What it’s like to tear your ACL

Me with my ugly knee brace playing in a game my senior year. Photo via Carly Newton.

It happened on the first day of soccer practice in my junior year of high school. We were scrimmaging at the end of practice and as a fullback, I was trying to prevent the other side’s offense from scoring on our goal. I had kicked the ball away, but it was going to go out of bounds and I had run over to stop it. I had done this exact move at least a hundred times since I began playing soccer, but for some reason this time was different. 

If you follow sports at all, there’s a good chance you have heard about an athlete tearing their ACL. Usually, this means that their season is over because they must get surgery and endure many months of rehabilitation to return to their previous form. But what is an ACL? Before I tore mine when I was 16 years old, I had no idea what it was. 

ACL is an abbreviation for the anterior cruciate ligament. Your ACL is located in your knee and does a very important job of stabilizing your knee joint because it connects your femur to your tibia. When this is torn, your knee feels weak and unstable. While it is possible to live without your ACL, athletes and active people should get it fixed if they want to return to their normal, active lifestyle. 

I had done a little jump to get my right foot over the top of the ball, and I flicked it backward to prevent it from going out of bounds. When my right leg came down, I heard a loud pop sound. I had hurt my knee a couple of times before this, but nothing serious — I would ice it for a few days, and it would feel fine again. When I heard that pop sound, I instantly knew that it wasn’t normal.

My coach had come over to me and helped me stand up. My right leg felt awfully weak — it wobbled and gave away when I tried to put weight on it. Two teammates helped me over to the bench, where I realized something was really wrong with my knee.

I had to get an MRI after a couple of weeks. Afterward, I was told what I feared I had done. I had torn my ACL. Since my injury happened, I had been researching knee injuries, so I had become familiar with the ligaments of the knee. When the doctor told me after my MRI, I knew I would need surgery, and that is what I was afraid of.

Trusting my knee again took a long time. Photo via Carly Newton.

A couple of  months after my torn ACL diagnosis, I was preparing for knee surgery. I was afraid but I knew that if I ever wanted to play soccer again, I needed to do it. So, on October 9, 2015, I had my surgery, and soon after, I began the months-long physical therapy rehabilitation of my knee. 

Juliette Baker, who also tore her ACL in high school, remembers the instant it happened.

“There was a loud pop, almost like plastic. I remember falling to the ground grabbing at my knee. It was locked up and I could not straighten it,” Baker said. “I experienced a contact injury. The defender took me off my feet and my right knee took most of the blow.”

Baker, like myself, had the ACL reconstruction surgery done with a hamstring graft. This means that the surgeons take one of your hamstrings and use it as your new ACL. There are cons to this procedure but it is the most popular for athletes.

“A lot of time went into strengthening my right hamstring as it was very weak,” Baker said.

After about a year of rehab, Baker was ready to return to soccer but it was nerve wracking for her. 

“I had this metal brace on my knee, I felt like some kind of bionic being. I was nervous I wouldn’t be as fast or as skillful as I was prior to my injury. I was also ready to get the ball rolling and get back into my groove,” Baker said. “It was a successful season. As I look back now, I am thankful for what I had to go through. It taught me patience, determination and true grit.”

For me, my goal never wavered during my rehab — I wanted to play soccer again as well. Only I didn’t realize how hard it would be in those first couple of months. I had to relearn how to walk without crutches, how to walk upstairs, how to jump, how to balance, how to kick, how to cut, but most importantly I had to relearn how to run. 

Through many months of physical therapy, I achieved all these milestones. When it was time for soccer in August — I was physically ready.

Mentally, I still had some work to do. Playing on the same field I injured myself on the year before was tough. I had a lot of mental hurdles I had to overcome before I felt comfortable playing without fear. 

Although my mom begged me not to play again repeatedly, I knew I had to do it. Looking back now, I’m really happy I did because now I know I don’t have any limitations to what I can do. 

Tearing an ACL is horrible, and I feel for any athlete or person who does it. But mentally and physically, I believe it made me stronger, and for that, I am thankful.

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