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Learning to Walk Again

26 Jun 2020
Photo by
Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images
Photo by
Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images
26 Jun 2020

It’s been nearly two years now since a nurse came over to my bed and said she had good news and bad news. 

She told me the good news first. When I had been rushed to hospital a few hours earlier, the doctors thought I had ruptured a kidney or damaged some of my organs. Now they had done a CT scan, and the nurse had the results. 

She said, “The good news is that your kidney is fine.”

“The bad news … ” she said, “is that you’ve broken your back.”

I knew things like this weren’t supposed to happen to a soccer player. The doctors later told me that when someone breaks their back, it’s usually due to a real force, like a car crash or a fall off a horse. What had happened to me was a freak accident. 

What had happened to me was a freak accident.

To be honest, it’s still hard for me to talk about to this day. But if my story can be an inspiration for someone, then it’s worth telling. Earlier that day, on 25 August 2018, I had been playing for the Portland Thorns against Washington Spirit in D.C. A long ball came over their defence. I chased it, turned my body and tried to head the ball over the goalkeeper with my back towards the goal. She tried to catch the ball above my head, and that’s when I felt the impact of her knee in my back. 

I immediately fell down, grabbed my back and screamed for help. A number of medical staff came onto the field and stretchered me off. They tried to roll me over, to figure out what had happened, but I was in an excruciating amount of pain. I couldn’t lie on my back. I was trying to say, “You can’t … please don’t move me!” 

The pain … I’ll never ever forget it. 

Brad Smith/isiphotos.com

I was too hurt to think clearly. But fortunately at the time, my dad, John, was there watching me play. So I looked up at whoever was around me — doctors, trainers, a blur of different people — and I said, “You need to get my dad!” They found him in the crowd and brought him down, and he held my hand as I was taken to the hospital. He was sitting next to my bed, when the nurse came in with the news. She said the impact from the knee had broken three of my vertebrae.

When you hear something like that, you immediately think the worst. Because if somebody breaks their back, you assume that, well … or at least I thought That’s it. I’m never going to be able to walk again.

This is the end of my career. 

This is the end of life as I know it.

So I was extremely emotional. Dad even began to feel sick and had to leave the room for a moment. After what seemed like forever, I received more information from the doctors, nurses and neurosurgeons. They told me, “You will recover. It will be painful, but you will be O.K.” One day, down the line, I’d be back to normal. 

I was so relieved.

But I was still in a bad way. I got to phone my mum, Renaye. She had watched the game back home on the Gold Coast, so she knew something bad had happened. I knew it would be hard for her to be so far away, knowing I was hurt. So when I told her that I had broken my back, I added, “Mum, I’m O.K.. I’ll be fine.” 

I didn’t really want her to worry.

Obviously, she was completely worried.

I kind of knew she was going to be. She’s a mum. Ever since I was a kid she has worked as a nurse. Being divorced, she raised my two older brothers and I. Raising three kids is hard for anyone, but her task was particularly challenging. Jordan, the older of my brothers, is intellectually disabled. Growing up, Mum looked after him, but he is now in a care home full-time. Then, a few years ago my other brother, Lachlan, needed open-heart surgery. Mum has always been so strong for all of her children. And now I was telling her that I had broken my back. 

She immediately jumped on a flight to D.C. Dad had to fly home the day after I got hurt. But within a couple of days Mum was there sleeping next to me each night. It was a huge comfort for me knowing that she’d be with me on this journey. And I was going to need her. 

When the doctors called it a “painful recovery,” they weren’t joking.

