From life support to the hardcourt: Wesmen athlete recounts her recovery after near-fatal stabbing
Lena Wenke’s life was nearly taken from her on May 23, 2017.
Wenke, who came to Canada from Germany to play basketball, had recently completed her sophomore year at the University of Winnipeg. She was a starter on the Wesmen team that went 18-2 and captured the Canada West bronze medal, the program’s best finish since 2003.
But in the early morning hours of the 23rd, Wenke was the victim of a vicious attack in the West End. She was rushed to hospital in critical, unstable condition, and spent 24 hours on life support.
“I have over 70 stabbing wounds and my patella tendon was 50 per cent torn,” Wenke told Global News in an exclusive interview. “I remember things but I was just so exhausted, my body didn’t really take it in.”
Former high school basketball standout Junior Sesay, whose brother was dating Wenke at the time, was arrested and charged with attempted murder. His trial is scheduled for July.
Wenke spent a week in hospital and a week at the home of head coach Tanya McKay.
“My assistant coach, Tami Pennell, and I were right by her side when we were called to the hospital,” McKay recalled. “I still remember seeing her on life support.”
Wenke then flew back to Germany to begin the long and rigourous battle to get back on the basketball court.
“The first month, I couldn’t really do anything. I was just so exhausted,” Wenke said. “The first time I worked out, there was this exercise where you press a dumbbell over your head. I remember trying to do that with five pounds, and I struggled. A lot. I don’t know how much I pushed before, maybe 25 or 30 pounds. That just reminded me of how long that recovery was going to be.”
Wenke’s mother is a doctor, so she received the best care and physiotherapy available. Though the rehab was extremely difficult, Wenke was motivated to get back to Canada. But there was a time she worried she would never play again.
“A couple doctors said they don’t know how strong my arms will get, and maybe the knee is going to cause problems. I was afraid, but I was just focusing on at least trying it, trying to get back out there. If it doesn’t work, I can always think of a plan B.”
Wenke rejoined her Wesmen teammates in the fall and continued to push through therapy. Then, on Dec. 1, she scored six points in her return to the court against MacEwan.
“I was so excited the night before, I couldn’t sleep. I was very nervous, stepping on the court, not being able to do what I used to. Just being back out there with the team, having that trust from Coach too, it felt awesome.”
Wenke would play in nine regular season games and four playoff contests as the Wesmen would lose in the second round. She admitted that she’s had some dark moments, knowing she’s not the same player as she was before the attack.
“After games where I didn’t play well, those were the times that I was upset that what happened, happened to me. I felt like I couldn’t be there for my team enough. It’s hard, but you always have to think back: ‘Look how far I’ve already come.’ It’s hard to always think of that, but that’s what I should be doing.”
Wenke has now been named the national recipient of the Tracy MacLeod Award, named for the Brandon Bobcat player who returned to play basketball after her leg was amputated. Her coach has been blown away at every turn by Wenke’s positive attitude after such a traumatic experience.
“Lena is an incredibly strong woman. She motivated me as a coach,” McKay said. “There’s no one stronger, who can compare to what she’s gone through. She’s driven, she wants to continue, she just showed how determined she was to overcome.”
Wenke is the second Wesmen player to receive the award, after Heather Thompson was honoured in 2004.
“It means a lot, I’m very honoured. I’m proud to be here and be able to receive that award. I’m hoping that maybe it will motivate other people to see how far I’ve come after overcoming something that big,” Wenke said through tears.
“It’s like a reward for working so hard. I don’t think I’ve ever had to work that hard in my life before. I would have never thought I would ever have to overcome something like that in my life. I am proud of myself to be able to do that.”
McKay has seen a lot in her more than 20 years coaching the program, but she knows that Wenke will leave an indelible mark, especially off the court.
“It’s a miracle she is where she is. To have been there, and be here right now, this kid has a lot of special things ahead. This is just one stepping stone. Only great things are going to happen because of the kid she is.”