There was a moment when Elena Danielson wondered if her career was over.
First there was pain in her leg. Then there was pain in her hip, then her back. No matter what Danielson did, the St. Cloud Cathedral senior seemed to have something go wrong.
It looked a short, sad ending to a high school career that held so much promise, going back to a state 1,500-meter track championship as a sophomore and four straight individual appearances in the state cross country meet.
She’s back on the comeback trail this fall, running competitively for the first time in almost a year for the Crusaders, who are ranked No. 1 in the state in Class A and happy to have one of their top runners back.
Danielson, whose first meet back was the Myron Ahle Lucky Lindy in Little Falls, doesn’t quite have the times she did before her injuries. But she’s happy to be back and competing.
Adversity has taught her a few things.
“I think I’ve learned to be more grateful now,” she said. “It’s made me more grateful to be able to work out after taking all the time off and not being able to do anything.
“I also got a lot more time to focus on school. I had a pretty tough schedule last year …
“It was hard,” she said of her injuries. “It’s difficult when you have to watch them when you’re actually on the team.”
But, she’s back.
Just before the section meet in October 2011, Danielson was in great pain.
“My (right) hip really started hurting,” she said. “I decided not to run at sections, hoping I could run at state.”
It didn’t happen. The Crusaders won the state title without her. Meanwhile, an MRI showed a stress fracture in the top part of her femur. It wasn’t an actual fracture line, she said. But it was breaking apart.
“It was probably from running too much (that) summer,” she said. “I was slowly increasing the miles, but I increased the miles too fast.”
That summer, she had dealt with a stress fracture in her left patella.
Not running in the state meet in Northfield proved difficult, though she was there cheering on her teammates.
“It was definitely really hard,” Danielson said. “We have great team depth and that helped a lot. It was great to see them overcoming not having one of their top runners. I wanted to run, but I just couldn’t pull it off.”
After the MRI, she was on crutches for 2-3 weeks and could have no activities for a month. It caused her to miss the Nordic ski season, but gave her hope she could run during track season.
She slowly worked her way back into shape, first swimming, then biking and then running in the pool. Eventually, she was given the OK to start road running again.
“I got to run a couple weeks and my knee didn’t get any better, then my back and my hip area started hurting,” Danielson said. “So they told me to take two weeks off in May.”
It didn’t work.
“Taking time off didn’t do anything for it,” she said.
She began working with a new physical therapist and started swiming again. The physical therapist decided that she probably didn’t have a strong enough glute muscle and that was leading to other problems.
“I didn’t learn to re-use my muscles the right way,” she said. “I started using my back instead of my glute for running.”
Re-learning to run is difficult, even for highly trained athletes. It has been a slow, steady process for Danielson.
“My glutes are strong enough that my knee doesn’t hurt anymore,” she said. “I’ve had to re-train my muscles.”
She began running at the end of June. The program she is using builds her up slowly. She started by running a mile every other day, far less than her former average of 35 miles a week in the summer of 2011.
She slowly built up to four miles. She only runs two days in a row, then takes a day off, when she’ll swim. She is hoping to improve her times, which are about a minute off her best.
“I just feel like I’ve been in shock the whole time,” she said of running races. “I’m just not used to it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to run faster. I just have to remember to push myself harder, because I think I’m in pretty good shape …
“It’s been a long time. I really haven’t had that good of a race …
“I should be in better shape than I’ve been running. I’ve been biking and swimming a lot. Hopefully, that will transfer on to running.”
Cathedral head coach Kelly Haws is taking it slowly with Danielson.
“As you can imagine, we’re trying to be really cautious with her,” Haws said.
The Crusaders coach would never consider doing it any other way, especially with someone like the talented Danielson, who has college aspirations.
Fortunately for the coach, she has team that’s loaded with depth.
There are five senior captains including Danielson, Hallee Curtis, Allison Lenzmeier, Leigh Bristow and Heather Yelle. There are 12 seniors on the team.
Cathedral’s top 10 includes sophomore Rachel Eickhoff, who is ranked eighth in the state, juniors Morgan Durbin and Brigid Brew, Curtis, Yelle, eighth-grader Alexandria Lee, sophomore Carmen Ebel and seventh-graders Rachel Wintheiser and Gretchen Curtis.
And there are more top runners after that. And that’s not including sophomore Paige Danielson, Elena’s sister, who also is dealing with a stress fracture.
“The Danielsons have been having a tough time,” Haws said. “We hope we can get them all back and healthy by the end of the season.”
That’s the focus for the Crusaders, who run at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Sartell Invitational.
“It’s been really good,” Curtis said of the season. “We’ve had a rough patch with some injuries, but I think it’s been a great reality check for us.
“It’s helped strengthen us as a team. Coach Kelly has been really positive with us.”
Like her teammates, Danielson is focused on repeating as state team champions. It won’t be easy. The Crusaders have lost a number of time to Class 2A schools, including Sartell.
“It’ll be a fight for us this year,” Danielson said. “We’ve had a lot of things thrown at us. Hopefully, when it comes to the end of the year, we’ll be able to distance ourselves from a lot of single-A teams. A lot of girls are still improving.”
“This year, I’m just focusing on the team mostly. We really want to repeat our state title. That’s a big goal.”