Missouri goalkeeper Shelby Sonnefeldt hopes injury rehab pays off

Friday, March 29, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:27 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 30, 2013
Missouri goalkeeper Shelby Sonnefeldt ices her injured shoulder in the Missouri Athletic Training Complex in February. Sonnefeldt had surgery in December to repair a defective shoulder capsule, which has resulted in four shoulder dislocations during the last two years.

COLUMBIA — The soccer player with the bad arm lays on a training table, using all her might to swing a five-pound dumbbell off the edge. Outside, snow buries the field like a hidden treasure.

It's February. Her shoulder won't be healthy until June, and even then that's not a guarantee. The past two years have been like this for Missouri freshman goalkeeper Shelby Sonnefeldt: 24 months of working, waiting, wishing. Some sports give three tries. This is Sonnefeldt's fourth. Now she's hoping something finally sticks. 

Sonnefeldt had surgery in December to repair her shoulder capsule, which holds the shoulder in place. The capsule had become so stretched, it dislocated four different times. 

“The capsule got really loose,” she said. “If they didn’t tighten it up it would have kept happening again and again.”

Greater risk

This isn’t the first time assistant athletic trainer Tara McCleland has seen this. Out of the five goalkeepers that have come through Missouri during her career, two have suffered the same injury. 

“It’s much more common than it is in the field players,” McCleland said. “Goalkeepers are diving with their outstretched arm."

McCleland and Sonnefeldt decided to take the rehabilitation process slow after the surgery, ensuring Sonnefeldt’s shoulder had enough time to heal. But even after it’s healthy, her shoulder could pop out again. She has loose joints, McCleland said, making her susceptible to re-injury.

“There’s a risk,” McCleland said. “She knows that risk.”

Her shoulder first dislocated during her junior year of high school. It was a day like any other in Rockford, Ill. Sonnefeldt was in net, anticipating and swatting and diving around. One dive landed all her weight on her right arm.

"I stood up and my arm was just hanging," Sonnefeldt said, demonstrating, one shoulder drooping way down below the other.

The dislocation popped the shoulder out of its socket, ripping vital cartilage called the labrum. 

Sonnefeldt had her first surgery — arthroscopic, or least intrusive type — a short while later. Her labrum was repaired. She played her senior season and committed to Missouri. She thought all this was behind her.

Illustration: Defending the goal

Missouri goalkeeper Shelby Sonnefeldt hurt her shoulder years ago while diving for a ball. She landed on her right shoulder and dislocated it, tearing her labrum, a piece of cartlidge that cups the head of the humerus in the socket. (Illustration: Travis Hartman)


Seven blue sticky notes form the perimeter of an imaginary rectangle on the back wall of the Missouri training room. Each square of paper stands out like a drop of blue paint against a white canvas.

Sonnefeldt approaches the wall and stares at the number written on each individual sticky note in black Sharpie.

“This helps with her range of motion,” McCleland said.

Sonnefeldt crouches a foot away from the wall, awaiting a series of numbers.

“Four,” McCleland said.

Sonnefeldt extends both arms straight up and taps the blue square posted on the wall overhead, resembling the hands of a clock at noon.

“Five,” McCleland said.

This time, Sonnefeldt raises her arms to the right at a 45-degree angle and touches the number five with both hands.

The process continues 15 more times before McCleland tells her to relax. Each time, Sonnefeldt touches one of the seven sticky notes forming the rectangle’s perimeter.

Sonnefeldt ends each therapy session by strapping a black compression sleeve over her shoulder and around her chest. The sleeve is connected to a machine that pumps cold water around her capsule, speeding up the healing process. The words printed on the front of the machine provide hope.

“Game Ready,” it reads.

Illustration: Repairing the damage

Missouri goalkeeper Shelby Sonnefeldt had surgery to repair her shoulder capsule, which had been stretched out after an initial injury, due to numerous dislocations. The shoulder capsule is a sheath of tendons that holds the shoulder together. The surgeon removed some excess tissue, then sutured the rest together, much like a tailor would alter cloth. (Illustration: Travis Hartman)

Moving past fear

After nearly two years of shoulder rehabilitation, Sonnefeldt desires nothing more than to play the game she loves without fear.

"You need to have that confidence when you start diving that the shoulder isn't going to pop out again," McCleland said. "Since hers has come out four times, I'm sure that's going to be an issue of her being a little timid right off the bat."

"You just gotta go for it," Sonnefeldt said, of when she'll return to the field. "You can't play with fear."

Maybe that's possible. McCleland doesn't know. Neither does Sonnefeldt. But maybe after four more months of rehab, maybe by the time the snow melts, maybe she'll be swatting balls and diving around the net again.

Maybe everything will finally stay in place. 

Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.

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