Sunday, September 26, 2021

'This is what I signed up for': Claire Hendrickson's injuries are no obstacle as she claims new role

February 2, 2021
Redshirt sophomore Claire Hendrickson celebrates from the bench during the game against Eastern Michigan Nov. 5, 2019 at the Breslin Center.
Redshirt sophomore Claire Hendrickson celebrates from the bench during the game against Eastern Michigan Nov. 5, 2019 at the Breslin Center. —
Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

As Michigan State’s defense sets back into their man to man defense, there’s a voice chiming in from the bench yelling at the five women on the floor.

“Higher!”

"HIGHER!"

It's a voice heard above the deafening silence of an empty Breslin Center. The cavernous walls echo the waves of the voice onto the hardwood.

"HIGHER!"

The screams belong to junior guard Claire Hendrickson of MSU women's basketball. Those screams – making sure her teammates are getting their hands up and clogging passing lanes for the opposing team.

She wants more than anything to be out there with them, not screaming from the bench. Regardless, Hendrickson has found a new meaning for her presence with the team.

Even if it's from the sidelines.

Hendrickson came to East Lansing from Wyoming, Michigan four years ago ready to play basketball for her home state Spartans.

Just 45 minutes into her first practice, tragedy struck as the meniscus in her right knee tore along with spraining her LCL and MCL in her knee.

Months later, Hendrickson was cleared to play and headed down to Mexico for a tournament. After diving for a loose ball, she knew it happened again as she peered to her teammates and said, "I just tore my meniscus."

Other athletes know how this moment feels.

When the pandemic hit college sports and the knee pain continued to persist, Hendrickson had a decision to make: Stem cell transplant to cushion the pain or give up on basketball and replace her meniscus.

Wanting to continue playing, Hendrickson chose the stem cell transplant, but it wasn’t able to do enough to keep the pain away, forcing Hendrickson to choose her own health over the game she loved.

“That's what I really had to come to terms with is deciding that it's more of a quality of life thing for me instead of I have to play basketball because at the end of the day basketball is what I do, but it's not who I am,” Hendrickson admitted. “There's more to me than just on the court and Suzy (Merchant) said to me, ‘Your best day isn't going to be on the court,’ which gave me some relief because she's 100% right. It was nice to have her full 110% support with this decision.”

“It's been tough, but sometimes you just gotta roll with the punches, you gotta make lemonade even if you don't get lemons handed to you.”

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As tough as it was to see such a hard-working, talented athlete be riddled with injuries to this point, Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant had her back in the decision.

“We all love Claire,” Merchant said. “It's just the most unfortunate thing, her body just would not let her compete at this level to no fault of her own, that kid did everything possible. She works as hard as anybody, it just got to the point where she just couldn't do it anymore and we had to pull the basketball piece.”

Hendrickson understood what the decision meant. As a sophomore in high school, she averaged a resounding 14.0 points, 7.0 assists, 3.5 steals, 3.5 rebounds and – at 5-foot-11 – 3.5 blocks per game. She was among some of the best players at that age in the state of Michigan and even the midwest.

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She's scored eight points, twice in her career for her career-high. But the statistics, like all great teammates and players can agree, often don't define a player's impact on a team.

Despite the on-court contributions being gone, Hendrickson has found new ways to bring things to the team with her energy and enthusiasm that more often than not drowns out what the coaches even yell from the bench.

“I don't think a lot of people outside of our program realize what she brings,” Michigan State junior and guard Nia Clouden said. “She brings energy every day, whether she's feeling good or feeling bad with her body. Especially at home games, she's really loud, she's the loudest one on the bench. She's cheering, she's making sure we're all on the same page and that we know what's going on. She's really instrumental to our team whether she's playing or not.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s practice or game day either, the energy is always there.

“One thing I love about Claire is she's very vocal,” Merchant said. "She loves this team, she loves this program, she loves Michigan State and so what you see from her is what you get in practice too. Sometimes she's the loudest kid in practice and she's standing on the sidelines the whole time because she can't play.”

The energy that Hendrickson gives is appreciated by the rest of her team, and as a competitor herself, Hendrickson knows that.

“It gives me a purpose to be there for my teammates,” Hendrickson said. “Especially this year with either no fans or maybe 20 up in the stands, there's got to be that motivating factor. There's got to be that push to my teammates because that's what I would want. Being there for my teammates, cheering them on, getting them hyped, whatever I have to do to make that happen by all means. That's what I'm there for right now.”

One of the teammates who can truly appreciate what Hendrickson has gone through is Mardrekia Cook, who has been through an ACL tear and most recently a torn Achilles last season.

“We weren't super close because I was a freshman and we talked here and there and obviously she's my teammate so I saw her everyday, but the past probably year or two, we've gotten closer,” Hendrickson said. “We just laugh about it in the locker room like, ‘Girl, how are your knees doing today?’"

"We just make jokes about that stuff and old people jokes like as a 21-year-old you probably shouldn't have arthritis."

"But we do.”

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With her playing days over and her Michigan State career coming to a close, it came time to focus on the future. After completing her bachelor’s degree, Hendrickson is working on completing credits towards her master’s degree in exercise physiology.

After being more on the basketball side this year, Hendrickson is planning on transitioning into more of a role in the strength and conditioning area next year with the team as strength and conditioning coach Annalise Pickrel has begun to bring her under her wing.

“I think she's been really embraced by our strength coach Annalise Pickrel because that's something she really wants to lean on in her master's degree and get in the weight room and really learn from Annalise,” Merchant said. "I think she's really built some confidence that way.”

After being certified to be a strength and conditioning coach, Hendrickson hopes to pursue a full-time career in either being an orthopedic or dermatology physician’s assistant.

While it could have been easy for Hendrickson to walk away from the game after all the curveballs it threw her way, Hendrickson continued to persevere and that’s because of her love of the game.

“I feel like this is what I signed up for,” Hendrickson said. “There's no reason for me to be like, ‘Oh, I can't play, I don't even want to be here.’ Some people they'd be like, ‘Okay since I'm done, I really don't want to be reminded of that.’ I feel like I have a purpose to be here, whether that's encouraging people as a support system for my teammates and any of those types of things. That's why I'm here. I love the game.”

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