May 2, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Everything was going so well for Wisconsin's decorated heptathlete, Japheth Cato, until he heard the "pop'' and realized that his life had changed "in less than a blink of the eye.''
While competing last Saturday in the Brutus Hamilton Invitational track and field meet in Berkeley, Calif., Cato could not have felt better about himself or the results that he was getting.
Cato won the long jump with a leap of 25 feet, 8 3/4 inches, a personal best by seven inches and the third best mark in UW history behind Reggie Torian (26-2 in 1994) and Len Herring (25-9 1/2 in 2000).
"Everything felt fine,'' he said.
Prior to the pole vault competition, Cato ran a leg in 4x100 relay joining Babatunde Awosika, Matt Kerswill and Garret Payne. The Badgers finished third in a season-best time of 40.49 seconds.
"Everything still felt fine,'' he said.
After setting a PR in the pole vault by clearing 17 feet, 5 3/4 inches -- the best mark in the Big Ten this spring and the second-best outdoor clearance in school history -- Cato missed twice at 17-8 1/2.
"I was getting ready to take my last jump and I was a little tired and fatigued,'' said Cato, adding that his upper body still felt strong and "there was nothing hurting in my lower body.''
Clapping his hands to get the crowd engaged, he admitted, "I was really hyped, pumped up.''
But as he began to push off with his right foot to start running, Cato said, "I heard a pop; probably the equivalent of a bigger branch breaking off. Two or three other people heard it, too.''
At first, he thought, "Oh, man, my shoe broke.''
He looked down and saw that his shoe was still intact.
"Then I felt my lower calf roll up,'' he said. "That's what they all talk about when it snaps -- it rolls up. I knew then that it was my Achilles.
"I went to the ground but there wasn't much pain. It felt like a 4 on the pain scale. There was a little discomfort but mostly it was just a big, big blow to my heart.''
It was understandably emotional for Cato, who couldn't hold back tears. "I was so heartbroken about my season,'' he later confided. "All that work, all that work I had put into it.''
Initially, though, his focus was on the team. "My first thoughts were, `How are we going to win the Big Ten?''' he said. "That's all I kept thinking about, `We're supposed to win the Triple Crown.'''
The Badgers had previously won the Big Ten cross country and indoor track meets this year. "And I was supposed to go to Big Tens in two weeks and I was suppose to PR,'' he also kept thinking.
A teammate, Matt Widule, a sophomore hurdler, was one of the first to his side.
"He grabbed my hand,'' Cato said, "and reassured me, `You're going to get fixed. You're going to get back and you're going to be as good as new in no time.'''
|"One of the main parts of this rehab is positive thinking because, if you let yourself get down or depressed, then you're just done," Cato said. "It was like, 'You know what? I can do this.'"
UW athletic trainer Chuck Hart also rushed to Cato. It was then, as it slowly played out, he conceded, "I was numb to the injury but I was very conscious to the fact that my season was over.''
Shortly thereafter, Cato sent this message on Twitter: "My Achilles ruptured 3hrs ago during a track meet. I feel helpless. I feel like I let my team down. Wanna rehab together?''
It was directed towards Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, who blew out his Achilles tendon during a recent NBA playoff game against the Golden State Warriors.
Cato has not received any response from Bryant, who has already had surgery.
"I don't know why I did it (tweeted); it was just the first thing I thought about,'' said Cato, who will have his surgery Thursday. "He was more calm than me because he came back and shot free throws.''
Cato had another basketball reference point: Louisville's Kevin Ware, who broke his leg during the NCAA tournament's Midwest Regional final against Duke last month.
"I'm sure he (Ware) landed on that same foot thousands of times like I had taken that same step thousands of times,'' he said. "I'm sure Kobe took that same cut to the basket thousands of times.
"These are the little things that are just mind-blowing phenomena -- that can actually either make or break an athlete. This will be my trial and tribulations.''
On the flight home from California last Saturday night, Cato didn't dwell on his fate because "I knew there was nothing I could do about it now and there was nothing I could change.''
Instead, he said, "I started thinking about, `How fast can I come back from this? How fast can my body recover? Things like that. I've learned this is a long, long recovery.''
How long? "Six to nine months of rehab,'' said Cato. "I think it's just six months to getting back to a normal person, then it takes the extra two to three months to get back to your athletic base.''
Pausing to consider the timeline, Cato acknowledged, "It is a challenge. But everyone knows I've always been the person who's up for a challenge.''
There has already been an outpouring of support, including encouragement from the aforementioned Torian, who still holds the collegiate record in the indoor 60 hurdles and reminded Cato, "Before victory, there is always adversity.''
Since the injury, Cato has been using this Twitter hashtag: #RoadtoRecovery.
He also reassured everyone that he was well on that road mentally, if not physically, with this tweet: "After surgery, rehab. After rehab, break more records. Win more championships.''
Cato, a junior All-American from Crete, Ill., is a three-time Big Ten heptathlon champion and ranks No. 4 all-time among collegians in the event. He has twice finished second at the NCAA championships -- in the two closest finishes in the meet's history.
The Badgers will now have to find a way to defend last year's outdoor title and complete this season's Triple Crown bid without Cato -- who was expected to score highly in the pole vault, long jump and 110 hurdles and contribute to UW's 4x100 relay -- at the Big Ten championships in Columbus, Ohio (May 10-13).
As a word of caution to anyone who might be attempting to do more than his humanly possible in his absence, Cato said, "When you spread a person too thin, they become really brittle.''
So what would he tell his teammates to encourage them at Ohio State? "Do your event,'' he said. "Do what you were going to do to the best of your ability and don't leave anything on the track.''
They need to move ahead without him, he insisted, just like he has.
"I've been talking to a lot of people,'' Cato related, "and they've said one of the main parts of this rehab is positive thinking because, if you let yourself get down or depressed, then you're just done.
"As soon as it happened, I might have thought, `I'm done; I can't come back from this. Who has come back from this?' But after talking to others, it was like, `You know what? I can do this.'''
The 2016 Olympics will help motivate Cato when the rehab begins to drag.
"I'm still going to train for it,'' he said with conviction.
In the meantime, Cato's family has been particularly supportive. "They've been calling me day-in and day-out or texting me,'' he said. Tuesday, he heard from his grandfather.
"He called to tell me that these are the types of things that really make athletes (who they are). `You can't go through your whole life eating cake and drinking punch.' So this is my adversity.''
Cato eyed the boot on his right foot and all those steps on the #RoadtoRecovery.