Shelby Erdahl had one goal when she competed in the final track meet of her life: Earn a point for the first time in her career during the Big Sky Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championship in May.
The then-Idaho State University senior qualified for the final of the 400-meter hurdles by nine-hundredths of a second in a preliminary race. The performance made her the eighth and final qualifier, which meant that even if she finished last in the final, she would accomplish what she set out to do.
It all seemed to be inevitable until Erdahl’s left foot gave way after clearing the second hurdle of the final at the University of Northern Colorado.
Her first thoughts after tumbling to the track were to get up and finish. But then she tried to run, and she knew she had ruptured her left Achilles tendon.
“I realized that my left foot wasn’t working,” says Erdahl, who graduated last spring with a degree in exercise science. “It was numb and felt weird. When I tried to take a step, it just felt like I didn’t have a left foot. I felt like I was standing on a wedge, but I could clearly see that I wasn’t standing on anything. I knew I must have snapped all my nerves in that area and torn the tendon.”
With the majority of the race still ahead of her, Erdahl decided she would finish the race – no matter what. By track and field rules, she would be disqualified if she received help from anyone or used her hands to lift herself over the remaining hurdles.
So, slowly, she attempted to jog and block out the pain. Those in attendance spurred her on from the stands, and teammates yelled encouragement.
“I would stand on my good leg and hop to get over the hurdle,” Erdahl says. “I just hoped my bad leg wouldn’t give out when I landed.”
One of her most vivid memories about her excruciating 2:53.56 around the track came when she saw some teammates near the midpoint of the race.
“I was trying to tell them that I thought I had torn my Achilles tendon,” says Erdahl, who had run 1:02.68 in the preliminary round. “But seeing them was the motivation I needed to keep going.”
When she finally reached the finish line, she was taken to the trainer’s room, and an orthopedic physician confirmed the injury. Erdahl was given pain medication and watched the rest of the final day of the meet from the stands.
All the while, people came to her to tell her how inspirational her performance was.
“Hearing that was really cool, especially coming from my competitors,” says Erdahl, now enrolled in a postgraduate physical therapy program at the University of Montana.
Erdahl took the nine-hour bus ride back to Pocatello, Idaho, and three days later had surgery to repair her Achilles. But two weeks after the operation, she slipped in the shower and tore the tendon again. A second surgery followed in early June.
Barring any setbacks, Erdahl hopes to be back to 100 percent by the end of the year. In the meantime, she is undergoing physical therapy – while studying physical therapy.
“I proved something to myself that day,” Erdahl says. “When things get tough or out of control, I know I have the determination to keep going. When the injury happened, I knew I could either finish or roll off the track. I’m glad I get to look back and see that I finished the championship final and earned a point for my team.”
Sometimes finishing the race is the triumph.