Fourth-year Stephanie Hammel is a chemistry and biological sciences double major, a future UC Irvine graduate medical student and a vital element on UC Irvine’s tennis team. When a freak injury during a match two years ago ended her sophomore season, Hammel was determined not to let the injury define her UCI career.
With All-Big West First Team honors in both singles and doubles in her freshman campaign, Hammel was in the middle of her sophomore season coming off of a Big West Player of the Week recognition when she entered that fateful match.
In a conference match-up against Cal State Fullerton, Hammel “hit a forehand” that resulted in a sharp pain in her dominant, right wrist. After attempting to play through the pain, Hammel knew that the discomfort could not be ignored. Two MRIs and nine months later, the junior underwent surgery on her wrist to repair torn cartilage — an invasive procedure that prompted six weeks spent in a cast. Suddenly something as simple as taking notes became a hardship.
“Writing for a long time was a very difficult challenge,” said Hammel who began playing tennis at five years old. “I was writing with a cast and taking notes left handed.”
While something like holding a pen or pencil posed a challenge, Hammel did not let it stop her from helping with practice and matches as often as she could. In addition to helping the team, during the months Hammel spent rehabbing her wrist she used the time to pursue another passion. Inspired by the chemistry and biology research she began at the end of her freshman year, Hammel joined the Diversity in Medicine program on campus and the following summer went to China with “China California Heart Watch” along with interns from all over the country.
The trip consisted of hypertension research in rural villages, where the group hosted both general and pediatric cardiology clinics. It was on this trip that Hammel discovered her love for public health. Upon her return, Hammel searched for ways to better educate herself in public health disparities in the United States, which led her to enroll in Public Health 91 this past winter quarter. Hammel is now the coordinator for the undergraduate course and hopes to hold the position as she pursues her master’s degree in public health.
Right before her trip to China, Hammel accomplished another feat — this time it did involve a racquet after months without holding one in her right hand.
“In May or June of 2011, I was just dropping tennis balls, hitting maybe 10 shots a day every two days, every three days, building up to be able to come back,” said Hammel of her long recovery.
While she spent the remainder of her summer after China gearing up for her senior year and senior season, Hammel joined the Student Athlete Advisory Committee in the fall as a member of the executive board and as the academic subcommittee chair. Attending a Big West Conference along with track athlete Jacob Yowell, the two Anteaters represented UCI where they serve as liaisons between Big West conference administrators, UCI administrators and UCI student athletes.
After a long and arduous road with hours spent in rehab and learning to play left-handed, Hammel stepped back onto the court — with the racquet in her right hand.
On Feb. 18 against San Diego State University, Hammel made her first singles appearance in over a year. Not only did Hammel improve to give UCI a 3-1 lead, she secured the No. 6 slot.
“Being on the court again and knowing that I won, just all of those emotions coming together … I worked really hard for this,” said Hammel.
“When I finished the match, I realized that I really did complete my goal and I really did overcome whatever was presented to me.”
The undaunted and passionate Hammel never let circumstances slow her down, and has recognized the injury as an opportunity to learn.
“The staff here has been really helpful and always supportive, no matter how busy they are, they’ll make time to talk,” said Hammel of the people that helped her through the process.
“It was a good experience,” concluded Hammel with determination. “It’s something that of course I wish never happened, but a lot of things came out of it that I would not let go of for anything.”