By Thomas Becker
It's not always about the game-winning goal, the all-star selections or even the championships. Sometimes the best moments in sports are driven by inner victories — the times when athletes overcome all odds to simply play the sport they love.
Carly Connell, a midfielder/forward for UPEI's women's soccer team, took those odds and bet on herself.
She recalls the day vividly. In the third game of her sophomore season (2017), Connell was preparing to defend a Mount Allison corner kick when 'it' happened. The ball rattled around the 18-yard box before anyone got a good touch on it and suddenly she was on the ground in a heap of pain.
"I managed to get to the ball with my right foot and as I was swinging to kick it, one of their players ran through my leg," Connell said. "I tried to deny it at first, because I didn't want to deal with it, but I knew what happened."
In a matter of seconds, her season was done.
"I looked up, my defender was standing above me and she asked me what's wrong and I said I tore my ACL."
THE TEST OF PERSEVERANCE BEGINS
Connell's instinct was right. Over the years, she became somewhat of an expert when it comes to debilitating knee injuries. She suffered a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee when she was just 15 years old — two months prior to the Canada Games she was preparing for. Two years later it happened again. This time she tore the right one for the first time playing a game of rugby.
"It kind of sounds like a gun shot and it feels like there's a small explosion in your leg," she said.
She was devastated and in those moments of vulnerability she often asked: "why me?" But hidden beneath the doubt and despair was an opportunity to show the strength inside. And to get back on the field, she needed to rely on others.
Allyson Seviour, a physiotherapist with Reactive Health, managed Connell's rehabilitation and was impressed with her attitude and level of commitment despite the hard road ahead.
"Initially, Carly was obviously disappointed, but she quickly changed her mind set and was determined to return to the sport." Seviour said. "She always arrived at the clinic ready to work and smiling. Clients here were always amazed by her work ethic and drive to return to soccer."
The grueling process often takes up to year and requires a tremendous amount of patience. Before surgery is even an option, the patient needs to build the muscles around the knee and get the swelling down, which can take weeks, Connell explained.
Once she did that, Connell visited orthopedic surgeon Dr. Scott Wotherspoon, who performed the surgery and replaced the ligament — typically done by using part of the patient's hamstring.
"I thought that was going to be it. I though they weren't going to let me play anymore," Connell said. "Luckily I have a really good doctor who said he'll fix as many ACLs as I tear and I can keep playing."
After surgery, Connell was off the leg for a while before working on getting the mobility back. Once three months hit, she turned her attention on strengthening the knee, which involved three to four days of physiotherapy and every other day in the gym.
INJURY BE DAMNED
Many people would've understood if she decided to put the jersey away for good, especially with the demanding course load that comes with an engineering degree and the countless hours spent in the classroom. But quitting soccer never seemed to be an option for Connell, despite the whispers in her ear saying otherwise. The sport she grew up playing simply meant too much to her.
"I love this sport too much," she said. "I was told not to continue by several people, but it's really just inside you. If you want to do it, you do it. Don't let other people affect your choices."
In addition to her competitive nature, Connell was also drawn to the environment associated with team sports, including the friendships that are formed on and off the field. All those factors and more helped make her decision to return an easy one.
Teammates Andrea Mahoney and Tyffanie Bordage joined UPEI's soccer program with Connell in 2016 and were vital in supporting her comeback, whether it was working out in the gym or running together.
"For competitive athletes, suffering a major injury isn't just physical, it also weighs on you mentally," Mahoney said. "Knowing that Carly has been through this injury before, I just wanted her to know whenever she felt ready and able, she would have people there to support the ups and downs of her comeback."
Major injuries like that have a way of bringing teams together and even though she couldn't join them in battle, Connell was just as important off the field as she was on it. Even sidelined, she hung around the team and participated in training and workouts as much as she possibly could.
"Carly's passion for soccer made it a fun. She's always positive and only looks forward, never back," Bordage said.
"I never for a second had any doubts that Carly would bounce back and come back better than before," she added. "It just goes to show how little an injury defines your career, and how you should never give up or lose hope."
Connell made her triumphant return after eight months of rehab, but suffered a minor setback when she tore her quad, as a result of compensating for the knee. Looking back, she knows she should've waited a full year to return and now encourages others to do the same.
"I'm learning to listen to my body," she said.
This season, she's much more self-aware and is willing to sit out a game or two, even if the competitive side of her is chomping at the bit. So far she's returned to the lineup as a versatile player, who's played all over the field without any complications.
"Carly's attitude towards recovery and getting back to the game shows a great deal of strength, positivity and hard work," said Mahoney, who's missed time this season due to a lingering concussion. "She's inspired me to work harder on the field and appreciate every game I can play."
While many standout athletes will be remembered for their numbers and how they performed on the field, it's players like Connell who truly stand out and serve as a reminder that anyone can face adversity head on.
"I want to be known as someone who doesn't give up," she said. "I have this drive inside me. I'm very competitive and it's driven me as an athlete to be the best I can be."