For a moment, elation set in for Saara Hakanen and the OSU track and field staff.
A second later, the emotions evaporated, quickly replaced with concern and uncertainty.
Hakanen, a junior competing in long, triple and high jump, was coming off an All-Big 12 performance in May 2021. Weeks later, she competed at the NCAA preliminary west round in College Station, Texas, looking to qualify for the NCAA Championships.
Only 24 competitors in each event qualify to compete, and she was now one of them. The jubilant staff headed to meet up with the national finalist, but as Hakanen stepped off the mat, she took an awkward step.
Suddenly, Hakanen was unable to step with her left foot as she limped over to see her coaches. In an instant, Hakanen went from peak performance to injured.
“It’s kind of blurry, the whole day, honestly,” Hakanen said. “But I remember when it happened, I was like, ‘Okay, now something’s bad.’ Like, it’s not just rolling my ankle, there was a hole where I was supposed to have a tendon.”
The diagnosis was a ruptured Achilles tendon, something Dave Smith, OSU's track and field coach, said is a potentially career-ending injury.
Hakanen was forced to withdraw from the upcoming triple jump, and her season was over.
Priority migrated from training to recovery, and the road ahead seemed foggy. But Hakanen’s focus and work ethic – qualities Smith says are her greatest skills – couldn’t prevent her from surging back.
“When it happened, I thought, 'Man, this could be her entire career. It could be over,'” Smith said. “But not Saara. Not Saara, no way.”
Surgery was performed after returning to Stillwater, and the rehab treatments began. Over the summer, trainers worked with Hakanen every day, sometimes in sessions up to two hours, trying to rebuild strength and mobility.
It was her goal to make a speedy return, so she pushed the limits of recovery. Throughout rehab, Hakanen was ahead of schedule, progressing quicker than doctors or coaches anticipated for such a serious injury.
“She approached her rehab like she was preparing for an Olympic competition or something,” Smith said. “She just made it her No. 1 thing to get healthy.”
Later in the summer, Hakanen was finally allowed to return home to Finland and continue recovery. Before attending OSU, her home country was where her focus and work ethic manifested, as she would routinely travel an hour by bike, bus and train to attend school and practice.
Once she arrived home, Hakanen continued healing in her own way.
“As soon as I got home to Finland, I just left my crutches on the floor and never touched them again,” Hakanen said. “I just learned to walk. I would just not wear my boot or my crutches and just walk super slowly everywhere and get it stronger.”
The Finnish jumper returned to Stillwater for the 2021 fall semester and was able to increase rehab and eventually, began practicing again. After missing the indoor track season, she made her season debut in the outdoor season at the Texas Relays in March 2022.
By late April, Hakanen recorded her first win of the season, clearing a 1.73m high jump at OU’s John Jacobs Invitational. Against a major setback, she had returned to competing at a high level.
But while she acknowledges her improvement with each competition, her goal of qualifying for regionals has yet to be accomplished. The jump at OU failed to qualify, and with the season winding to a close, opportunities to do so are few.
Though getting back to where she was a season ago would be nice, Hakanen said she realizes that she’s done her best to get back to this point. More offseason recovery awaits, giving her time to get ready for the summer’s European season and Finnish nationals.
Regardless of how the 2022 NCAA outdoor season pans out, Hakanen has far exceeded expectations in recovery and performance. She ended last season with no regrets, made no excuses during recovery and is finding ways to overcome this challenge.
“If you put a roadblock up in front of her, she’ll find a way over it, under it, around it, whatever,” Smith said. “You’re not going to stop her.”