indoor nationals in the shot put. I mean, when she broke the ankle and was lying in the hospital bed, I told her that she could become the best comeback athlete ever or just let it all go. And you saw what she did.”
Arena added, “Not many athletes can come back from such a bad break like the one she had. She had six screws and six pins put in. I don’t remember anyone having such a bad break and coming back. Usually, they don’t come back. You don’t expect that from a 17-year-old girl. You see that maybe in the movies. It’s like when Rocky was down and out and he was getting beat up by Clubber Lang and he came back. She wants to be the best comeback athlete ever. She’s something else.”
More importantly, the colleges have returned. Campbell has multiple NCAA Division I scholarship offers.
“I’m real close to making a decision,” Campbell said. “I was a little skeptical, but that’s what pushed me harder. Every athlete has those moments of doubt, but you have to overcome those. The only thing that really matters is the comeback. There are better things to come.”
Arena said that there are two different sides to Campbell.
“There’s the one side where she’s very respectful, very polite and courteous,” Arena said. “And then there’s the other side, where she becomes the Hulk. She has this ‘let’s go’ mechanism and is ready to go. It’s like she has tunnel vision. She gets on that line and she’s there to win. She’s an animal.”
The polite Campbell said that she was happy to be back.
“I still know I can do better,” Campbell said. “But it’s real good to be back. I’m grateful for it. I thank my trainer in school, my coach, my mother [Alexandra Jerez, herself a former Reporter Athlete of the Week], my teammates, they all pushed me. This is just the start.” – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com