Two-time state medalist Ava Wardlaw battles back from torn ACL 

By Jimmy Gillispie

OLATHE, Kan. — There is a decent chance Ava Wardlaw won’t be competing in the final two meets of the season, but that won’t stop her from being the biggest cheerleader for the Olathe West cross country teams.

The Olathe West senior runner spent most of the season recovering from a torn ACL she suffered in April. It was a rough way for her junior year to end, but Wardlaw has kept a positive attitude through everything.

According to Olathe West coach Kelsey Carbajo, Wardlaw hasn’t missed a practice or meet this fall, despite not being able to run for many weeks. Wardlaw has chosen to use her rehab and recovery time being a great teammate and friend, instead of thinking about where she might be finishing or the times she could be running.

“It’s been incredible,” Carbajo said. “People can either think this sucks and I’m done with the team, but she’s done the complete opposite. She’s been involved in planning things like team bonding stuff. She’s been all on top of that. She’s here every single day, and she’s the first person to cheer people on. 

“It’s been really cool to see, because I think if I was in her spot, it would be tough. She would be a part of our top seven and contributing to what we did at Griak (Invitational) and how fast we’re running now. That would be hard for me, but instead she’s totally taken the high road and embraced it, and been such a great team leader.”

Wardlaw has watched the Olathe West girls dominate its competition this season. The Owls have won meet after meet, including the Roy Griak Invitational in Minnesota and the KC Classic at the beginning of the month.

“They’ve had a lot of success this year, so I’ve been able to be alongside them and being to celebrate with them,” Wardlaw said. “They’ve all been really supportive of me, too, so that’s helped out a lot.”

Wardlaw’s junior year ended April 6 while playing soccer. Wardlaw said she was pushed to the ground and felt a pop in her left knee.

The diagnosis was a torn ACL. Before she had a chance to have a junior track season, it was over with her senior cross country in jeopardy, too.

“When I first heard the pop, I knew something wasn’t right,” Wardlaw said. “When I got the diagnosis, I was pretty upset about missing out on a track season for a second year, because sophomore year we didn’t have it because of COVID. So, I was missing my junior season and knowing the possibility of not being able to run my senior year.”

Wardlaw finished ninth in the 3,200-meter run at the 2019 regional track meet. A week later, she ran on the Olathe West’s 3,200-meter relay team at state, but her sophomore track season never happened due to the pandemic.

Losing her junior season before it really got started was tough for Wardlaw. But, it might have been tougher for her cross country coach, because she knows Wardlaw has the potential to run in college, but hasn’t had the chance to show college coaches what she can do on the track.

“I’m even tearing up talking about it, because it was so hard to hear that news,” Carbajo said. “Knowing her goals are to run in college, and to have her sophomore year taken away and then junior year, too. It was tough to hear. Obviously, the goal for her is to go be a successful runner in college and then a successful person outside of running. I think that was going through my mind, too.

“… I think it’s hard for her, because she hasn’t had a track season since her freshman year. Coaches are trying to reach out and it’s hard for her to think they’re only going to see her freshman times until her senior year. For her, she just needs to stay focused and keep working hard. I have no doubt she’s going to be an amazing college runner if that’s what she really wants to do.”

Olathe West’s Ava Wardlaw, right, competes in a cross country race. (Photo by Ryder Amos)

Wardlaw underwent successful surgery on April 22. Then came the tough times.

Like anyone recovering from a torn ACL, Wardlaw went through a rollercoaster ride for months during rehab and physical therapy. She said it was hard at times, but she knew pushing herself through the tough times would benefit her in the long run.

Wardlaw knew there was no option if she wanted to reach the goal she told Carbajo time and time again.

“When she first when down and we started doing the recovery stuff at PT, she kept saying, ‘I want to run by the end of the season, I want to run by the end of the season.’ I kept thinking, I don’t know if we have the same knowledge about ACLs, because I don’t know if this going to happen. Just seeing how determined she was to reach that goal, I knew it was going to happen just because she was so focused on it.

“When we started running, she did her first repeat workout with us a couple weeks ago, and she was staying up there with some of the varsity girls. She fell off a little bit, but she was able to stay up there pretty well. She was getting out of her comfort zone and pushing herself to the next level.”

The two-time cross country state medalist, who helped the Owls win the 2020 state championship, began running about five weeks ago. Within about two weeks, Wardlaw rejoined her teammates for practice runs.

“It was a good feeling, because when I first came back and I couldn’t run, it was really frustrating,” Wardlaw said. “I didn’t know why I couldn’t do this like I had before. Once I finally do it normally, it was good to feel back a little bit normal again.”

The 2021 season really felt normal for Wardlaw on Oct. 2. At the KC Classic meet at Raymore-Peculiar, Wardlaw competed in her first race of the year.

In the junior varsity race, she finished 39th out of 128 runners. Her 5K time was 23:11.2 – about 4:04 slower than her personal best. Yet, none of that mattered at the moment.

“It felt really good to be out there,” Wardlaw said. “It was a little bit harder than I expected, but it felt really good.”

Four days later, Wardlaw competed at Shawnee Mission Park and finished third in the JV girls race, in a time of 22:20. The only two competitors ahead of her were teammates.

“I felt like the first meet was a little rough,” Wardlaw said. “It was definitely not where I wanted to be, but even between Saturday and Wednesday, I already dropped by time by almost a minute. I felt a lot better, so each week, I think it’s going to keep getting better.”

Next up for Wardlaw is the Sunflower League meet on Saturday at the Rim Rock Farm north of Lawrence, Kansas. It could be her final meet of the season, unless she’s able to significantly drop her time and be one of the Owls’ top seven runners.

She was third on the team – and 15th overall – at state last year. Two years ago, Wardlaw was the second Owl runner – and 8th overall – on the state runner-up team. 

This year, Wardlaw’s postseason is up in the air. One thing is for certain, she will give it everything she has to be on the team that competes on Oct. 23 at the Class 6A regional with the ultimate goal of defending their state title.

“I’m just trying to give it my all every meet,” Wardlaw said. “I probably only have like one more meet left, so I just want to go out there and do the best I can.”

Whether or not Wardlaw competes at the regional meet or becomes one of the team’s three alternates, she will be with the Owls during the postseason.

“Either way, she’s going with us,” Carbajo said. “She is definitely somebody who keeps our team together. She’s very numbered driven and knows exactly what’s happening with other teams. She loves the sport of cross country, and even more so loves her teammates.”

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