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Rebounding for life

U of W student stunned doctors by returning to basketball court 192 days after horrific near-fatal stabbing

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Wesmen basketball player Lena Wenke, who recovered from a knife attack a year ago, is back playing with the team at the University of Winnipeg.</p></p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Wesmen basketball player Lena Wenke, who recovered from a knife attack a year ago, is back playing with the team at the University of Winnipeg.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/3/2018 (199 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Lena Wenke is always pushing herself. She’s not one for regrets or looking in the rear-view mirror.

But on Dec. 1, the culmination of what she had endured over the previous 192 days flooded back. It had been a harrowing journey to the precipice of death and back; an epic comeback.

Wenke was returning to the basketball court, subbing in midway through a home game for the University of Winnipeg Wesmen women’s team against Edmonton’s MacEwan University Griffins.

Within a minute, she had scored her first basket, and although she finished the game with a two-for-seven shooting mark and only six points, it was a monumental achievement.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/3/2018 (199 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Lena Wenke is always pushing herself. She’s not one for regrets or looking in the rear-view mirror.

But on Dec. 1, the culmination of what she had endured over the previous 192 days flooded back. It had been a harrowing journey to the precipice of death and back; an epic comeback.

JASON HALSTEAD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>University of Winnipeg Wesmen guard Lena Wenke drives to the hoop against Trinity Western Spartans forward Kayla Gordon during Canada West basketball action at the University of Winnipeg.</p>

JASON HALSTEAD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

University of Winnipeg Wesmen guard Lena Wenke drives to the hoop against Trinity Western Spartans forward Kayla Gordon during Canada West basketball action at the University of Winnipeg.

Wenke was returning to the basketball court, subbing in midway through a home game for the University of Winnipeg Wesmen women’s team against Edmonton’s MacEwan University Griffins.

Within a minute, she had scored her first basket, and although she finished the game with a two-for-seven shooting mark and only six points, it was a monumental achievement.

"It was overwhelming," says the 21-year-old native of Goettingen, Germany.

"On the one hand, obviously, it felt amazing being out there. Being able to play again, be with my team on the floor and trying to help them win. On the other hand, I was extremely nervous. I’m usually a player who’s nervous before games — I feel like that is something you need, in some ways — but I was incredibly nervous about not being able to perform on the same level. Not really knowing what was coming at me."

Wenke, a starting guard for the Canada West bronze medallists in the spring of 2017, had good reason to doubt how her body would respond.

Early on May 23, she had been assaulted, stabbed more than 70 times and left for dead outside her West End home.

A passerby intervened but the attacker stole his vehicle and escaped. Later that day, the suspect, Junior Sesay, was arrested by the RCMP on Highway 10 while allegedly driving to the U.S. border.

Sesay, the older brother of Wenke’s boyfriend and U of W basketball player Will Sesay, was charged with attempted murder, robbery and break-and-enter. He is scheduled to go on trial in July.

Wenke won’t discuss the specifics of the attack, but this week, for the first time, her connection to the case has been tied to the public record.

She spent about 48 hours in the intensive-care unit at Health Sciences Centre, the first 10 or so on life-support. She turned the corner quickly after that; her recovery stunned members of the medical team, who credited her strong will to live and elite fitness level.

Months of rehabilitation (under the supervision of her physician mother) at home in Germany followed until she felt strong enough to consider a return to Winnipeg and school.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Wesmen basketball head coach Tanya McKay</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Wesmen basketball head coach Tanya McKay

Basketball? Well, that was important, too, but a surgically repaired patellar tendon in her right knee, which had been partially severed in the attack, was an ongoing problem.

"I was obviously thinking about other options, because some doctors told me that they didn’t know if I would play basketball on that level again," says Wenke, a former member of Germany’s national junior team. "And, they didn’t know how strong I was going to get, or if the knee was going to cause problems.

"My thumb was injured. There was a nerve cut in the back of my arm and I couldn’t straighten my thumb. They didn’t know why the thumb wasn’t straightening. And they thought I might need surgery on that and I might still need more surgery on the knee."

While she spent many months recovering from the physical trauma, Wenke was also dealing with the emotional wounds. As her physical therapy sessions expanded to include more rigorous workouts, she was mapping out a return to her psychology studies the U of W.

Going back to Winnipeg seemed inconceivable, but...

"All of these things made me consider a Plan B — maybe taking a year off," she says. "I had a couple of Plan Bs, a Plan C and Plan D, but I didn’t focus on them too much because I always wanted to come back here. I wanted to finish my school here, and at least I wanted to try to see how it would go. I didn’t want to stay in Germany and just close that chapter behind me. I always felt it wasn’t my choice.

