DURHAM, N.C. -- Chelsea Gray stood motionless on the treadmill, a nervous look creeping across her face.
For the first time since dislocating her right kneecap, the Duke star was going to run. And as the treadmill gradually picked up speed, Gray saw her right knee handle that test just fine. Almost immediately, her trademark smile came rushing back.
This is how one of the best players in women’s basketball works her way back from a frightening injury - one step at a time.
“She’s an amazing healer,” said Summer McKeehan, the associate athletic trainer for women’s basketball.
Gray and the Blue Devils gave The Associated Press an inside look at her training process as she comes back from a serious injury that cost her the final month of the season.
Gray spends between 60 and 90 minutes a day, five days a week, in the training room, and trains with her teammates in the pool on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Saturdays are also spent working out with the Blue Devils with no coaches around.
“I’m just trying to get back as soon as I can but as safe as I can,” she said.
She’s working the muscles around the kneecap that came loose while she strained for a rebound while colliding with a Wake Forest player in a late February home game. The injury was rare - McKeehan said she’d never treated a dislocated kneecap during her 12 years at Duke.
Gray still was voted the Atlantic Coast Conference’s co-player of the year by the league’s coaches following a season in which she averaged 13.1 points and led the ACC with averages of 5.6 assists and 3.7 steals at the time of her injury.
The Blue Devils (33-3) remained formidable without their leader, but they clearly weren’t the same team.
They found a way to win their third ACC tournament title under coach Joanne P. McCallie and reach a fourth straight NCAA tournament regional final before falling to Notre Dame in the round of eight.
Gray had surgery March 14 and almost immediately started working on flexing her knee. She’s four months into a six-month rehab process and insists she’ll be back at full strength when her senior season starts this fall.
“It kind of started before I even had surgery, being of the mindset that I had to get back as safe as possible but as soon as possible,” Gray said. “You have to balance out - there’s a limit to what you can do, but you have to push that limit a little bit.”
Duke’s training staff came up with a regimen to build up her hips and quadriceps with the goal of keeping pressure off her knee.
In one drill, Gray placed her right foot atop a thick block of foam and raised her left leg while throwing and catching passes of varying heights and distances.
That drill is “working on using her hip strength, quad strength, hamstring to try to keep her balance versus her just putting the whole load on her knee and ankle joints,” McKeehan said. “It makes her work her hips a little more, and the idea from that is, once we get into cutting and stuff, her hips are stronger and will take the brunt of it versus her knee joint taking it all.”
Another training technique has a leg press connected to a computer for a motion-sensitive video game - think “Frogger” with your feet. Gray guided a digital character through a maze of obstacles by extending and bending her knees.
Those drills sure seem to be working. Gray wasn’t wearing a brace on her knee during the workouts observed by the AP.
“I can feel the strength of my hips increasing and my quads getting work a lot,” Gray said. She’s certainly come a long way from that fateful Sunday afternoon when she landed awkwardly while she was fouled by Wake Forest’s Dearica Hamby while going for a rebound.
Gray collapsed to the court instantly, clutching the knee, and her screams echoed throughout Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I was able to hear myself scream through the (speakers),” Gray said, describing her reaction to watching a replay of the injury. “Tears came down as soon as I felt it, and just watching it, it was painful. And I’ve had those nights where it was like, ‘I just wish I could play.’ But I had to switch out my mindset a little bit.”
Those in charge of her rehab certainly have noticed Gray’s determination.
“She’s always been a step ahead with rehab stuff, and it’s been nice for me not to have somebody that’s lagging behind,” McKeehan said. “She does anything we ask her to. You can’t ask for anything better than that.”