The World Cup is soccer’s biggest stage, but the Olympic Games are sports’ biggest stage.
Every young athlete dreams of making it to the Olympics. To be given the opportunity to represent your country and then have it yanked away so cruelly by way of injury is heartbreaking.
In 2008, the US Women’s National team repeated as Olympic Gold Medalists in Beijing.
Three players saw their Olympic dreams end and didn’t go to the Olympics.Two of them were a part of the team that won gold in Athens in 2004. One was still waiting for her chance to step onto the Olympic stage.
Leslie Osborne, Cat Whitehill and Abby Wambach (pictured above just after her injury prior to the 2008 Olympics) suffered major injuries prior to the start of the Games – the first two to ACL tears and the latter a broken leg.
They were forced to watch as their teammates struggled through the doubts brought on by a first game loss half a world away.
But Team USA was one of resilience and refused to quit even without their injured teammates.
Some of WPS's best have suffered potentially devastating injuries. They've all made it back (or are on their way back) and are sharing their comeback stories in the second installment of Tips from the Pros—Injuries and Recoveries.
It’s not easy for a player to sit out and watch.
To come within inches of making a childhood dream come true, and then have it snatched away a split second is devastating.
Leslie Osborne, Cat Whithill, and Abby Wambach all came within inches of heading to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games.
Boston Breakers midfielder Leslie Osborne’s injury woes began in her collegiate career.
She suffered ankle damage partway through her senior season at Santa Clara University.
She refused to stop playing in the middle of her senior year, choosing instead to hobble through the rest of the season.
After Santa Clara’s final four run ended in the College Cup semifinals, she had reconstructive ankle surgery in December 2004.
Fast forward about three and a half years.
“I had gotten cut from the 2004 Olympics so the 2008 Olympics were pretty special to me,” Osborne explained.
“It was something I was really, really, really, really, really, looking forward to.”
Unfortunately, her Olympic dreams came to a halt in June.
Osborne suffered an ACL tear during practice as she was chasing down [US Women’s National team] teammate Heather Mitts.
She later found out that the injury was caused by loose ligaments in her ankle – the same one that was reconstructed almost four years earlier.
She would miss the Olympics after having a second reconstructive ankle surgery as well as an ACL reconstruction and spent the next ten months rehabbing both injuries before returning to the pitch in March of 2009 as the captain of FC Gold Pride.
Cat Whitehill was on her way to making her second Olympic team.
She had made it to the final 22 that were headed to the Peace Queen Cup in South Korea before the roster and alternates would be decided upon.
During a celebration game for making the final 22 in June, Whitehill went to cut while defending Natasha Kai.
Her knee gave out.
Unlike most athletes who know almost instantaneously, she didn’t realize that she had torn her ACL in her left knee.
She wouldn’t find out until she was half a world away in South Korea.
Whitehill rehabbed her knee throughout the rest of 2008 and into 2009 before making it back out onto the field as a co-captain for the Washington Freedom last March.
Whitehill’s Washington Freedom teammate Abby Wambach was named to the 2008 Olympic team and was all set to make the trip to China.
Team USA had one final match prior to the Olympics before they’d take on Norway in their opening group game three weeks later.
A collision in the 31st minute of the July 16 matchup with Brazil left her both bones in her left leg broken and her Olympic dreams shattered.
Wambach would rehab her leg before making her return to the field for Team USA in May of 2009.
She scored her 100th goal two months later in her hometown of Rochester, NY on July 19.
It was one year and three days after the injury sent her Olympic hopes to a halt.
All three of these athletes were able to put the heartbreaking injuries aside and battle their way back onto the field to be a part of WPS last season.
The First Step to Coming Back
Staying motivated during the rehabilitation process is always a challenge, especially with a long term injury. Leslie Osborne’s injury was more than just an ACL reconstruction or just an ankle reconstruction. She had to deal with rehabbing both injuries coming out of surgery at the same time.
The two months following her surgery were the most difficult because she was in a cast for her ankle and a brace for her knee, plus was on crutches, which restricted her from doing much of anything in terms of working out. The Wisconsin native was determined to get herself back on the field and play the game she loved.
“My left leg had shrunk so I was just so determined to come back from these injuries and just be able to play the sport that I loved and be able to beat the odds of people saying how hard it would be for me to come back and be the player I was,” Osborne explained.
“I don’t know, I guess I was just determined to come back, have a positive attitude and hope that I could one day play soccer again. I think I took it for granted before I got hurt that time.”
A great support system was key for Cat Whitehill. Having her family and friends reminding her constantly that things do happen for a reason and to keep fighting to be back on the field was great motivation.
“They kept me focused on that because a lot of times I wanted to live with it and just give up. But I think I had such a great support with family and friends, that they didn’t let me,” said Whitehill “They knew the WPS season was coming just around the corner and they were like ‘What a great opportunity to come back and really prove that you can come back. Do you really want to do it?’ And I did. I really wanted to do it.”
Nine months later, she was back on the field and was a co-captain for the Washington Freedom. She had proved to doubters and to herself that she most definitely could come back. She has also been back in the US Women’s National team pool as they look to qualify this fall for the 2011 Women’s World Cup.
