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The Lowdown: Jordan Angeli and the club no one wants to join

Jordan Angeli believes that showing her scars--both internal and external--is a way of sharing her strength.

Jordan Angeli believes that showing her scars–both internal and external–is a way of sharing her strength.

Here’s a quick challenge. Find someone in women’s soccer who has crossed paths with Jordan Angeli and not come out better for the experience. It won’t be easy. So why does it seem appropriate for Tiff Weimer to say, “If you never have to talk to Jordan Angeli, it’s probably a good thing?”

Weimer and Angeli were once teammates on the Breakers, and before that Angeli was an intern at FC Gold Pride when Weimer played there in 2009. But her comment—said with tongue firmly planted in cheek—refers to one of Angeli’s post-playing passions.

If you don’t remember Angeli as a player—her best pro season was 2010 with the Breakers—you may recognize her voice from NWSL’s go90 broadcasts. When she is not calling game much of her time is spent mobilizing[?]for prevention and assistance with recovery from the injury she rallied back from three times before it became the first domino that felled her career—the dreaded torn ACL.

Collectively, Angeli and her legion of athletes with rebuillt knees are called The ACL Club. No athlete wants to join, but as Angeli said: “You kind of get proud that you’re a member of the club afterwards. You’ve pushed through something that’s difficult and you’ve gotten out on the other side.”
***
For Jordan Angeli, the world changed forever on Thursday, May 10, 2007. That was the day her college advisor let her know that with just one extra class slotted in, an on-time graduation from Santa Clara would be happening the following Spring. Even if that had not been the case, it would have been for good reason. Angeli was part of the U-20 national team that went to the World Cup in Papua New Guinea and later trained with the U-23s. Through it all she still managed to do enough to keep her academic career on track. It was a very good day.

And then she went to soccer practice.

“I go to training that night and I tore my ACL.”

She remembers screaming very loud when it happened. “It’s not like I was in a lot of pain. It just was such a shock.”

And she remembers opening her eyes and looking up at Bonnie Bowman (now Niesen). Bowman had graduated the previous fall and just happened to be in the stadium working out when the injury happened on the adjacent practice field.

“She was just a player who was kind of like our team mom, so loving and caring. When I opened my eyes the first person I saw was her and I thought ‘this is so weird.Why is Bonnie here? But thank goodness Bonnie’s here.’ She had torn her ACL three times and it was so nice to have her.”

Angeli leaned on Bowman and other friends and teammates during her recovery. Her ACL tear—plus another one soon after returning—was one of four that infested Santa Clara’s women’s team that year. “There were like four of us. It was really devastating and hard. It was nice to have people to get through the process with but it was also really challenging like why is this happening?”
***
Joanna Lohman was 34 and in the best shape of her life on opening day of the 2017 NWSL season with the Washington Spirit. By her own admission she had “never even had anything wrong with my knees.” She was excited to see what the season would bring and what her role would be on a roster in flux. And then like so many others, one good step was followed by one bad step. In that instant, everything changed.

“I was in denial,” Lohman said. “I went down and I knew I did something funky to my knee. I refused to come out of the game. It was the 16th minute in the first game of the season so I saidI need to get back up.

Joanna Lohman after ACL surgery in April.

Joanna Lohman after ACL surgery in April.

“So I got back up, I played a couple of passes, I’m pretty sure my possession rate was 100%. And then my knee buckled a second time. And that was scary and the referee asked me if I was okay and of course I said yes. And then I got up again. Then I ran down the field and defended a corner and then I tried to change direction and my knee buckled again. At that point I knew something was seriously wrong and I was a liability to my team so I asked to be subbed.”

Lohman walked off under her own power and sat on the bench until halftime. That’s when the doctor checked her knee and gave her the news. It would take an MRI to make absolute[LY] certain, but it was fairly evident right then and there. The words rang out: “Jo, I think you’ve done your ACL.”

A week later, Lohman was in surgery and a member of The ACL Club.

“You always want reassurance in how you’re doing and how you’re feeling and they’re able to provide that,” she said of Angeli and the ACL Club. “They’re able to provide you with that support to never give up and to keep fighting. We all struggle.”

