There is a reason why junior Conner Paez was called the “freshman phenom” during his first year at Penn.
Going into the summer of 2011, Paez was coming off a sensational rookie campaign. He was the top freshman finisher at the Heptagonal Championships in cross country, placing 20th. He had also ran the fifth-fastest 3,000-meters indoors in Penn history and competed at the USA Junior Championships in the summer.
“Conner was the hottest up-and-coming freshman in the league,” men’s head coach Robin Martin said. “He was the most promising freshman distance runner we’ve had in probably 20 years.”
Heading into his sophomore year with a solid base of training, Paez had dreams of reaching even greater heights. But those dreams had to be put on hold after Aug. 7, 2011.
On that day, the Solon, Ohio native was riding his motorcycle on the way to meet up with a friend. Cars heading in the opposite direction waited for Paez while he was going through an intersection. But one driver a few yards behind was in a rush and couldn’t see Paez. The driver swerved around a few cars and then tried a sharp left turn, but hit Paez directly.
The left side of Paez’s body took the impact, and he was sent skidding across the pavement.
“At that point I knew I was hurt but I thought I had just broken my leg a little bit,” Paez said. “I was still in complete shock and everything.”
If you thought the Kevin Ware injury during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was gruesome, just the description alone of Paez’s injury can make you cringe.
“When I actually looked at my leg it was pure terror,” Paez recalled. “You could see the bones sticking out the side — my leg was all crooked. My shoe got thrown off so I could fully see my foot and it was completely morphed and every toe was in different directions and one bone was sticking out the bottom of my foot and blood was everywhere.”
In total, Paez had eight broken bones in his left leg and foot. His tibia was broken in three places and a portion of his fibula was missing. The blood loss was so severe that amputation was a possibility.
When Paez woke up from surgery, he was incredibly relieved to see that the doctors had managed to save his leg — but his long road to recovery had just started.
Some doctors feared that Paez would never run again, let alone competitively at the Division I level. But that didn’t stop him from believing a comeback was possible.
Blake Boldon, Penn’s cross country head coach at the time, had a strong relationship with Paez and drove to Ohio immediately after hearing about the accident to let him know that all the coaches were behind him.
“We were just there to support him after his accident and we didn’t really talk about track and field,” Martin said. “And it wasn’t until later on that we learned that he was determined to make that comeback.”
Paez attempted to return to school in September 2011, but decided to withdraw for the semester after consulting doctors at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and deciding to undergo further surgery to fix the several broken bones in his leg.
He returned home to Ohio for the first half of the school year. Throughout the process, Paez received support from Mark Mendeszoon — a family friend and foot and ankle surgeon who performed some of the surgeries on Paez.
Mendeszoon himself was a collegiate runner, and was a volunteer assistant coach at Penn during his time in medical school. He was up front with Paez about his chances of getting back to running.
“I’m always an optimist when it comes to athletes and running,” Mendeszoon said. “I told him, ‘Conner, the reality is that you may not get back to the level you are accustomed to.’ But I did tell him that if he works hard, I’ll do everything I can do get him back to running.”
“After the accident I think we got a lot stronger of a friendship,” Paez said of his relationship with Mendeszoon. “I saw him at least once a week, he would come over to my house to see how I was doing and help me communicate with my doctors.”
Mendeszoon knew how difficult the road back would be, but if anyone could do it, it was Conner Paez.
“I think he’s somebody who has the whole package — he’s a humble person, he comes from a great family, I think he’s blessed with some gifts, he’s an intelligent individual, he has some athletic prowess and he has no fear of working hard,” Mendeszoon said.
Paez was on bed rest for about a month after the surgery, and after that still could not walk until December. Boredom began to set in, but his teammates helped out in that area.
“I was talking to a bunch of our friends and we wanted to make sure that he wasn’t missing anything while he was gone,” junior distance runner Conor Nickel said.
Nickel — one of Paez’s closest friends on the team — and other members of Penn track took some inspiration from “The Notebook” and tried to send Paez a letter every day to keep him occupied.
“Unfortunately that’s not really the way the mail works,” Nickel joked. “So he received like four on Monday, one on Tuesday, one on Wednesday and then none the rest of the week.”
In addition to doctors, family and friends, Paez got support from a new feline friend while he was home.
