POP! POP! No one can explain how quickly it happens. One second, I am pushing the ball past the defender, jumping over her outstretched leg and turning to take the ball to goal. Then, I hear the dreaded two pops. Then, I feel the pain and instability in my leg. Just another female soccer player tearing her ACL. When I woke up that morning, I had no idea that this would be day one of my recovery journey.
My initial reaction: Why had this happened to me? I worked so hard this past year, grew four inches and gained 10 pounds. I proved that I not only had the talent but the size to be selected for the DA team. Colleges had started to express interest in me, and my dreams of playing collegiate soccer were coming true. I was going to attend several college ID camps that summer. Then, everything came to a screeching halt. How do you contact a college coach to tell him/her that you would love to be part of their program, BUT you have to teach yourself to walk again first? Since ACL injuries are so common now amongst female soccer players, this may seem like an extreme statement, but it IS a reality.
Within a few days, my mentality transformed from self-pity to determination. I thought, “What’s done is done. What are my next steps to fix it and get back on the pitch?” With my surgery scheduled, I started physical therapy sessions to strengthen my leg. Although these exercises were prior to surgery, they were designed to improve the overall outcome of my ACL reconstruction. The day of my surgery is a bit of a blur. I had extensive meniscus damage, and my hamstring graft was too small, so the surgeon reinforced it with a fiber loop. The surgeon ordered a femoral nerve block which lasted three days; I never needed oral pain medication. All in all, my surgery was a success.
The first few weeks after surgery were difficult. With the meniscus damage, I was not allowed to bear any weight on my knee or bend it more than 45 degrees. I was constantly doing simple physical therapy exercises anytime I could. I would do them in my room, sitting at my desk at school and even when I was out with my friends. When the surgeon released me for physical therapy, I was eager to get started. Every day was a struggle to relearn basic functionality of my knee and upper leg. I was always pushing myself and celebrating small victories. When my surgeon released me to run six weeks after surgery, I have never been so excited to run two miles. I started running every day, always trying to beat my previous time. During high school practices, I was running or working with the ball. Doing anything and everything to keep my touch and fitness at its best.
Initially, the surgeon had anticipated a 9 to 12-month recovery. You can imagine my surprise when he released me to play after just 7 months. There was only one stipulation: I had to wear a brace for nine months. At the time, that seemed like a reasonable request. The day I received my brace, I went out to kick the ball around on my own. My excitement soon turned into confusion and heartbreak. The brace was scratching and pinching me; it felt heavy and restricted my movements. I didn’t understand; I had done everything right. I was devastated; this is what I had been working for all this time. I would never be able to play with this brace on my leg. I was so frustrated and could not hide my emotions. Thankfully, my mom was there. We went home; she helped me adjust each strap, cut it when needed and get the brace to fit just right. I was ready to practice the next day with my high school team.
Well, the next day, I was tearing up while struggling to put on my brace AGAIN. I put it on a thousand different times and it still didn’t feel right. Fortunately, one of my high school teammates, Marisa, had been through the ACL process and was able to help me. She showed me the correct way to put it on and line it up with my knee. She was patient and kind; it was the first time throughout my recovery process that I didn’t feel alone. Someone understood what I was going through. I don’t think she realized that this small gesture helped dig me out of one of my lowest points during the ACL recovery process.
I got stronger and better with every practice and every game. I had another successful high school season and was selected to the U19 DA club team. It is a year later but I am back on track to achieve my dream of playing collegiate soccer. I am both mentally and physically stronger than I have ever been. (I gained another 15 pounds of muscle this past year.) My next step is getting released to play WITHOUT the brace. Nine months post-surgery is only a month away, and if I have learned anything at all throughout this process, it is patience.