{RELATED: Is Joanna Lohman the most interesting person in NWSL?}

Speaking a month and a day after her operation, Lohman called the first week post-op, “probably the hardest week of my life.

“Not only are you dealing with coming off major surgery where you take a piece of your own body to replace a torn ligament, you also have to go immediately into physical therapy. As a professional athlete, that is your full-time job. Naturally the human brain, the way it works, if you’re in pain the brain tells you to stop what you’re doing. But for ACL and physical therapy you have to push yourself to levels of pain that hopefully most people didn’t know even existed.

“The first week we even have code words for the amount of pain—orange and red for when you really couldn’t take it anymore. You’re sweating an[D] you’re squirming and you’re trying not to cry as you lie on a training table and people working with you push your knee to break up the scar tissue and increase your mobility. I knew it was going to be painful but I didn’t realize how much pain I was going to be in.”

Lohman said that the first week, the only thing she had energy for after physical therapy was to collapse on the couch. Gregarious by nature, she declined almost all visitors out of sheer exhaustion. Many nights in bed, she would simply cry. Yes there is physical pain involved in rehabbing from ACL surgery, but there is also a great deal of emotional scarring.

“We’re athletes. We physically can push through whatever,” Angeli said. “But this process is not something that you can just physically push through. It’s not like everything’s going to go right and you can get better every single day like you do on the training pitch. It’s just a different process.”

“You’re coming to terms with losing the person that you thought you were going to be,” Lohman said. “That is hard to do. Coming into this season I was so excited, I felt so good. I felt like I really had a role and was going to contribute significantly to this team. To now have to wrap my brain around the fact that I won’t be making any impact on the field—that was so sad for me.”

“A lot of people have the same feelings of stress and loneliness and depression,” Angeli added.

One month out, Lohman was emerging from the doldrums of those first days. She was walking with a limp noticeable only to people who know her well, and was taking all of her internal fortitude to rest her body on Sundays after a week that could include up to a dozen physical therapy sessions. Her eye is now on the 2018 NWSL season.
***
Angeli recovered from her back-to-back ACL injuries and returned to the pitch. “When you do it multiple times it’s not like it gets easier. I think you just know what you’re in for so maybe you can manage it a bit better, but it’s still challenging.”

Angeli4

She played the fall 2009 season at Santa Clara on a special exemption from the NCAA allowing her to play a sixth season. The Breakers took her in the 2010 draft and she did enough in her rookie season to get a callup to senior national team camp. But on opening day 2011, her ACL went again.

“My last injury was a perfect storm. I stepped on my left foot just as somebody tackled. The tackle was at half field, it was kind of meaningless.”

The third time was no charm in terms of recovery. It took Angeli three years before she returned in 2014 with the Washington Spirit. She then played 2015 with the Western New York Flash before retiring, realizing that her body—and her knee—needed a break from the rigors of soccer.

Somewhere along the way though, more and more people began asking her to speak to people about the ACL recovery process.

“During my rehab I was starting to notice little things here and there,” she said. “After my third rehab, in the offseason it kind of came to me. I was constantly helping people. They would like ‘Hey Jord someone tore their ACL can I have them call you or can you reach out’ and I would be more than happy to.”

“She’s very empathetic and understanding and literally always willing to stop what she’s doing to help somebody,” Weimer said of Angeli. “It was no surprise to me that she was able to start this and that it’s been so successful.”

Weimer tore her ACL in 2014 preseason with the Spirit and was out for more than a year. The current Boston Breaker said unequivocally: “She was a huge help getting me through my recovery and the whole process.”

Angeli has the best success reaching out to female soccer players but her club also includes male players, skiers, lacrosse and hockey players, and on a recent podcast, Super Bowl champion Jordan Norwood.

“I reach out to anybody that I can,” Angeli, whose ACL mailing list is now north of 9,000 if you count email and Instagram.

