Mount Sinai girls lacrosse player Peyton Choma explains how she overcame a second ACL injury in under a year to become a better player and person. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports. Credit: Barry Sloan

Peyton Choma lay helpless on the turf. She didn’t need a trainer. She knew exactly what had happened because she had lived through it a year earlier.

Choma knew she had just torn her ACL — the second time in less than a year. 

On July 14, 2020, Choma, an incoming freshman at Mount Sinai High School, went down in a lacrosse game at the PAL complex in Holtsville, tearing the ACL and both the medial and lateral meniscus in her right knee. Her parents, Michael and Jennifer, saw it happen.

“Her right knee was lunch meat,” Michael said. “I went out there and I saw it right away.”

Then, on July 9, 2021 — the same nightmare! In a tournament in New Jersey she went down again. This time she tore the ACL in her left knee.

“I was on the field and I was screaming, ‘Oh no, not again,’ ” Choma said. “The only words coming out of my mouth were, ‘Oh no, not again.’ ”

The second ACL tear occurred in one of her first games that she felt confident enough with the right knee to play at full speed after returning to play for Mount Sinai in mid-April. That was most crushing for Choma. 

“The coaches ran to me and I was hysterically crying because what was running through my head wasn’t that I couldn’t do this again, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to put myself through this again,” Choma said. “But there was also that part of me that was like there’s no way I can give up my love for this sport and I’m going to do everything possible.”

While it was somewhat obvious what had happened with the first injury, the second ACL tear wasn’t as clear. Trainers, initially, didn’t think anything was structurally wrong with Choma’s left knee. That was due in part to her intensive first rehabilitation. Her legs became so strong that her father nicknamed her “Quadzilla.” But Choma said she heard a pop when she was hurt, and two days later an MRI revealed a full tear.

“When you do it once, you kind of know what it feels like again,” said Choma, now a junior at Mount Sinai High. 

THE ANTICIPATION

Choma remembers the morning of July 14, 2020 and the excitement of being able to play the sport she loves. She was with her travel team (Long Island Yellow Jackets) for its first action since the COVID-19 shutdown.

“I was absolutely ecstatic,” Choma said. “I was getting my lacrosse stuff and I was literally jumping up and down to my parents. I was so excited because it was outside, fresh air. I was working out for the five months of lockdown and I was so excited to pick this sport up again.”

Choma had trained in her backyard, worked out in her basement and ran with her father during those months. But this was real game competition. She even scored the game’s first goal that Tuesday afternoon. But five minutes later she went down with the non-contact injury. Choma remembered when her older sister Kasey tore her ACL. Choma never thought it would happen to her.

Mount Sinai midfielder Peyton Choma, center, plays against Sayville on...

Mount Sinai midfielder Peyton Choma, center, plays against Sayville on Monday. Credit: Barry Sloan

“You think to yourself . . . something like that will never happen [to me] and then it actually does and then it becomes reality,” Choma said. “I remember being on the floor and screaming and crying like, ‘Oh my God, this just happened,’ and my heart just shattered.”

Choma’s mother accompanied her daughter to the hospital (only one parent was allowed in due to COVID restrictions).

“I thought this could be the end of my lacrosse career and COVID was still a thing and I was wondering, ‘Am I going to recover? What happens if another lockdown happens?’ ” Choma said. “It was just absolutely heartbreaking to know this could be the end of my career and with COVID, I was terrified.”

Choma began physical therapy the day after her August surgery. Sometimes she had to wear multiple masks while building her strength during nine months of rehabbing.

“I was trying to run and I felt like I was going to pass out,” Choma said. “It was awful at the beginning but with the support group I had, my mom and dad being there every step of the way, I needed it. They knew when to coddle me and say it’s going to be OK but also knew when I needed to push through it because I wanted it. And I to get back on the field again.”

‘WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?’

On July 9, 2021, Choma, playing with a brace, told her Yellow Jackets coach she felt ready to go at full speed. But on a run to the goal, Choma was pushed and felt the left knee pop. She continued the play and scored a goal. 

But she soon found herself back in an MRI tube, and was distraught.