Abby Wambach’s motivation was a little bit different. Having been one game away from traveling to the Olympics when she got hurt, Wambach was still mentally set on preparing for the Games.
“Well I think I was still kind of in the mode of preparing for the Olympics so I was kind of gung-ho at that point. I was really always watching what I was eating and really was trying to do what was best for my body as if I was preparing for the Games and stuff,” Wambach said, looking back.
“I just kind of overlapped that and put it into my rehab and recovery and it really was that official. It was great that I was in the best shape of my life because if you’re doing all the right things when you’re recovering from an injury, you can recover faster and stronger.”
Patience is a Virtue
Being forced to hold back when you want to charge back is one of the most difficult things to deal with in coming back from an injury. For many athletes, the word patience is their biggest enemy. No one wants to just sit out and watch while an injury heals. But staying patient is a huge part of recovering from an injury. It’s definitely a great idea to set goals as you go through the rehabilitation process.
“I think that’s one of my most difficult parts of recovery from any injury is to let the process take care of itself and giving yourself small goals. So every single week, I would come back from my physical therapist and be like Alright. Am I progressing properly? Is my recovery happening in the way that it should?’” said Wambach.
“And it’s hard because you can’t compare yourself to anybody else because your body is different, it’s going to heal differently than any other person so you have to really take the small victories as they come and celebrate them as they come. Otherwise you can get really overwhelmed with the bigger picture. You have to almost compartmentalize your recovery by week. That’s one of the biggest ways to be successful throughout the recovery process.”
Give yourself smaller goals throughout the process – doing one revolution on the bike, walking without a limp, or regaining your range of motion. It allows you to see the progress that you are making – even if it’s baby steps to start. Every step is a step closer to being back on the field.
Mental versus Physical
Coming back from an injury is always going to be a physical recovery and a mental recovery as well, especially with a long term injury. Physically, the rehab is challenging. It’s not fun and it’s not pleasant. The mental battles are equally challenging.
For some athletes though, one or the other is just a little bit more challenging.
For Leslie Osborne, the rehabilitation process was incredibly long and hard physically because of the nature of her injuries. But mentally was where it definitely took a toll on her.
“I think mentally it was challenging for me last year to step out on the field as a captain of the FC Gold Pride and step out on that field because I was so proud of myself to be able to come back and play in the league. I was so proud of coming back from my injuries but I had so much pressure and expectation from everybody else, that for me that was very difficult.”
It took Osborne several months to give herself “a mental break” after having such high expectations for herself and dealing with the expectations that others had on her as well.
On the other hand, Cat Whitehill found the bigger challenge being physically coming back from her ACL reconstruction. “Physically it took awhile just to get your speed and everything back but I think it takes at least 18 months to really physically feel like yourself. For a lot of the season I’d get really frustrated with myself like ‘why can’t I do these quick movements that I used to do?’”
Wambach was somewhere in the middle. For her, it started out as being physically challenging. But as the broken bones in her left leg healed, it began to be a mental battle.
“At first it was physical and then it became mental because soccer is such a physical game and the way that I play is so physical that it actually took me over a year to feel comfortable on the field again.”
So, what advice did these soccer greats have to offer for any young athlete out there who’s suffered an injury with such terrible timing? Check out what Leslie, Cat, and Abby had to say:
Leslie said: “Things do happen for a reason but I think that injuries – especially at times like that – will only make you stronger. I believe that even if I am never able to play in the Olympics again, it made me stronger as a person and for me that’s extremely important.
If I can get through something like that and have a positive outlook and perspective on that, then I can get through a lot of things in my life. So if anything, I think that times like that make you a stronger person.
And in the long run, it will help you become mentally stronger on and off the soccer field. So just keep a positive attitude and a positive outlook; it’s only going to hold you back if you’re negative and feel sorry for yourself.”
Cat said: “I think my best advice is (I say this to anyone who tells me “Oh I’ve just torn my ACL)…make sure you surround yourself with people that you love and make sure that they know that this is not going to be an easy recovery.
And also know that it’s longer than you expect it to be and don’t get frustrated with it. You have to be patient with it because unfortunately this ACL, they say it takes 6-18 months which is such a broad range but you see a lot of people coming back in 6 months. Well physically you’re back, but you’re not completely yourself from [where] you left off before you tore it.
So I think that’s why a lot of people get frustrated and they don’t know why but it’s the ACL. But when you have tons of family that show their support for you, you’re going to be able to get through just about anything.”
Abby said: “Patience is obviously the number one thing that I always tell people. But what is cool with the way I went through my rehab was I was in search of learning the most I could from myself because at the end of the day, the job that I’m in and the job that pro athletes are in, injuries are bound to happen and it’s not about the injury itself because it’s in the past. You want to focus on the now. You want to focus on the things you can control.
For me it was really important to learn the very most about myself through the process. And the recovery process was one of the most influential periods of my life. I learned a lot about myself, about my limitations, about the things that I could control in my life. And whether I knew it or not at the time, it was just so valuable for me to have that experience because now I can go into a practice and have an injury occur and now I can go into practice and have no injury occur and I’m still at the same state.
It equalized me, mentally. There’s going to be highs and there’s going to be lows. The more you can stay in the middle, I think the better success you’re going to find in yourself.”
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