The Darkness Before The Dawn

Amanda Kessel's Journey Back To The Olympic Stage A Triumphant Story Of Courage And Persistence

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Amanda Kessel remembers being in a dark place. The simple things in life, like watching television, going out to dinner with friends or even holding a simple conversation were gone. For more than a year and a half all she could do was sit quietly in her Minneapolis apartment and hope that the lingering symptoms of a concussion she suffered in 2014 would one day go away.


“I pretty much sat on a couch for over a year wishing that one day I would wake up and feel better,” she recalled. “It was the hardest thing that I have ever had to go through in life.”


Each morning began with optimism that this would be the day her symptoms would start to subside, but by nightfall there was only frustration and disappointment. It became such a part of her every day existence that she wondered if she would ever play hockey again. Or even enjoy the simple things in life.


“It was hard for me to even take a 10-minute walk outside, go out to dinner at a restaurant, hold a conversation with someone, watch TV, listen to loud music or sometimes even talk,” she said. “It would hurt my head to open my mouth and talk, so many times I would whisper or hardly talk. I hardly felt human.”


There were more doctor’s office visits than she can count. Every specialist she saw was more than generous with their time and sympathetic to her plight. But in the end, the treatments brought little relief.


Through it all she held tight to the belief that she would one day get better and return to the ice. But that grip slowly loosened as the days dragged on and her hope was almost gone.


“As time went on my dreams of competing for the U.S. in the 2018 Olympics seemed to be slipping away,” she said.


It was time to seek alternative treatments.


She paid a visit to a sports concussion specialist who recommended that she include activity and exercise into her recovery program, no matter how tough it was at first. 


“I started attacking my concussion instead of letting it direct my course. Even if I wasn’t feeling well, I needed to push through my workouts,” she said. “I started really getting after working out and changing my attitude. That’s when I really started believing that I would get better.”


As her symptoms slowly began to fade away, the idea of returning to the ice became more than just a distant dream.


“I felt more like myself every day,” she said. “I was able to see a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.”


That light was the faint glow of the Olympic flame in her future.


The thought of returning to the ice grew over time from a distant dream into a real possibility.


By the end of December, she made her way back to the ice, training with her University of Minnesota teammates, and almost two years to the day of her last game in Sochi she returned to competition the following February. A month later the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award winner scored the game-winning goal as the Gophers won its sixth NCAA title.


Through it all Kessel discovered something about herself as she dug deeper than she ever had before and came out with a newfound appreciation for the life she almost lost. 


“I still am not sure how I made it through everything, but it 100 percent has changed my life,” she said. “I was able to see what it was like to have my life essentially taken from me and my passion [for hockey] stripped away.” 


After going to hell and back, Kessel now hopes that by sharing her story she can be an inspiration to others who find themselves in a similar dark place. 


“I’m certainly no expert but I always try to share bits and pieces of what helped me and maybe it will help somebody else,” she said.


“I know how tough it was so I hope that anyone who’s in a similar situation will hear my story and know that there’s hope at the end of the tunnel and you will get better. It just takes a little time.”


Educating players, coaches and parents about the serious effects of concussions remains a main goal for everyone involved in the sport. No longer are players told to shake it off and get back in the game. That old way of thinking not only jeopardizes a player’s career, but his or her life away from hockey as well. So when an elite athlete like Kessel opens up and share her private struggles it can provide a light that can guide others who are going through similar dark times. 


“Amanda’s return to the highest level of competition is a testament to her courage and perseverance,” said Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey’s chief medical officer. “Her difficult journey motivates us to continue our research on the prevention, recognition and treatment of concussion.”


On the eve of her team’s gold-medal rematch with Canada, Kessel has an even greater appreciation for the road she’s traveled to get here and is cherishing every moment of her Olympic experience. Regardless of the color medal she has hanging from her neck on Thursday afternoon, she has already won something greater than gold.


“I am a much stronger person today,” she said, “I wouldn’t change my path to get here.”

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