Graphic by Shenuka Corea

Something Good In A-knee-thing

What multiple injuries taught this writer about recovery, her body and the importance of a good mentality.

Oct 1, 2016

In November 2013, I went on a trip to Bonn, Germany, with my school’s women’s football team to participate in a tournament against other high school teams from all over Europe. I was in my final year of high school, and even though I was unaware of what lay ahead, I was remarkably at peace with that. In the bus that took us to Bonn, our squad of 20 players blasted music by Avicii and Ke$ha, and we admired how fierce we looked in our matching tournament sweaters sporting our names, carefully selected shirt numbers and an emblem of our team mascot, the gorilla. We proudly designated Roar by Katy Perry as our go-to tournament jam. Before the matches had started, we were already louder than lions.
The tournament started well for us. We advanced without a hiccup into the semifinals and finally faced the host school from Bonn in the finals. We were going for gold and glory, determined to advance into a higher-level league and hoping to prove that we were just as worthy of spectatorship and admiration as the men’s team, which was aiming to be at the top of the league in their respective tournament at the same time.
20 minutes into the game, I was faced with a long shot that came toward our goal, a perfect serve for a striker’s foot. The ball came flying over my head. I turned, in what seemed like slow motion. In that stretched moment of time, my knee did not follow. It stayed with my boot, planted in the grass, while the rest of me wanted to sprint toward the spot where my opponent was already getting ready to take her chance at scoring.
The sound of the crack was so clear amid the sideline cheers that the referee, who was standing on the other side of the pitch, turned his head and darted toward where I was lying, unable to move. I was screaming, yelping, straddling to get up, then falling back down again. My body was numb, my leg dangling.
The referee called over the medical support team that was on standby near the pitch. They drove me to a hospital, where it was found that a ligament had torn, taking with it a part of the attached bone. Knee bandaged, crutches in hand, I left with the assistant coach who accompanied me to catch the train back home. At the platform, my teammates were cheering; they presented a trophy to me, hung a silver medal around my neck and wholeheartedly roared the tournament song one last time.
On the train, I sat by myself in misery, not wanting to share in the others’ bubbly conversations and host family anecdotes. I had never felt so broken, so damaged, so let down. My body had let me down. My feelings were illogical, they couldn’t be explained. I was 17 years old and had a one-year recovery period ahead of me.
My surgery was scheduled for December. I sat my end-of-term exams with a generous supply of painkillers and spent Christmas and New Year’s Day on crutches. I wondered whether it would help to tell myself that the new year could only get better. I was quite a sad pile of atrophic leg indeed.
With daily physiotherapy and training, I regained strength. Week after week, alternating between good and bad sessions, I built myself up again. I was my own reconstruction project. My physiotherapist, my family and my friends were the scaffold. I tried to keep my head up and continue on my path, but in moments when that didn’t work, I felt as broken as I did on that train ride home.
I remember one episode in particular. I had just departed from school after a trumpet lesson, bag on shoulders, crutches in hands and trumpet case clamped between my right crutch and two fingers. After a few steps, I realized how impossible this walk to the tram station was going to be, and that my two clenched fingers were probably not going to survive what would normally be a five-minute walk. The trumpet case gave way to gravity and with it, my right crutch. My bottom found the cold December ground. I sat there like an infant. In the not-so-distant distance, the tram I was supposed to be on arrived and left. I started sobbing. Passersby would probably have been too perplexed by my appearance to ask if I required help.
After some time, I decided to get up, balancing on my healthy leg to collect my things. I continued to walk at turtle speed, step-by-step toward the tram stop, where two more trams had come and gone by the time I arrived. On the way home, I thought about what had just happened . Tram rides in December are great for thinking. I had literally picked myself up from the ground, I had lamented my fall, sobbed like a five-year-old mid-tantrum, overcome it and ultimately reached my destination. It was not shame or self-pity that I felt anymore, but pride — a ridiculous pride in conquering a ridiculous little walk, and in how much I had learned along the way.
I like to think that I view my body and my mentality differently since then. They are not superior or subordinate to each other. Rather, they are in a pendulum-like relationship — there are highs and lows, and they episodically support and hurt each other. They are both so precious to me. Perhaps it isn’t so bad that I learned this early in life.
Following my freshman year of college, two days after flying home from Abu Dhabi for the summer, I injured my knee once again while playing pingpong with my brother. I had just overcome all fears of reinjury the previous semester by joining the NYU Abu Dhabi women’s football team. It took me the whole summer to walk again, and I have had to discontinue my football ambitions since then. In August of this year, several days before coming back to Abu Dhabi for the fall semester of my junior year, I injured my back while sailing. I only started running again last week.
I can chuckle at jokes that summer injuries are becoming quite a painful habit of mine. I can truly enjoy endurance sports like running, cycling and swimming without pitying myself for not being able to play football anymore. I can lead an active, healthy lifestyle without forgetting to give myself time to regenerate and reflect. I can talk with friends about what this story means to me and how it has changed me. In the end, it is through the confidence of experience that I can see how something good can arise out of almost anything given the will and persistence to make it out among all the falls and failings.
Gloria Jansen is a contributing writer. Email her at
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