‘I was knocked into the air and heard my knee POP. ‘Oh no, not again.’ All my hard work was wasted.’: Athlete overcomes knee injuries, ‘I’m finding achievement off the field’

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“Before I was 17, I was never someone who suffered from any sort of injury in the slightest. If I fell over, I would get back up straight away and get on with the game. I had never seen a physio, never called a time-out for an injury, and never skipped a training session or a game. In 2018, I had a very clear plan for my future in terms of netball, and all my hard work was finally starting to pay off.

As a child, trying to make it in the pathway to professional netball, I did everything I had to. I didn’t party, didn’t drink, didn’t date, because I knew this would be a distraction, and I dared not take more than one day a week off training. It sounds dramatic, but I was almost a woman possessed.

Courtesy of Nicole Guenther

Even as a young child, I found the politics of the sport to be a challenge in themselves. With netball, it’s all about who you know, or who you’re related to, or where you’re from. It’s sad but often, talent isn’t a factor when it comes to who gets on what teams. On top of that, I seem to always draw the short straw when it comes to life. My netball career has seen a lot of positional changes and learning new skills others have been practicing for years. I started out in the defensive end and when selections for state teams rolled around, I was told, ‘You have been selected to trial in the mid-court.’ Having no previous experience, here I was at a major disadvantage.

Courtesy of Nicole Guenther

I was lucky I had a strong work ethic from a young age, making a lot of state and regional teams in line with the professional netball pathway dispute these changes. However, my ultimate short-term goal, and the only thing left to achieve on my checklist, was to be selected in the underage Australian Squad. In 2018, when I was 17, I had a strong chance to do so and I could not have been more prepared. I had recently been approached by a professional team in the area and had been invited to train with them for the season. I had been training with some of the best in the game twice a week for about 2 months and was absolutely smashing the training, impressing a lot of the staff. I was more than confident and ready at this point in my ability, not only to make this national squad but also in my future as a professional player.

Courtesy of Nicole Guenther

Come the third day of our national tournament, I am playing the best I ever had, in a mid-court position I was very inexperienced in. I was so confident I was going to be selected and so proud of myself for taking on this challenge. However, in a game against New South Wales, the tables more than turned. I was about to receive the ball from one of my teammates when my opposition player came in for an intercept too late. I got absolutely steam-trained in the air and heard my left knee pop. I got myself to the ground using my right and automatically felt the left leg just tighten up. I instantly began crying because I knew this couldn’t have been good. A few teammates helped me off the court and I watched the rest of the game from the physio bench. After an analysis, he said, ‘I suspect you’ve torn your ACL and strongly recommended you don’t finish the tournament.’

Courtesy of Nicole Guenther

Sitting and watching the girls play games I trained so long to be a part of for the next 3 days was a struggle, and I couldn’t be more excited to be home. The injury was confirmed to be an ACL and meniscal tear, which required surgery. Because it’s me, this would end up being harder than an average person’s rehab. Upon arriving home, I got stabbing pains in my left calf, and it turns out those pains were three blood clots that had formed from a mixture of the physios super-tight strapping and the plane ride home from the tournament. This prolonged my surgery, and ultimately my return to sport again, by 6 weeks, as the surgeon didn’t feel it was safe to operate. So, I spent 6 weeks waiting. I made the most of the 6 weeks, however, as a girl from the same professional team I was recruited by also had a similar injury and the team had hired a specialist to assist her through her rehab. Being somewhat a part of the team, I got to join her in her sessions, putting my knee in the best possible shape pre-surgery.

Courtesy of Nicole Guenther

After my surgery, things just became complicated. An envious staff member of my actual playing team didn’t like me being trained by anyone other than him. So, he spun some lies about how since I’m not actually a member of the professional team, the insurance wouldn’t cover me if I got hurt, and since I’m not a member of the actual team anymore, I should be allowed to gym training. I was isolated from a team environment for about a year. Completing my rehab entirely alone with only the support from a physio was such a mental challenge. I often worried, ‘What if I won’t even be good when I play netball again? How much better would everyone else be because they didn’t have to take a year off?’ I wouldn’t change a thing, though, because I am so mentally strong and back myself more than I ever had before.

Nearing the end of my first rehab journey, I got a call from a new regional team, asking, ‘Will you be a part of our Division 1 team?’ This team would compete in the highest level of netball in the state, against girls a lot older and more experienced than me. I had never played this level before my injury, only being a part of Division 2 and lower. I was so excited and instantly said, ‘Yes!’ This was the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I had done the work, now it was time for the reward. However, the season wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I was so excited to be playing again in such a high-level tournament, but I wasn’t getting a lot of court time or the chance to prove myself. It honestly felt like I took two seasons off instead of one. I did the work, but my motivation was quickly dropping. I couldn’t understand why I was being benched so much. I made a huge impact when I was put on the court and could keep up with all the other girls. I tried asking my coach, ‘Can I have some feedback?’ But it was extremely vague. I had never felt so unincluded or unwanted in a team.