Courtesy of Hayley Raso

After about two weeks, I was moved to a rehabilitation hospital in D.C., where I basically had to learn how to walk again. To be honest, even though the doctors had said I’d be O.K., I struggled to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes I even thought about giving up on football. I was studying part-time to be a paramedic, which I have wanted to be ever since I was a kid. I find it very fulfilling knowing that people are vulnerable or hurt, and that you’re the person there to help them. It’s also a job I can fall back on when my playing career is over. So at the start, when I was in hospital — even though I had put in so much hard work to become the player I was — I sort of thought, I’m fine, I can just be a paramedic. I don’t need soccer anymore

Sometimes I had to remind myself why I had begun playing soccer in the first place. And then my mind would go back to when I was eight years old, when I began kicking a ball around with Lachlan and the boys, even though I didn’t really like it. I had no inspiration, no idols. Other parents began telling my parents, “Hey, your daughter’s quite good. She’s pretty fast.” And so I stuck to it. Then came the professional contract with Canberra United, and the debut for Australia when I was 17. I was so young back then … I didn’t really know anybody at my first Matildas camp. But that’s when I discovered this world full of superstars, who were playing overseas and going to World Cups and Olympics. That was the first time I thought, Yeah, this is for me.

That was the motivation for me now that I was in the hospital. I had never been to an Olympics. I had been to the 2015 World Cup, but I hadn’t played a single minute. Now I just knew that I wanted to get myself back and that I wanted to play at the next World Cup and Olympic Games. I told myself, You need to get back. 

But it was hard. So hard. 

Today most people know that I broke my back, and then I went through this recovery, and then I came back. As if that’s all there was to it. But the day-to-day tasks, the challenges, the fear, the pain, I don’t think anybody will ever be able to understand what that was like. When you have a broken back, when you can’t walk, when you can’t move, even the simplest tasks can make you feel as if you’re trying to climb Everest. 

At the start, I literally couldn’t move. I couldn’t even roll over in bed. I was basically just lying there, not even able to get up to use the bathroom. That’s just how it was.

Then one day the nurses got me out of bed. They rolled me over. They sat me up. I had a big walking frame. And it was like one meter from the bed to the window. They said, “Let’s try and stand you up and get you to the window.” They helped me and I was only just able to stand up. Then they tried to get me to take a few steps. But it was too painful. I was like, “I can’t. I actually can’t.” And I’m an athlete. I’m pretty strong-minded, you know? Obviously, I wanted to walk. But I just couldn’t, and that feeling was so hard to deal with. I still remember holding on to the window and crying, just tears running down my face.

Sitting was horrible, too. I couldn’t sit. But I had to keep doing these things to make progress. I remember how hard it was to do my hair. I had to learn how to shower, how to wash myself, how to put my socks on. I even had a number of episodes where I was in so much pain that I went pale, began to shake and passed out. The next time I opened my eyes, I’d be back in bed, looking up at all the neurosurgeons and nurses standing over me. 

Courtesy of Hayley Raso

Mum would be there, too. Always. Not once did she show that it was affecting her or that it was hard for her. Every single day she just made sure to help me. She dressed me and showered me. She had always told me that, whatever I wanted to do or achieve in life, I could do it if I put my mind to it. That message now counted more than ever. 

She was always trying to keep me positive. One day we spoke about another time in my career when things didn’t go to plan. Back in 2015, I played my first season for the Washington Spirit, after Mark Parsons had brought me over from Australia. But the next season the Spirit had a new coach, and when I turned up for preseason the coaches called me into their office. They basically told me, “We don’t want you.” And just like that, I was gone.

I was really upset. I had joined this team, made friends, and then all of a sudden, I just had to leave. I called Mum and was like, “I’m not going to play soccer anymore. If I’m not here, what am I going to do?” 

I thought my career might be over. The W-League in Australia wasn’t on at that time, and I thought that if I went back home, I’d have to play for a local team, and then I wouldn’t be able to keep up the standard that was needed to play for the Matildas. I just didn’t know what else I could do. Perhaps I was too negative, but I just had so many thoughts running through my head. Mum reminded me that it would be O.K., that things would work out, and that I should not worry.