“I remember just absolutely breaking down and it was my mom, my dad and my doctor consoling me,” Choma said. “They were like, ‘You got this,’ but they didn’t want to push me. I was 14, but I knew how much I wanted to get back and with my love for the sport, it wasn’t going to end before I was a sophomore. I was like, ‘This isn’t happening. I’m pushing back.’ ”

Her father said his daughter cried for about 10 minutes, then “Peyton got mad.” he said. “All the insecurity of the first [rehabilitation] went out the window. She claps her hands together, wipes her eyes and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ She’s said that forever. That’s our saying now.”

The family admits that there were times Choma was understandably despondent. “I used to cry to my mom and dad and say, ‘Why me? I work so hard for this opportunity and then it gets ripped away from me,’” Choma said. “But that’s when [they]  come in with the biggest part of my recovery saying, ‘We understand but unfortunately life doesn’t work that way. You need to bounce back from this if you want to show people what you are made of.’ ”

“It was my job to hug her and kiss her when she would cry and get upset,” Jennifer said. “But then say, ‘Peyton, I have no doubt that you are going to be a great player.’ ”

In November, 2021 Choma had arthroscopic surgery to clean out her right knee, and the following March she was cleared to play again. Wearing two knee braces was uncomfortable and slowed her a bit, but she scored eight goals. Now, the braces are gone.

“Peyton fixed everything for all of us,” her father said. “When you see a kid determined and angry — but a good angry — she’s not yelling and screaming and punching walls, she’s just determined, it gives you confidence. As a parent, you’re supposed to worry about your kids and worry about the things they can’t handle and she was comforting us with her confidence.”

Mount Sinai midfielder Peyton Choma, center, chases down a loose...

Mount Sinai midfielder Peyton Choma, center, chases down a loose ball against Sayville Monday, May 1, 2023. Credit: Barry Sloan

THE NEW PEYTON

After three surgeries in less than 18 months, Choma is on the field at full strength. She moved from attack to midfield as Mount Sinai first-year coach Shayna Pirreca wanted Choma to take on more responsibility. Choma has responded with 17 goals and two assists, as well as being a standout defender. She had three goals and an assist in Saturday’s 14-6 win over Center Moriches.

“It makes me so happy to see her playing so well and so free and so confident because I know this has been a long process and a long time coming,” Pirreca said. “So I think in her junior year, she’s really coming into her own. She’s so confident and it shows in her play.”

Choma is playing with a new purpose. Every game, she writes “CONFIDENT!” on her forearm to remind herself of everything she’s overcome. She also meets her father before each contest, touching foreheads for about 20 seconds in a personal moment together. “That’s so special,” Michael said. “And in the very beginning, I didn’t appreciate the good stuff. I was just so scared . . . I’ve learned to lighten up. It was so bad in the beginning I didn’t enjoy anything. I was just praying please, please be healthy.”

Before every game, Mount Sinai's Peyton Choma writes "confident!" on...

Before every game, Mount Sinai's Peyton Choma writes "confident!" on her arm, inluding before a game against Sayville on Monday. Credit: Barry Sloan

Choma understands some who hear her story will think she’ll never be the dynamic player she was in youth lacrosse. She wants to prove them wrong.

“Every night I replay situations in my mind and being able to showcase my true potential,” Choma said. “And not my old self before the injuries, but my new self because where I am now is a totally different person than I was before my injury. Some people say, ‘I wish I could go back to how I was before my injury,’ but I don’t because my mindset and my physical abilities are way advanced to where I was before my injuries.”

Choma is thankful for the journey and adversity she had to go through. There were moments when she felt that life wasn’t fair. But she emerged from the other side, has earned a Division I scholarship to Quinnipiac and has the remainder of this season and her senior year ahead.

“Being 16 now and thinking back to when I was 13 and going through this, it was absolutely awful,” Choma said. “But I don’t think I’d be the person I am now without that struggle and as awful as the three surgeries were and the two ACL injuries, I think I have an advantage over people my age and even older because I’ve had to go through things that are just unimaginable.

“But that’s why I’m here today and I’m playing and I’m producing.”

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