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How UNC aids its athletes through potentially career-ending injuries

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Dr. Mario Ciocca, UNC's director of sports medicine, was named a recipient of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes outstanding UNC employees each year. Photo courtesy of Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill.

While practicing for the ACC Big Ten Challenge in December, UNC redshirt senior guard Ariel Young heard a pop in her knee, causing her to hyperventilate. 

After spending the entire 2021-2022 basketball season recovering from a torn ACL, her fear of another injury had come true. 

Young later found out the pop was caused by cartilage thinning. She decided to forego the surgery, understanding the limited success rate of the operation and the extensive recovery process.

After 18 years of playing basketball, Young was done.

"I felt depleted," Young said. "I felt defeated.”

Like Young, junior Max DiMuccio, a former cross-country runner, made the decision to step away from his sport. After suffering his seventh stress fracture, DiMuccio said making the choice was "the most difficult thing" he's ever done. 

Young and DiMuccio aren't alone. About 4,000 athletes suffer season- or career-ending injuries each year. But to aid UNC athletes in the grieving process that coincides with injury and retirement, the University offers services that work to help athletes’ physical and mental health through this process.

Mario Ciocca is the University's Director of Sports Medicine and the primary care physician for baseball, football and men’s soccer. If athletes are considering stepping away from their sport due to injury, they consult with him for medical evaluation. 

Ciocca said he reviews the athlete's injury or medical condition and evaluates if it is safe for them to return. The risks are weighed with the athletes, and Ciocca ensures they understand the short-term and long-term implications of their condition so they don't rush their decision-making process.

During an athlete's recovery  — and even afterward  — they can still contact coaches, physicians, trainers and physical therapists. Ciocca also recommends the athletes visit sport psychologists at UNC to aid in the transition. 

Young attended biweekly sessions with UNC mental health clinician Cydnia Young during her recovery. 

"So all those emotions and stuff, I kind of brought to the UNC sports psychologist Cydnia,” Young said. “I definitely leaned on Cyd specifically and the sports psychology program here.”

To help players take their minds off their respective sport, UNC also gives athletes access to a student-athlete development program. 

“We like to think of ourselves as the people who help you off the field and outside of the classroom,” Cricket Lane, senior associate athletic director for UNC Student-Athlete Development, said. 

Being over a year removed from each of their injuries, both Young and DiMuccio have come to terms with life outside of varsity sports by tapping into UNC's resources.

In his room, DiMuccio has a poster that reads, “The race is not always to the swift but to those who keep on running.” After stepping away from cross country, DiMuccio sees the poster in a new light. 

“I think that I am still running in a sense because running to me wasn’t like actually going for a run," DiMuccio said. "It was just something that I love to do. So like today, everything that I do, it’s what I love to do. I’m still running in that sense.”

DiMuccio is still involved with athletics through his intramural basketball and soccer teams. He will also be the co-president of UNC’s club lacrosse team next year.

Young also plans to continue her involvement with athletics and is looking forward to changing the stigmas around athletes and injuries.

“I just want to ultimately share my story, and also help anyone that’s a student-athlete or who wants to be a student-athlete succeed,” Young said. “All these people you see on TV — tall, big, short, long — playing a sport on the college level are still kids. And I want to be able to support the next generation of student-athletes as much as I can.”

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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