Overcoming odds, injured hockey player Liz Gemmiti returns to the ice

As her skate touched the ice, she anticipated hearing the familiar sound of her blade slicing through the frozen surface. She took a lap around the rink, cautious not to fall.

Liz Gemmiti had been told one month before her February comeback that her competitive hockey career was over, after being struck by a car Dec. 14 while walking home with her roommate and teammate Madison Gallagher.

However, by February she was doing laps around the Kreitzberg Arena preparing for her debut at the Norwich Women’s Hockey’s (NUWH) team’s senior game, a game she hoped to be playing in, but would be recognized alongside the other seniors regardless.

“My doctor told me I could start doing some light exercises and I asked if I could skate, and he goes ‘oh yeah, but nothing crazy’,” Gemmiti said. She added, “I literally just wanted to jump up and down. I was so excited and I just couldn’t wait to tell everyone.”

One of the first people Gemmiti told was her teammate Rachel Bellio, 20, a forward from Denver, Col., who took Gemmiti to her appointment that day. “Her face literally lit up when she told me. I was shocked,” Bellio said, “(if) you get hit by a car you don’t expect to be skating two months later.”

According to Gemmiti, due to a misreading of her magnetic imaging (MRI) scan her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is not torn through and she no longer needs surgery. Though her posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL) are still torn, they will heal themselves.

Teammates and coaches alike expected Gemmiti to come back from her appointment with news about when her surgery would take place. “I remember the first person I told was Sophie (Leclerc),” Gemmiti said. “She picked me up and she thought I was going to tell her something bad, and I ended up telling her I could start skating and we were literally jumping in the car we were so excited.”

Leclerc, the assistant NUWH coach, shared in Gemmiti’s excitement. “At first I was in disbelief and in a moment’s time I reflected on the entire series of events that took place starting from the night of the accident. It was an emotional moment where I couldn’t help but feel absolutely thrilled for Liz,” Leclerc said.

When Gemmiti got to the rink that day for practice, she decided to tell her team the news before they got on the ice. “The whole locker room just erupted (and) we were all excited,” said forward Elle Kadel, 21, a senior majoring in history from Fairbanks, Ala.

Meghan Papagno, 21, a senior secondary education and English major from Wakefield, Mass., shared a similar reaction when she heard the news. “I was honestly baffled because it was a situation where you really almost didn’t even expect her to be able to walk freely for quite a bit of time,” she said. “To hear that she was coming back was pretty inspirational.”

For Gallagher, 21, a sophomore majoring in accounting and business management from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the news was more emotional than anything to hear. “I couldn’t believe it and I started to cry I was so happy,” Gallagher said. “Honestly I feel like because of my initial shock (and) because I was there and saw (the accident happen). I didn’t even know she was going to walk, let alone skate again.”

Though Gemmiti has had a positive attitude throughout her recovery process, many of her teammates did not expect to see her on the ice again due to the injuries she sustained from the accident. “I knew she was really taking strides when she was trying to walk and do things herself instead of getting people to do them for her so I knew her rehab was coming along but I really thought surgery would have its toll on her,” Gallagher said.

Some other teammates said that they had a feeling her motivation and positive attitude would pay off.

“We hoped that she would be able to skate again, I know I was rooting for her and really wanted her to recover. I think the team did expect it because we knew Liz (Gemmiti) wouldn’t just roll over and let that happen,” Papagno said.

With the playoffs fast approaching, the team draws inspiration from Gemmiti’s motivation and the strides she has taken while working on her recovery.

“I think this news will help the team in a way that she makes recovery really possible for anyone and I just feel like she has this real positive view on everything that has happened to her and it’s having a really positive effect on our team,” Gallagher said.

One moment the team draws inspiration from – and will never forget – was the senior game, which was Gemmiti’s first public appearance on the ice since the accident.

“I think Senior Game was one of those things, as corny as it sounds, (was) one of those things you see in movies and you hear about, but to watch her skate and just see how far she’s come, it was just a big encouragement for our team to keep skating our hearts out,” Papagno said.

Gallagher accompanied Gemmiti at center ice as a fill-in for her parents, who were unable to make it to the game. “I feel like this year we have done almost everything together, we talked about me (going out) with her before and it just kind of felt right,” Gallagher said.

For Gemmiti, being back on the ice in her jersey was uplifting and emotional. “It was crazy, I was trying not to cry,” Gemmiti said. “It was upsetting that my family couldn’t make it but it was just a nice feeling and to see the looks on people’s faces, that made me feel special. They were happy and I was happy. I just can’t describe the feeling.”

However, seeing Gemmiti not only skate but play again also has raised anxiety among team members who worry about her getting injured again. “It’s pretty nerve-racking because you don’t want to hurt her but you don’t want to baby her either because you want to get her back into the swing of things, but definitely everybody’s heart stops when we see her take a digger or trip,” Papagno said.

“Everyone was a little nervous and cautious. We were probably annoying her a little bit, but it was really cool to see her out there again. Everyone was just in awe,” Kadel said.

Though Gemmiti is cleared to skate, her drive to be back and playing with her team again is a concern for Stephanie Manyak, the Norwich assistant athletic trainer, at times.

“I think with Liz (Gemmiti), she is motivated enough where what we have to do most is hold her back from wanting to skate because it’s supposed to be a gradual process,” Manyak said.

Physical therapy for Gemmiti can be frustrating at times, trying to find the middle between pushing herself and not hurting herself more. “I’m the type of person where I’m either crawling or sprinting,” Gemmiti said.

Despite her frustration, Gemmiti finds motivation by looking toward her future next year. She looks to come back to Norwich to play hockey again. She has the chance to make up the year she did not play while at the Rochester Institute of Technology before transferring to NU. “For next year we are obviously going to have a lot of new freshman and I am going to kind of be old,” Gemmiti said. “So I want to be a huge part of this team and lead these young bucks on and off the ice.”

Though Gemmiti is given a chance to play hockey again, she said that she is grateful for the second chances she has been given.

“When I was home over Christmas I literally couldn’t move. I had a cast basically from my hip to my ankle I had two broken bones, I lost 15 pounds and it was disastrous,” she said. “Now, two months later, I can skate. I am one lucky kid, someone was on my side that night and I am grateful.”

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