"I think what helped me the most was my positive mindset. I just look forward. I never look back and I think that’s what got me here so fast."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Wesmen basketball player Lena Wenke, who recovered from a knife attack a year ago, is back playing with the team at the University of Winnipeg.</p></p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Wesmen basketball player Lena Wenke, who recovered from a knife attack a year ago, is back playing with the team at the University of Winnipeg.

Wenke went on to play nine regular-season games and four playoff games for the Wesmen this season. She soon came to grips with another part of her recovery in January, when coach Tanya McKay suggested she wanted to nominate her for the Tracy MacLeod Award, an honour that goes annually to the U Sports player who shows courage in the face of adversity.

Getting her name out there was another emotional hurdle, but Wenke, feeling she was ready, gave her approval. After being named the national MacLeod Award winner earlier this week, she’s taking pride in her recovery and believes her story can inspire others.

She’s also grateful to her coaches, teammates and friends, who kept a round-the-clock vigil at her hospital bed during the week after the attack.

"They did amazing," she says. "The most important thing for me is no one treated me differently. They were more helpful... but I like how they still treated me like a normal person and not some person who’s coming off an injury and being careful. In practice… I liked how they still pushed me, they still treated me the same way."

McKay was supportive, too, but carefully managed her playing time. Wenke averaged 17 minutes and 4.8 points per game.

"We wanted to be sure we were giving her opportunities, but also being aware of where she was at and what she could handle," the coach says.

"It also depended on how the game was going. If it was a physical game or not a physical game…. We were very aware of who our opponent was and how far we could push the envelope. By the time we moved through the season and into the playoffs, we had pushed the envelope a little more."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Wenke wears a long-sleeved shirt under her jersey, which covers many of the scars on her shoulders and arms, something she admits to being self-conscious about.

Now that the Wesmen have been eliminated from the Canada West playoffs, she’s been able to focus on the completion of the academic year. The throbbing in her knee, aggravated by daily workouts, has subsided.

On guard for their guard

The chilling telephone call came at 7:02 a.m.

“Does Lena Wenke play for you?" the caller from Heath Sciences Centre asked Tanya McKay, head coach of the University of Winnipeg women's basketball team. "She’s unresponsive."

The chilling telephone call came at 7:02 a.m.

“Does Lena Wenke play for you?" the caller from Heath Sciences Centre asked Tanya McKay, head coach of the University of Winnipeg women's basketball team. "She’s unresponsive."

After hurried conversations with assistant coach Tami Pennell and University of Winnipeg athletic director Dave Crook, McKay rushed to the hospital. Once there, she reached out to Wenke's parents, Dr. Petra Hunger-Wenke and Uli Wenke, who would arrive in Winnipeg from their home in Germany 24 hours later.

"The hardest phone call I’ve ever had to make," recalls McKay. "Calling the family to share what just happened to their daughter and you know they’re already going to be scared. I called them from the hospital; she was on life-support.

"I knew she was alive, so it was about getting them to Canada as soon as possible. My assistant coach, Tami Pennell and I, we spent that first 24 hours with Lena until her parents arrived. We continued to be the family all the way through."

Wenke was on life-support until noon that day and remained in the intensive-care unit for 48 hours, but her condition improved gradually and soon she was able to breathe on her own.

The recovery, while remarkable, didn't shock McKay, who first got to know Wenke in the spring of 2015 while recruiting her via numerous Skype sessions.

Wenke, who had a sense of adventure, felt her basketball career was stagnating at home, so she jumped at the chance to come to Canada.

"The doctors shared that as a strong woman, an elite athlete — they were incredibly inspired by her because she just kept raising the bar," McKay says.

"She looks forward all the time, she doesn’t look backwards. She’s driven to finish what she started here. She’s destined for great things."

— Sawatzky

The toll of the past 10 months has been draining, and doing schoolwork sometimes takes a superhuman effort. Her plan is to return to Winnipeg for two more years of school and hoops.

"Right now I’m just glad... that I don’t have practice so I can focus on school and I can get my assignments done and everything," she says. "Because my body is still recovering … and on top of that, I added basketball training almost every day and school work. My body was just exhausted. When I actually had time to study, I just wanted to sleep. But knowing that I want to go back to Germany and do my master’s, I know that I have to get a good GPA here.

"So, on those days I felt too exhausted to study, I told myself when you’re gonna do five pages now and go take a 10-minute nap. And you’re going to do the same, over and over again until I have the whole chapter read."

Seems she’s turned a lot of pages already and is well into the next chapter of her epic comeback.

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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