Jacki Gemelos had five ACL surgeries in seven years, but giving up has never been an option.
by Aaron Fischman / @aaronhartf
At halftime of a Sacramento Monarchs game, 11-year-old Jacki Gemelos was asked to make six free throws in less than a minute. She missed her first shot, but calmly proceeded to swish the next six.
By the time she was 15, Gemelos had already committed to the University of Connecticut, the powerhouse school for which her favorite player, Diana Taurasi, played at the time.
As she prepared to enter college in 2006, Gemelos was nationally ranked as the No. 1 women’s basketball player in her class.
But ever since the final game of her McDonald’s All-American senior year at St. Mary’s (CA)—a season in which she averaged 39.2 points and 8.9 assists per game—her once-expectedly smooth path to the WNBA has become riddled with obstacles.
Seven years and five ACL surgeries later, including three surgeries to her left knee, she still hasn’t played a single WNBA game. Gemelos’ last full season, playing at the University of Southern California, came in ’10-11. The 6-foot guard, however, remains resolute, thanks in large part to Beverly Hills-based osteopath and physical therapist Fabrice Gautier, who has been overseeing her rehabilitation since January.
The Minnesota Lynx drafted Gemelos 31st overall in the 2012 WNBA Draft with the understanding that she would sit out the entire year. This April, the team flew Gemelos out and conducted an MRI on her left knee. “Everything was great,” recounted Gemelos. “So they kind of took me out of that category in terms of me being a player they were cautious about in terms of health.”
Gautier works with professional athletes from various sports, as well as everyday people of all ages. This postseason, Gautier has traveled across the country to work with Carmelo Anthony, Joakim Noah, Tony Parker and Boris Diaw. He’s also served as the French national team’s osteopath since 2009 and worked with both the Men’s and Women’s teams at the 2012 Olympics.
Since opening Los Angeles Main Physical Therapy in 2003, Gautier has never worked with anyone who’s had more than two ACL surgeries, let alone five. That being said, according to Gautier, “It’s not so different the fact that she had five, especially if there is no big damage to the cartilage or the meniscus.” And there wasn’t any significant damage to either on her left knee (she had a lateral meniscus tear on the right knee), clarified Gautier.
The osteopath’s vision for Gemelos’ rehab focused on realigning her body from head to toe, especially at the pelvis and ankles, as well as rebuilding and strengthening two areas, the lateral and posterior chains.
“When I say lateral chain,” said Gautier, “it’s anything that’s on the side, including the glutes med (gluteus medius), the IT bands (iliotibial band) and peroneus muscles, which are the muscles that create, that take care and warrant lateral stability.” The posterior chain includes a group of muscles, tendons and ligaments that were also weakened by Gemelos’ multiple ACL tears.
For the past five months, Gemelos has been going to Gautier’s office for at least a couple hours three times per week. She spends the first hour and a half doing a wide array of exercises. After a five-minute break, she moves on to the treadmill for 30-45 minutes of interval training.
The workout regimen includes proprioception, plyometrics, Olympic weightlifting and work on an isokinetic machine in order to build up the knee, quadriceps and hamstrings. The key was really to regain her explosiveness.
“We used to do supersets,” noted Gautier. “We tried to really build up and mix up the muscles—of course, you’d give her a little rest—but at some point at the end, she was doing heavy supersets, which we were mixing up with resistance [exercises] and explosive and endurance [sets]. She had to go six rounds of six exercises.”
For proprioception, Gautier employed an inflatable device called a “waff,” in which Gemelos had to keep her balance in various positions, sometimes standing on one foot, other times with her eyes closed and in various other stances.
“At first, she sucked,” said Gautier, bluntly. “Then she got better very quickly.”
According to Gautier, Gemelos sincerely enjoyed the waff balancing exercises. Burpees, an exercise that essentially combines deep squats and pushups, however, were easily her least favorite.
“During the whole rehab, she was so focused,” said a proud Gautier. “She didn’t miss a single one, she was always on time, and some days, I can tell you she was tired, dead tired.”