She was right. Within 24 hours, I was picked up by Mark, who had left the Spirit to coach the Thorns. Within a couple of days, I was on a flight to Portland to start a new chapter. Suddenly I felt so determined. I remember thinking, I’m going to prove them so wrong. I worked harder than ever. I got to train with Christine Sinclair and Tobin Heath, players I had looked up to for a long time. Gradually, I went from being a nobody to an important player on the team. I was so grateful to be playing in Portland, in front of some of the best fans in the world. They are incredible, and they make you feel so lucky to be a part of their team. Every single week they packed the stadium with 20,000-plus fans. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. 

In 2017 I became the Supporters’ Player of the Year. To know that all of our fans had noticed the hard work I was putting in, that was really special to me.

So everything changed completely. Being waived turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

Being waived turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.

When you are in hospital, memories like that help. Anything positive helps. 

I soon began to pay more attention to the other people in the hospital. Some had suffered some really horrible accidents. It was incredible actually, because as I was taking steps down the corridor with my walking frame, I’d see the same people every day doing their rehabilitation, too. And over time I felt like we formed this silent bond between us. We didn’t talk — we’d all just leave our rooms for therapy and then we’d go back. But we would recognise each other’s faces. And though we had different injuries, we were all in the same boat, fighting every day to recover from our misfortunes. 

The way some of them dealt with their injuries inspired me. There was one young man … he was in one of the rooms next to me. He had lost both his legs. And yet he must have loved dancing, because he would have a laptop that played music videos … and he would be dancing to them. And I was there trying to recover — and I knew that I was going to be able to walk again — and then I looked at him, and he was still happy doing something he loved!! 

Seeing that inspired and drove me. It made me feel so grateful that I’d actually be able to play soccer again.

As the weeks passed, I moved from a chair, to a wheelchair, to a walking frame, to a walking stick, and then finally to walking freely. And yet it wasn’t until I could start running again that I sort of thought, I’m actually going to be O.K. I can do this.

I don’t remember the specific timing of when I went back to training. But I do remember being called back into the national team camp in February 2019. This moment sticks in my mind, because it was just so amazing to be back there after what I had been through. Later that month, I found myself in the locker room putting on the Australian jersey. I was preparing to play against New Zealand in the Cup of Nations, in Sydney, knowing that I was going out to represent my country again. My family were in the stands. When I got called to come on, I was so emotional. I was like, Oh, come on, Hayley, pull it together. Breathe. It’s O.K. 

But I had to take a few deep breaths. I was nervous. I wanted to show people that even though I had been through such a serious injury, I could bounce back and be at the top of my game. I went on, and then I scored … I didn’t know what to do. I just turned, sprinted past someone, jumped and clenched my fist in the air. I was like, Oh, my gosh, I’ve done it. I’m back.

And then I thought, This is why I went through that recovery. All the pain, the fear, the frustration … it all felt so worth it. 

Ashley Feder/Getty Images

There was more. In May that year I made the World Cup squad. That summer in France I can remember kitting up for our first game. The crowds were really big. My family were again in the crowd, so before the game I gave them a wave. I was so excited to represent Australia on such a big stage. I actually played a part in all four games at the World Cup … and it was just amazing. It all seemed like a dream. You couldn’t have scripted it better

Even now it’s unbelievable to me that everything has turned out so well. If you watch me play, I don’t think you could tell that I’ve been through anything. People thought that when I came back I might not be the player I was. But if anything, I feel stronger. I play with a lot of aggression. I have become very resilient. I have learned to never take what you love for granted, because it can be taken away so quickly.

I have learned to never take what you love for granted, because it can be taken away so quickly.

Right now, I’m just happy and optimistic. I signed for Everton in January, and I can’t wait to play there once the Super League resumes. The Olympics in Tokyo next year excites me a lot, too. 

I also still love the idea that when I’m not playing soccer anymore, I’ll be able to work as a paramedic for the rest of my life. 

I think a lot of my devotion to helping people comes from Mum, and it has only become stronger after seeing what she did for me in hospital. She is the main reason why I came out the other side the way I did. 

So, if you ask me what other goals I have, of course I’ll say that I want to be a great player, a great role model, and a great person.

But mostly, I want to be an inspiration. Just like her.