“I went back and I said to my dad, ‘Hey, can I just get a cat?’ He felt so bad for me and it was the easiest thing ever so I got this super awesome kitten,” Paez said.
Even though his doctors were focused on just making sure Paez would be able to walk again, his mind was already on a return to racing.
“I would try to train on the crutches to get in shape because I knew I wanted to come back the next semester,” Paez said. “So I would go up and down the block on my crutches and that would be like an actual track workout.”
In winter 2012, Paez returned to campus able to walk with a limp. Even though he could not practice or compete, the coaches allowed him to be a manager on the team and he proved to be an inspirational leader to his teammates.
“That was when I really got to know how amazing Conner Paez is,” Martin said. “He was able to travel with the team and he filmed every minute of every track meet that entire indoor and outdoor season.”
“His presence there kind of spoke for itself, because we all knew what he would be doing if he wasn’t injured,” Nickel said.
Paez was allowed to bike during the spring in order to regain some of the fitness and strength that he had lost. His left leg had atrophied severely and was about half the size of his right leg.
His recovery from surgery and the broken bones was far from a smooth ride. The injury put him at a severe risk for complications, and he eventually developed a bone infection that required additional surgery to fix.
“It was unbelievably frustrating. Every time I went to a doctor’s appointment I wasn’t sure if it was going to be good news or if it was going to be another terrible setback,” Paez said.
His support group remained and helped him to get past these setbacks.
“My parents were amazing the whole time, my sister, all my teammates and coaches,” Paez said. “All of them together made sure I stayed positive and focused on what I wanted to do.”
In order to fight off the infection, Paez had to administer his own antibiotics intravenously. But that didn’t stop him from fulfilling his commitment to the team.
“You can imagine the scene where he’s travelling to a track meet and he has an IV bag hanging from the light fixture on the bus and he’s tending to the wound,” Martin said. “There was no way that he was going to miss being a part of the team.”
In September 2012 — 13 months after the accident — Paez was finally given the green light to jog again.
“Immediately I went over to the track, put on my running shoes and went for it,” Paez said. “At the time I thought I was running amazing, but when I look at the video I had a terrible limp.”
His biomechanics had been altered significantly due to the multiple surgeries. He described it as running with a “wooden block” for a foot because he had almost no flexibility in his ankle and toes.
After some strengthening exercises to get mobility back in his leg, Paez began to get back into running shape and rejoined the team for workouts in early February.
“It’s a testament to his own will,” Nickel said. “I know he had great support but we couldn’t do his recovery. That was all up to him. The fact that he came back as quickly as he did was amazing.”
20 months after his accident, Paez finally got the chance to do what almost no one thought was possible — race again.
He ran the 1500m at the Oxford/Cambridge dual meet, finishing with a time of 4:19.27. That was nearly 30 seconds off his personal best before the injury, but still a remarkable achievement.
“It was unbelievable. I think it was probably my favorite race I’ve ever run, even though it was the slowest I’ve ever run since I was like 15,” Paez said.
His parents and teammates recognized the incredible effort it took him to get back to racing, as they received him with hugs and congratulations at the finish line.
“When I actually finished the race it was a huge wave of emotion,” Paez said. “Everything that happened over the last two years hit me at once. And my parents were there and it was just a moment.”
The future already looks bright for Paez. He improved his 1500 time by five seconds in his second race last weekend at the Widener Invite, and has been named a captain for the cross country team next season.
“He remained connected and also was such a great example, and that cemented him as a centerpiece of our program,” Martin said. “It’s a rare person that can have the fortitude to overcome that many setbacks. A lot of people told him that he couldn’t do it and he just decided that he could.”
Paez won’t be racing at the Penn Relays this year, but he looks at that positively. He says it gives him more time to do base training to prepare for cross country in the fall.
After his senior season, he plans on taking a fifth year at Penn and still will have another couple of seasons of eligibility left to compete in a graduate program if he wants to.
“If he gets through this year and next cross country season, I would not doubt he gets back to being very close to what he once was,” Mendeszoon said. “So I’m very excited to see what his future is all about.
“How good will he become? I don’t know,” Mendeszoon continued. “But the fact that he can run on his foot with everything he’s been through, that’s pretty damn cool and it’s a testament to him.”
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