At one point, Gautier recommended Gemelos try a 10-day cleanse, a diet crafted by the company Sunfare.
“I wanted to do that to take more pressure off my knee and just be really light and feel good out there,” said Gemelos. She did it and promptly lost six pounds.
Through the months of intense workouts, Gemelos’ drive reminded him of a certain three-time NBA Champion and five-time All-Star: “She reminds me a lot of Tony Parker, like the focus and the mentality that she has. She’s tough as nails.
“I’ve worked with tough athletes. They’ve been in the League for a long time, and they’ve been playing hurt and stuff, and she’s very close to that.”
Gemelos added, “I put myself in a really good position at this point and have worked harder than I ever worked in my life these past four of five months. I’m doing really well, in terms of my lateral quickness and my speed and explosiveness right now.”
Despite the significant progression of her explosiveness, Gautier asserted that Gemelos still has ample room for improvement, citing her age (she’s still only 24) and previous elite level of play.
The physical dimension of Gemelos’ rehab would have been incomplete without work being done to improve the player’s psyche. “She also had to work on the mental approach, because she was unmotivated and she had to get her confidence back,” said Gautier.
Gemelos admitted as much: “I was really unmotivated this last surgery and recovery. It was very repetitive. I didn’t really find myself excited to rehab or excited to get ready for training camp, but then when I met Fabrice, it seemed like everything changed.”
Gautier, who coaches his two children’s basketball teams, had to rely on positive reinforcement to remind Gemelos of her myriad abilities on the basketball court.
“She was one of the best basketball players before she had her surgeries,” said Gautier. “That’s what we worked on, too—telling her that she’s still the same person, that her knee is going to be fine and that she’s still the same player.”
As a result of the clean MRI, the Lynx signed Gemelos to a training camp contract. Although she is not guaranteed to make the team—five guards are competing for two spots (the other guards include Lindsey Moore, Sugar Rodgers, Rachel Jarry and Chucky Jeffery)—Gemelos is closer than ever to achieving her WNBA dream.
“If you have a passion, you’re lucky to have a passion for something, and I’m very fortunate that mine happened to be basketball,” said Gemelos. “It’s just something that sticks with me no matter what.
That’s not to say, however, that there weren’t times Gemelos considered giving up on a professional basketball career.
“I think anybody would question themselves even after one injury, let alone repeatedly getting injured time after time,” explains Gemelos. “There was a huge question mark in my mind if this time would ever actually come. You think about giving up, and then you really sit down and think about the hard work and dedication you’ve put forth into something that you love to do.”
The Lynx will make their remaining three cuts by the end of May. If Gemelos manages to play her way onto the team this training camp, you can bet the 24-year-old guard will give Gautier a big hug and a heartfelt thank you. And if she doesn’t make the team, her track record of resilience would suggest a prompt return to Beverly Hills for additional work with Gautier.
Before Gemelos left for Minnesota, she wrote a message on Gautier’s wall. No, not a Facebook wall. She used a sharpie on an actual wall in his office, the same surface that’s marked with notes of gratitude from Manu Ginobili, Terrell Owens, Corey Maggette, and actor Forest Whitaker, among others.
In a particularly revealing section of Gemelos’ thank you note, she wrote, “I could write for days, but I don’t want to take up too much room. You are the best and will be a part in my life forever.”
To the left of Gemelos’ note, a painting of Magic Johnson titled “Last Hero” (done by William Quigley) hangs on the wall. Gautier was inspired by Magic, his favorite player of all time, to emigrate from France to the United States in 1999—kind of like Diana Taurasi inspired Gemelos to succeed, as well as persevere when her career trajectory didn’t go according to planned.
Again, Gemelos hasn’t made the regular-season roster, but if she does, she and the Lynx will be hosting Taurasi’s Mercury on June 6. “She was my idol growing up,” said Gemelos. “And I don’t even know if I’m allowed to say this, but she still is.”
Ever since Gemelos first watched Taurasi play more than a dozen years ago, she’s been waiting for it to happen. Stay tuned: The Taurasi-Gemelos matchup could soon occur.