And there are still plans to grow. Our interview happened while she was preparing a video presentation to send out to new members. Angeli would also like to create satellite programs on college campuses where athletes and alumni can share their experiences and help people on a more local basis. But there is a paradox in the intention of The ACL Club to grow even though the reality is that Jordan Angeli would be just fine if she never had to take on another member.

“I don’t want anybody to join.”
***
Lori Lindsey is the conditioning/fitness coach for the Washington Spirit’s Developmental Academies. As a player Lindsey’s career spanned all three professional women’s leagues plus 31 caps with the U.S. national team. She never tore her ACL.

“I was very thankful that I didn’t have to go through that,” Lindsey said of the end of her career in 2015.

Lori Lindsey hugging then NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Baileyon the occasion of her retirement. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Lori Lindsey hugging then NWSL Executive Director Cheryl Baileyon the occasion of her retirement. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Lindsey grew up chasing an older brother and learned sports that way. But being from Indiana, she was still young when she began searching for an edge to keep up with the soccer hotbeds on either coast. She discovered strength training at an early age, and today is trying to pass her wisdom down to the next group of players. One goal with the Spirit DA players and a few other clubs she works with, is to keep them out of The ACL Club.

“The athletes that are coming up now are lacking fundamental movement skills,” she said less as a criticism and more as an observation. “When we were growing up (Lindsey is 37) we played outside, we climbed, we played multiple sports, ran around and played tag. We developed a general level of athleticism. And the athletes today just don’t have that.

{MORE LINDSEY: Climbing (large) mountains for a more level playing field}

“They’re starting to specialize so much earlier so they just don’t have that foundation to build off of. And in specializing earlier they’re doing the same things over and over which leads to some of these injuries like ACLs.”

“As humans, we never learn how to run,” Angeli said. “Unless you’re part of a running team. We all learn how to swim but we run a lot more than we swim.”

To that end, Lindsey has her kids learning how to do such fundamental movements as skipping and crawling. They also play tag and dodge ball. “They love it.”

“I just think we’re seeing a much weaker athlete these days,” Lindsey continued. “When I say that, a majority of athletes don’t know how to skip. They don’t know how to crawl. General stuff that leads to understanding of your body and the level of athleticism it takes to play a sport. Then you add in high level cutting, acceleration, deceleration, change of direction, and then you add the ball, and that just leads to quite a bit of disaster a lot of the time.

“Over-skilled and under athleticized,” is how Lindsey describes the modern athlete. “And then we put them in this highly specialized environment over and over again and it just leads to breakdowns.”

Even for kids and athletes without access to top-level performance programs, Lindsey stresses that a good workout is good ACL prevention.

“What I mean by that is strength training for the female athlete—single leg work, hamstring and glute work, that is a good ACL prevention program.”

Lindsey stresses though, that there is no magic formula to wipe ACL tears off the map, especially for females whose Q-angle—how the hips relate to the knees—and other subtle factors make them more likely to put strain on their knees and ACL ligaments.

“This is a reduction program. It’s not like we can prevent every injury from happening. But you can reduce the likelihood of these injuries.”
***
Jordan Angeli is 31 now. She hopes to get back to running soon, but not just yet. She is also trying to build back the left side of her body. That’s the side that endured three ACL tears and recoveries but in the process, some other areas became neglected. She knows now that she will never play a senior national team match of make it to a senior World Cup. But she still may get a moment down the road.

{ANGELI: A stop along Jordan Angeli’s 3rd ACL rehabilitation process}

“Of course I get upset about that. Like right now it brings tears to my eyes. I also feel like maybe it just wasn’t my plan. I thought it was my plan all along and I literally did everything I could have done to get there. When I got there for the two camps—it’s cool that I can say that I was a member of the national team pool and I was in camp. Is it easy to swallow that I didn’t make it to where I wanted to? Of course not.

“But I also feel like maybe in what I’m doing now, maybe I’ll help that kid who’s in college and tears their ACL for the first time and takes 12 months to recover and really, really embrace the opportunities they have to get better on a physical, and mental, and emotional level, and they do make it to the national team and they don’t tear their ACL two more times. If I could help some other people achieve their goals, I think that could be just as cool.”

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