A RELENTLESS PURSUIT: MY ACL JOURNEY
Thursday, June 13, 2013: A day in my life that I will never forget. 9AM training at Nike’s beautiful campus in Beaverton, Oregon. Life is good. I am living my dream of playing professional soccer.
Warm up, passing pattern, offense vs. defense, and a possession drill to goals...Just another day at the office. My Portland Thorns team of the National Women’s Soccer League is preparing for our eleventh game of the season against the Seattle Reign.
Then it happens. I leap forward attempting to connect an incoming pass and land awkwardly on the short, wet grass. I fall to the ground, stay down for a minute, and rise again, telling myself that I’m okay. I continue jogging around the field as the rain pours down. I tell myself, “It can’t be anything that serious. I don’t get hurt.” My passes begin to go astray. My left knee is giving out. I do not feel right. Ten minutes later, I take myself out of training. I tell my trainer that my knee just does not feel stable. I am determined to go to the team strength training following the on-field practice, but I am persuaded into going to see the physical therapist. Whew, the physical therapist tells me everything feels intact, and I probably just have a mild knee strain. (Sometimes an ACL tear can be difficult to diagnose on the field or right after the injury, as the hamstrings go into protection mode.) Later that evening, I struggle walking up the stairs on my swollen knee. This is more than just a mild knee strain.
The next morning after treatment, I am told to go see the doctor. Within two minutes of seeing Dr. Edelson, he tells me that I have torn my ACL. “I never thought it would happen to me,” I say, as tears stream down my face. I sit for the 45 minute MRI, which confirms that I have torn my ACL. Done for the season, the inaugural season of the National Women’s Soccer League. This is not what I envisioned. This was not my plan.
Wednesday, June 19, 2013: ACL reconstructive surgery in Tigard, Oregon, performed by Dr. Richard Edelson. I have only ever had wisdom teeth surgery. How does this work? I think to myself, “Make sure you do the surgery on the correct (damaged) knee.” My best friend, Nikki Marshall, along with our trainer, Sheila, wait for me outside. I wake up wondering how I got my clothes back on. I feel nothing, but I see everything. My leg is straight and in a brace. It’s fixed. Now the real work begins.
The days after surgery consist of bending exercises, quad activation, and a lot of ice. I am told to flex my quad, but it will not contract. My, how I took that muscle for granted! The quadriceps atrophy following ACL reconstructive surgery, so I must build the muscle again. I could not even imagine, at that time, how I was ever going to be able to play soccer again.
I tell myself that I will be running at two months. I want to be playing at four months. I guess you could say I am an optimistic person. I want to set all of these ambitious goals for myself, but I am told to take it day by day by my physical therapist, Eric Marchek, out of Providence Health and Services. That is the best advice that I have ever received.
I wake up everyday and my type A personality immediately takes over. I write down a plan for the day: bending exercises, quad contractions, ice, breakfast, physical therapy, lunch, read, more exercises, nap, dinner, core exercises, sleep. My days continue like this for weeks, increasing the difficulty of my exercises and pushing myself a bit more, depending on the reaction to my knee. Using my hamstring to repair my ACL has caused more pain in my hamstring than in my actual knee. I tell my therapist. He suggests resting more, which is definitely the right choice, but not what I want to hear. It is a vicious cycle – pushing myself a little more each day but monitoring how the knee reacts.
Five weeks pass and I am finally off crutches. Walking down the stairs becomes more horrifying than my fear of spiders. I did more core, quad, and hamstring strengthening exercises than I had ever done in my life. Not complaining though! Have to keep those muscles around the knee strong to protect myself.
Meanwhile, my Portland Thorns team continues to practice and play as I sit and watch. I am sidelined with the first major injury that I have ever had. The mental side and not being able to do what I love was the most difficult part of all of this. Finding other activities that I enjoyed became one of many teachings that I learned during this injury. Swimming, yoga, reading, painting, watching movies, and volunteering filled the void of running, kicking, heading, and playing the sport that came so naturally to me. Luckily, I had incredible teammates and people around me to encourage me everyday. Shout out to Nikki Marshall, Nikki Washington, Rachel Van Hollebeke, and many others who kept me going!
August 31, 2013: NWSL Championship game in Rochester, New York, featuring the Portland Thorns and the Western NY Flash. I am so thankful that I was able to travel to Rochester to support the team! During the trip, I jogged for the first time in two months. Progress. We won the championship in that 2013 season. I was so happy for my team! At the same time, I was incredibly disappointed that I could not be out there on the field with them. Another lesson: Do not take anything for granted.
I return to Portland following the season to continue my rehab. My physical therapy load increases and I begin doing more running, cutting, and plyometric exercises. My heart rate reaches new limits, as I am incredibly out of shape. I push the limits of my comfort zone with new exercises each day. I must learn to trust my left leg again. Negative thoughts questioning whether I will ever be the same player again sometimes conquer my optimistic mind. “The mental struggle.”
December 2013: Six months have passed since my surgery. They say it takes six months to recover from an ACL injury, so I think I am good to go. Still not cleared by the doctor, I receive permission from Dr. Edelson to begin doing light contact in soccer training. I have three more months until 2014 preseason, and I am determined to be 100% prepared.
I return to Florida State University in Tallahassee, where I can jump in with the FSU soccer team and practice OCCASIONALLY, per NCAA rules. I have the use of the college facilities as well as trainers and coaches around to monitor my progress. I have a knee brace on my leg, and I am performing non-contact drills with the team. I continue to work on the strength of my quad, hamstring, and core in the weight room each day. There were days when I felt like I was exhausted and my knee needed a rest. Although I wanted to push through, I had to listen to my body and tell myself that I needed a day off. Instead, I would swim or run on the Alter G treadmill to get my heart rate up. I was finally granted permission from my physical therapist and athletic trainer to go into tackles and begin contact play. After shying away from several tackles, I finally gained the courage to get stuck in. I came out strong and that gave me a lot of confidence going forward. From there, I began using my physical style of play more unconsciously.
During my time in Tallahassee, the Houston Dash, backed by the Houston Dynamo of the MLS, joined the NWSL. I was left unprotected by Portland in the expansion draft. Houston picked me up – off to a brand new team.
March 2014: The start of the NWSL preseason in Houston, TX. I was officially cleared to play. 100% in. I played 23 ninety-minute games last season, earning the Houston Dash Iron Woman of the year for most minutes played.
Today, I am playing for the Western New York Flash of the National Women’s Soccer League. In seven games, I have recorded one goal and three assists from the midfield position.
I chose, “Wake Me Up,” by Avicii, as a theme song to encourage me during my ACL rehab process. As the song goes, I felt my way out of the darkness, and I am forever grateful for my health and for the ability to do what I love for a living. Post-it notes and quotes around my bedroom reminded me of my goals and dreams throughout my rehab. It has been a continuous effort to stay strong since the injury. I take time everyday to make sure the muscles around both of my knees are strong. I perform my rehab exercises daily. I still have occasional soreness in my left knee. Recovery is a huge part of my regimen. Ice baths and stretching are vital. I want to play this game for as long as possible and taking care of my body will certainly help with that.
I am grateful for many people who helped me return to full strength:
Dr. Richard Edelson- Surgeon
Providence Health and Services
Eric Marchek – Physical Therapist
FSU Sports Medicine
Robin Gibson- Director of Sports Medicine
Jerry Latimer- Associate Director of Sports Medicine/Physical Therapy
And, of course, my family, friends, coaches, and teammates.