Courtesy of Nicole Guenther

When the season ended, the coach called me twice asking, ‘Can you stick around and play the following season? I want to keep a consistent lineup.’ I was relieved, as I thought I might get replaced. At this time, I was also trying out for the state team again to avenge my left knee and make that national squad. On the last day of trials, I knew something wasn’t right. I was getting hardly any court time in the trial matches. I only got two quarters (half an hour) in a position they hadn’t played me in the entire 4-week section process. After being so confident with my previous games, I found out through others I didn’t make the state team. Upon receiving contradictory feedback from the coaches, I knew they had never intended to pick me because as I mentioned above, talent is only half of what they consider when picking teams. Being my last year in the under-age program, I never got a final shot at Nationals or making that squad. I knew I was capable and had the potential to do so, but, unfortunately, was never given a real chance, and that kills me.

Courtesy of Nicole Guenther

To make the wound deeper, I had been contacted by my regional team coach, saying, ‘We are importing someone from New Zealand to replace you in the team this season. You are being demoted to the Division 2 team.’ I was the only member of the original team who involuntarily got replaced. I felt so humiliated like people saw me as some ‘try-hard’ who just wasn’t as good as she was before the injury. Of course, I was disappointed for a while, but I was honestly happy. I redirected my goals again, this time it was completely different. They weren’t result or performance-based. Basically, I told myself, ‘Nicole, it doesn’t matter what people think. Love the game again and just have fun, find your feet, and grow.’ Given my history with injury, selections, court time, self-talk, and etc. from previous years, I began to kind of resent netball and would often ask myself, ‘Why do I even do this if every time I take one step forward, it’s 50 steps back? Why do I work so hard when it seems like all I do is go backward?’

Courtesy of Nicole Guenther

This season, 2020, all I wanted was to find my feet consistently playing games again. After being out for a year with the left knee and a super-sub in 2019, I really just wanted to play. I did well throughout the year in not caring about expectations or reputations and just played. The first game we played this season, I have honestly never had so much fun playing in ages, and I knew it would be a great season. Thank you to my teammates for helping me love the game again. Another goal was to build my confidence as a person this year. I aimed high and said, ‘I want to have a leadership role within the team.’ I was so honored when I was named captain, and felt I was really bringing the team together. Just when I thought I had made light of the storm that had been my life for the past 2 years, the clouds got darker. I was training with my former team, helping them practice one of their defensive plays. Being on the defensive team, I went for a ball. However, I stepped on someone’s foot, forcing my knee one way, and then got hit by someone coming from the opposite direction. Then I heard that pop again. This time, I felt my right knee just tighten up while I hit the deck. The words, ‘Oh no, not again,’ just slipped from my mouth. I knew what I had done.

ACL, MCL, meniscus. This time, my right knee. My initial reaction to the news was, ‘Why me? Why, every time I seem to get ahead, I just get pulled back ten times as hard?’ I am almost 3 months post-op and I still struggle with thoughts like, ‘Why do I even try?’ or ‘I have wasted all my hard work and potential on rehab and recovery. There is no hope for me.’ The thought of giving up netball is more terrifying than these thoughts. I need to prove to myself I still love the game. I need to prove to myself I am good enough. I need to prove to myself I gave it everything I had and left no stone unturned, and most importantly, I want to build that love and passion for the sport I had at the start of the season. So when the day comes when I hang up the dress, I won’t be left with any ‘what ifs.’

Courtesy of Nicole Guenther

Over the past few months, I have stopped feeling unlucky or unfortunate, as I have acknowledged everyone struggles. I am a strong believer everything happens for a reason. The strongest and most inspiring people haven’t had it easy. Likewise, I also believe whoever is in charge up there only gives challenges to people who can girt it out and overcome it because 1) They are strong enough, and 2) They are rewarded with growth at the end of the day. Why would the person upstairs give opportunities for growth to someone who wouldn’t embrace it and let the challenge consume them? It would be unfair, right? The rehab process is easier this time around, as I know what to expect. I’m most definitely not going to rush returning to netball, as these knees are for life.

Courtesy of Nicole Guenther

I am applying myself to my non-sport-related goals and I’m finding a sense of achievement there instead of from the field. I also wish to help people dealing with similar injuries, because I know how frustrating it is when people think they understand, but in reality, actually have no clue about what you’re going through. I want to be the person who makes them feel heard and less like they are crazy and overreacting. The recovery is like driving down a straight highway at lightspeed. You can’t see your destination and you’re trying not to fall asleep along the way. It takes commitment and patience, but when you’re at your destination, you’ll be thankful for the journey. You will be thankful you have the ability to do things like walking, swimming, and running that people take for granted. You will be thankful you got through this because you will know from now on, you can get through anything.”

Courtesy of Nicole Guenther
Courtesy of Nicole Guenther

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nicole Guenther. You can follow her journey on Instagram here and here. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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