Jonathan Dahlager – The Road to Recovery and Through Disappointment

After a difficult and lonely semester abroad, Wheaton thrower Jonathan Dahlager prepares for track season and recovery – and life beyond the HNGR program.

By Quinn Sloan

“I was flying out of Colombia over growing smoke clouds, as the town was going up in flames.”

Wheaton College track and field thrower Jonathan Dahlager describes his semester in Colombia as just that – a series of close calls. The senior spent the fall semester of 2019-20 abroad, in the HNGR program. HNGR, or Human Needs and Global Resources, is a college-directed program in which students are sent out as interns to third-world countries around the globe. Dahlager was sent to Colombia, in a town outside of Medellin.

This was a shocking revelation, as the country has been trapped in a rebel conflict for the last 50 years. The guerilla group, known as the National Liberation Army, fought for greater influence in a country where the government has smothered some freedoms, they believe.

Dahlager reflects on his time as eye-opening.  “It was a super different environment.” He references the culture shock, and the stark differences between Wheaton, where everything is taken care of, and Colombia, where he was not in the context of college. A native of Costa Rica, Dahlager speaks fluent Spanish, so language would not be a barrier. However, he was living by himself, with minimal contact with his family or friends. Here, he was in this foreign country, yet he was the foreigner.

Civil Unrest

During his trip, there was a local election that soured. As a result, tensions between the resistance group and the government flared for the final six weeks of his stay. It culminated during the last week when in a protest organized by the National Liberation Army in downtown Medellin, a boy was shot from point-blank range by a police officer. “This was during a peaceful protest, and [the boy] later went into a coma,” Dahlager said during our interview.

As a response to the shooting, “riots were scheduled for the day I was departing. This was the day I was supposed to depart,” Dahlager recalls. “I was going to spend a full day in the city, buy gifts for my family, but the town square I was going to spend time in was literally a war zone.”

The government responded by putting the city under curfew starting at 6 p.m. Unfortunately, Dahlager’s flight was scheduled to depart that night. On arrival at the airport, he discovered it was like “a ghost town–I couldn’t even eat dinner.”

Right before Dahlager was scheduled to take off, a departing plane got stuck on the runway. “I thought ‘No, the protesters got on the runway!’ I was just waiting to hear about any development. Thankfully, it was just landing gear.” After clearing the plane off, Dahlager’s plane was able to take off without a hitch.

Physical Stressors

Not just the civil unrest made it difficult for Dahlager to feel at ease in the foreign country. He describes feeling trapped by his surroundings. “Especially the physical space,” where he was always shoulder-to-shoulder with someone. His 6’6” frame became constantly crowded.

Jonathan felt even more limited in what he could do because of the urban situation he found himself in. Due to all the civil unrest, there were strict rules against going out late at night. He could not even venture down the street by himself after the sun had set. This led to countless nights with this feeling of being trapped in his surroundings.

About a month into the trip, he found a gym a block away from his internship office. This became a saving grace, as he took control of how much he was physically active.

All of his hard work came to a screeching halt when his right ankle started uncontrollably swelling up overnight. Over the next two weeks, without warning or provocation, his ankle would swell up again and again.. “Sometimes it would be a passive movement, like laying in a hammock and [my] feet would start swelling,” Dahlager recalls.

Next Steps

After a consultation, his HNGR program advisor recommended that he go to a physician for an exam and tests. Late November, mere days before he would fly home, Dahlager was laying on a bed, getting an MRI on his right ankle. The physician sent the MRI home to Costa Rica with him, yet Dahlager had no way of reading them. It wasn’t until two weeks later when he met with his family doctor in Costa Rica to read the scan. The physician recommended surgery on both ankles, followed by intensive recovery.

“Basically it’s a really weird thing . . . ankle injuries that are high impact yet medium-grade serious will knock off little pieces of cartilage. Those will keep feeding and growing on your ankle fluid, basically. Mine ended up calcifying into little pieces of bone, that then with certain movements would, like, get stuck in your joint and lock everything up and be really painful,” Dahlager said.

The 3.5-hour surgery to remove these pieces of cartilage and smooth off the chipped bone in both ankles went smoothly, yet left Dahlager on crutches as he began recovery.

Preparation for Season

For the next two weeks, Dahlager works at home before he will return to school. However, he is unable to work in a physical training office because he is traveling with his family, unable to get to his trainer. Dahlager writes down as many exercises as he can, and begins the long road of recovery on his own.

Upon his return to campus, he is two weeks away from the start of the indoor track season. The only throwing event in the indoor season is shot put. He asked himself, will he look to rush back to participate in this season of indoor throwing?

“I kinda came in being like I’m totally fine not doing anything indoor. My thought was, ‘I will do it if I need to though.’ I was on track to jump back in like halfway through, but Coach and I agreed like . . . there is no reason to rush me back, shot put isn’t even really my thing anyway.”

A tough decision, but the right one. Dahlager has been able to focus time on recovery and weight lifting to strengthen his legs, with the goal of returning to 100 percent at the start of outdoor track. “My best event is discus anyways,” he said. 

As a follow-up, I asked, “Isn’t discus a lot of spinning motion, which would stress your ankle more?”

“Yes, which means it requires a lot of strengthening and recovery. All of the torque on the balls of your feet requires great balance from your ankles.” This led to the decision to sit out the indoor season, focusing on strength and concentrated recovery in his ankles.

Back to Wheaton

“It is hard returning in the winter from Colombia to Wheaton,” Dahlager mentions. “In the Winter everything is grey and kinda colorless.” Moreover, “at Wheaton, you aren’t expecting anything to mess up your day. So often in Colombia, our whole day would be messed up by a protest, or like, some kind of earthquake. Coming back to Wheaton and just being able to focus on sports and school is weird.”

Even though the return has been difficult, Dahlager is navigating it well. Occasionally he feels as if he is reverting back to life where nothing has changed. However, the experience changed him. He approaches this season with a greater sense of purpose, and a higher understanding of the world outside of where he lives. And he brought some things from Colombia with him, as well.

“More and more now, like before workouts and events, I’m listening to a lot of Latin music because it is like, a lot more high energy and makes me think of a lot more high-energy situations.”

Be on the lookout, for if this music change leads to a personal record.

UPDATE: Dahlager and the rest of the track team mourn the loss of the outdoor season, as COVID-19 led to the NCAA canceling all spring sports seasons. Dahlager is currently focused on the full recovery of his ankle. He is still weighing out whether or not to take a fifth year, with his final season of eligibility.