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Sometimes in life, you don’t realize how much you love something until it gets taken away from you. This is my story about not just coming back from injury, but finding the silver lining in overcoming obstacles.
In 2017, it was one of my last college conference games. I remember this day so clearly because I was starting to get emotional thinking about college soccer coming to a close. It was a hot day and we knew going into the game that it was going to be a tough, gritty game against Tennessee. It was late in the second half and we needed to score. The game was tied and it was a crucial game for seeding for the SEC tournament.
I remember getting the ball in a good pocket and all I could see in front of me was a goal and my teammate. As soon as I was about to pass her the ball, I got taken out from behind, took a weird step and felt my knee bend in a way I knew could not have been right. I laid on the ground in tears, knowing that this was probably going to be my last game in a Florida Gators soccer uniform.
Injuries were not in my vocabulary when I played in college. I had minor setbacks, but never anything where I doubted my resiliency. I don’t remember a lot about that day, but I do remember it being completely silent on the pitch. To be honest, I think that scared me more. Part of me thought maybe I broke my leg (probably a little dramatic of a thought). Another big part of me thought I probably tore my ACL. This thought devastated me. It devastated me so much that every time I thought about it I cried. If you know me, crying is second nature to me, so this won’t come as a big shocker to most people.
Despite all the uncertainty of my injury in that moment, I immediately started thinking about all the things I took for granted when playing soccer. The days that were hard and that I complained about it being too hot or too cold, or when I wasn’t in a good mood at practice. Those were the things I thought about the rest of that day. Then I thought this must be God punishing me because I complained about the weather that day.
No, that day was a wake-up call for me. That day I learned I was never going to take for granted a day I got to wake up and do what I love. Fast-forward a little bit and I found out I tore my lateral collateral ligament (LCL) in my right knee. I did not tear my ACL, nor did I tear any other ligaments, but what no one told me is the uphill battle I was going to fight with this knee surgery. The worst part about all of this: Originally, the surgeons thought I did not need surgery, so I waited for the knee to heal. Unfortunately, it did not heal the way it was supposed to.
So, the day before the 2018 NWSL College Draft, I found out I was going to have surgery to repair my LCL ligament. This news sparked so many emotions because on one hand I thought my dreams of playing professionally were about to come true, but then a lot of doubt filled my brain as well. Was I going to come back the same player? Was I even going to be able to play soccer again? Luckily, the day of the draft, Portland decided to still take a chance on me despite the news of my knee surgery. I was extremely excited, don’t get me wrong, but looking back on that moment I didn’t realize the magnitude of a blessing that would become for my life.
I got drafted on January 18, 2018 and had LCL surgery January 19, 2018. There were so many waves of emotions, but I told myself that if Portland has that much belief in me to draft me even though I am having major surgery, then I can 100% come back from this. That year became one of the hardest years of my soccer career. I did not have a ton of time to prepare mentally for my knee surgery; I actually had less than 24 hours. My parents drove down to Gainesville, Florida, on the 18th and then I went into surgery the next day.
I also did not have a lot of friends or teammates who had the same surgery, so I did not have anything to compare it to. My appreciation for people who come back from injuries completely changed after this surgery: the amount of physical therapy, icing, exercising at home, crutching around campus in 90-degree weather, the tears, and the intense gym sessions. There is so much that goes into coming back from a major injury that I was not mentally prepared for it at all.
I became pessimistic, irritable and angry. Why was this happening to me? I thought there was no way I was going to be able to come back from this. What did I hold onto? Honestly, what kept me going was that little ounce of belief in my heart that said I could do this. There may have been days that I did not want to be at rehab, but I pushed through and I fought all the thoughts that were telling me to quit.
Coming back from an injury can be extremely isolating and there are times when you may not know your ‘why’ in that moment. Well, I learned my why during that injury. There was never going to be a day I took playing soccer for granted again. I can honestly say that since I stepped on the field for the first time from that injury, I have felt this different energy inside of me. I feel grateful that I get to do what I love and that is something I use to take for granted.
I spent the rest of the year getting back my strength in my right leg. I integrated into training at Florida again to work my way back to 100%. I felt amazing. I moved to Portland in February 2019 with so much uncertainty. For one, that’s the farthest I have ever lived from my family. Two, I had absolutely no expectations about really anything. Injury taught me so many things, but one thing is especially important: your mindset. There were some non-negotiables:
1) I am going to make mistakes and that is OKAY. We can be our biggest critics in life and I told myself that no matter what, I will bounce back.
2) Effort. You are going to have bad days. You are going to make bad passes. You are going to miss tackles. You are going to mess up, but you are going to be the player who is playing with maximum effort because that is something you can control.
3) Smile and ENJOY this moment. Do not take these moments for granted. You are living out your dream. Be grateful you are here and take this in because it truly is one in a million.
Before I stepped on the field for my first training I wrote those things down. Every day I stepped on the field, I was not perfect and I made plenty of mistakes, but every day I stepped on the field, I felt grateful to be in that moment. My rookie year is one of my favorite years in my life so far. There were many ups and downs, but I learned so much from the staff and my teammates that I always asked my teammates to pinch me because I thought I was dreaming.
Portland is a city that has become my home. The people have become my home and the amount of love and joy I feel in Portland is second to none. The season was going well for me individually. I felt like I was finding my niche and finally felt like I was playing at a level from before my injury.
Then August 16 happened.
We had just started our “day-before-game” training and we were in our first possession drill. I went to pressure one of my teammates, planted to go right and then down I went, screaming in pain. I don’t even think I was screaming because I was in a ton of pain. I was screaming because I just knew. People who tear their ACL say they just know when it happens. I used to think they were crazy, but they definitely are not crazy. You just know. I was devastated. Devastated doesn’t even do it justice; I was mad. I questioned everything. I questioned everything in that moment. I couldn’t believe it.
There were so many tears shed for days and even months to come after that injury, but there is one particular moment I want to highlight. The next day, we were playing the Washington Spirit at home and honestly, I couldn’t even tell you what was going on because I felt like everything in my head was fuzzy and cloudy.
Despite those feelings, the game was going on and my teammate in the suite goes, “Oh my gosh Gabby… they are chanting your name.” I looked at the clock and saw it was minute 35, which is my number. I looked at my teammate in complete shock and burst into immediate tears. The love I felt from the Thorns during my injury is something that I will hold in my heart for the rest of my life.
In that moment, I knew. I knew that this is exactly where I am supposed to be and that moment gave me that little extra ounce of hope. I wish I could tell you that everything went up from there and I was a super positive person every day. No, that would be unrealistic. But whenever I felt like I didn’t want to be at physical therapy, I would think about the moment I get to step on the field at Providence Park for the first time since my surgery. I hold onto that moment because that is where I feel the happiest.
The day I found out I tore my ACL, I posted this quote on my Instagram and it is my daily reminder and I think great advice for other athletes:
“Don’t take the sport you play for granted. Every time you play, you better be damn thankful that you get to do something you love. Don’t show up to practice complaining about not wanting to be there; you’re there hopefully because you love it. Work hard every moment. If you’re not working hard, you don’t deserve to play. Play every practice and game like it’s your last because it very well could be. When you finally reach the day that you can’t play, and you can only watch, then you will know how much you love something that you once took for granted.”
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