“It’s been, I guess, a mixture of feelings,” she said. “I think stepping away and not being in the weeds every day has made me appreciate the game more. I feel like I never really took it for granted. Especially through college, seeing some of my teammates suffer major injuries, that kind of instilled in me [the understanding that] this isn’t anything that’s guaranteed. One day you could be playing and the next day you could be [sidelined], whether it’s for a long period of time or for forever.
“And so I feel like I always appreciated the game and never really took it for granted. But there are things I miss. I miss being able to compete out there. I miss the team environment. It’s very different rehabbing and working on your own versus being in the mix with the team. And so there’s things like that where I’m like, ‘Man, I miss this aspect,’ or watching some games and seeing nail-biters and being like, ‘I miss those moments, the crowds, and all of that.’ So I’m like, ‘OK, let me just keep that in mind and continue to work knowing that I can get back to that to that level.’ ”
Willoughby trains regularly at John Paul Jones Arena with Mike Curtis, the renowned strength and conditioning coach for the UVA men’s basketball team. Other UVA staffers help her, too.
“I’m not totally back on the court, where I’m able to play against people, and I’m still kind of working on change of direction and just trusting and being able to do so at a full-speed explosion and everything,” Willoughby said. “But I am running, jumping and able to do more basketball activities. It’s just not necessarily to the full capacity or strength and explosion as I would normally be used to. So right now, it’s a process of building back up to that.”
On a typical day when school is in session, Willoughby will work out or rehab at JPJ in the morning, then attend class, after which she’ll “pretty much do homework and be somewhat of a normal student,” she said. “I think that was a unique adjustment for me. I’d never, as a student-athlete, taken an evening or afternoon class, but last semester most of my classes were in the evenings. And so that was neat, just seeing a different aspect of Grounds. It’s been kind of cool being able to have more autonomy of my time and being able to say I want to work out here, do this then and make my own schedule.”
Before returning to Grounds, Willoughby made sure UVA’s athletics medical staff and the Liberty’s medical staff were aligned on her rehab schedule.
“If I wasn’t confident about being able to continue my rehab here in Charlottesville, then I probably wouldn’t be here in Charlottesville coming back to school,” said Willoughby, who grew up in East Orange, New Jersey. “The hardest part was just coordinating all the stakeholders. I’m still in touch with the Liberty and their medical staff, and so getting the different groups in contact with each other to make sure we’re all on the same page … was one of the more challenging things. But it’s been a smooth transition, and I’m thankful to still have the relationships here at UVA so I can use facilities and be able to do what I need to do from the rehab standpoint. And then the Liberty have also been super supportive, so overall, it’s been pretty smooth. It was just getting the connections and laying the groundwork initially.”
Willoughby, who lived on the Lawn as a third-year student, said she went through a period of transition after returning to UVA last summer.