The Portland Thorns have made it to the 2018 NWSL Championship. For the Aussie contingent in the Thorns camp, it’s a huge achievement. But while Matildas stars Ellie Carpenter and Caitlin Foord will be able to compete for the Championship on the pitch, the third Aussie in the Portland ranks, Hayley Raso, will have to not only watch from the sidelines, but from a wheelchair. Since sustaining a terrifying back injury in a collision with the opposition goalkeeper in a NWSL match in late August, Raso has had to learn to walk again after a ‘non-displaced fracture’ of several vertebrae in her back.

The PFA spoke with Hayley this week, as she opens up about the moments after the collision, her strenuous rehab so far and her thoughts on the Thorns’ chances for the NWSL Championship…

What went through your head in the moments after the collision?

HR: All I remember was that I was running toward goal, my eyes purely focused on the ball in the air. At that exact moment, I felt something hit me from behind and an excruciating amount of pain in my back, that ran through my entire body. I don’t know who was around me at the time, but I cried for ‘help’ over and over again. Once the medical team arrived on the field, I was asked numerous questions about ‘where the pain was’, ‘if I could feel my legs’, ‘could I wiggle my toes’. I couldn’t answer any of the questions. I was in shock, I was in agonizing pain, and I just knew that something really bad had happened.

How quickly did you understand it was quite a serious injury?

HR: I knew almost immediately that I wasn’t okay, but I don’t think I could have ever prepared myself to hear the words ‘the bad news is, you’ve broken your back’. I learnt that I had completely fractured three of my lumbar vertebrae. My first thought was – I’ll never be able to walk again. I broke down. So many emotions came over me. All I could think about was, how am I going to live my life like this.

What were the first 24 hrs after the injury like?

HR: The first 24 hours were some of the worst moments of my life. I was stretchered off the field and carted back to the locker room. From the stadium I was taken to hospital in an ambulance, where I was sent for CT scans and continually monitored by nurses, doctors and neurosurgeons. For me personally, I know I have a high pain threshold and I am usually very brave in these situations, but for the first time I actually felt helpless. This injury was the worst pain I have ever felt in my entire life, and nothing would make it go away.

What has the rehabilitation been like so far?

HR: It’s been tough. I have good days and bad days. It’s been extremely challenging, not only physically, but mentally. It all started when my team flew back to Portland the following day, and I had to stay in hospital in DC. After two weeks there, I was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital where I stayed until I was well enough to return to Portland. I usually set big goals for myself, but this injury made rolling over, sitting up or taking a step, a huge achievement for me. As the days went by, I worked with physical and occupational therapists, to slowly take more steps in my recovery process.

What support have you received?

HR: My club, the PFA and the Matildas have been very supportive throughout this injury. My coach stayed with me until 4am the night of the incident, and my athletic trainer stayed back in DC with me for a week, where she sat with me everyday, helping out with anything I needed. The PFA and the Australian National team reached out to me the day after this all happened and have continually checked on since. They offered any help they could give, and even though I’m overseas, I’ve felt extremely supported with everything, including problems I’ve encountered along the way. As for the NWSL, I think measures need to be put in place to adequately treat and transport any player with a suspected spinal cord injury, to minimise the pain and further risk of injury that I experienced.

How about your family – have they flown over to be with you?

HR: My Dad was actually visiting the US and was at the game watching when I was injured. He was brought down from the stands into the locker room, and stayed with me the first night in hospital. It was such a traumatic experience, so I am very lucky that I had somebody from my family there with me on that first night. As for my Mum, she was watching the game live in Australia, and as she heard the news of what happened, she immediately booked a flight over to be with me. She arrived a couple of days later, has been with me ever since, and is staying with me until we can fly back home to Australia. I am extremely grateful I have her here to hold my hand and be by my side throughout this. I lost all of my independence, so she has showered me, dressed me, and done absolutely everything imaginable for me, while I’ve been unable.

The reaction from the fans seems amazing in Portland, including the crowd Face-Timing you during a match. What has that meant to you? 

HR: The reaction from the whole of the Portland Thorns fans base has been so special. I wish I was able to personally thank every single person for their support, because the love I received really helped me through this struggle. I wasn’t able to make it out of hospital to be in Portland for the game, but that didn’t stop me from staying up to watch the game live on TV from my hospital bed. I was so proud of the girls, and so happy they won. My coach then Face-Timed me, where I was taken up onto the stage with the team. Hearing the whole crowd chant my name was indescribable, I felt like I was really there in that moment. It made me set a new goal for myself – to progress my rehabilitation enough to be discharged and able to fly back to Portland in time for the semi-final game.

Was it a bittersweet moment watching your team qualify for the championship while being on the sidelines?

HR: I achieved my goal and I was able to be back in Portland for the semi-final game. I wasn’t expecting such a warm welcome, but it made me feel so much love, not only from the team, but all of the fans too. I don’t know if they understand how truly special it really made me feel. To make things even better, my team won and I got to celebrate down on the field with them after the game. It was a bittersweet moment for me, because I so badly wanted to be out there playing in such a big game. Although it’s been tough, I am trying to give my team as much positive energy as I can from the sidelines.

What’s next in terms of rehab for you?

HR: I am currently completing my rehabilitation in Portland with physical therapists, where they are trying to get my muscles working again. I continually set small goals for myself, and it feels great to be able to tick these off. I am able to move around with a walker, and as each day goes by, I manage to walk just a little bit further. I will be back in Australia next week, where I will meet with Neurosurgeons and continue my rehabilitation with physiotherapists. As much as this is such a terrible injury, I am lucky my spinal cord was not damaged, meaning I’ll be back to doing the things I love again.

What are your plans for the NWSL championship? 

HR: I’ll be at Providence Park on the day of the Championship game ready to support my team. I feel like they have made it this far for a reason, and I know they can win the NWSL title again. It doesn’t matter what happens on the day, I’ll be cheering, supporting and helping the girls as much as I can. I really hope they cherish and enjoy these moments, because the Championship game is the reason we play all season long. These games will be remembered forever and I hope each and every player out there knows just how lucky they are to be playing the sport they love.

What does it mean for your W-League season and the Matildas?

HR: Unfortunately, I will be taking some time off to recover from this, but I plan to be back training and hopefully playing again in a few months time. I will not be able to travel to Europe with the Matildas and I will also miss the games we are hosting in Australia later in the year, but I have my sights set on the World Cup in France next year, and I know I can achieve that. As for W-League, I will only miss some games at the start of the season, so it’s exciting to look forward to making my comeback at home in front of my friends and family.

You also missed some time out of the game recovering from a knee injury – is there some frustration that this new injury has come when you returned from the previous injury?

HR: I was injured toward the end of the W-League season, but I managed to come back just in time for the Asian Cup. I was so disappointed to tear my LCL during that tournament, meaning I was side-lined again for 8 weeks. Missing games with the National team and the Portland Thorns was really challenging for me. So you can imagine how happy I was to be back playing again after missing half the year. When I found out the news of my broken back, I just thought ‘why me?’. I couldn’t believe that this was happening all over again. I think 2018 just wasn’t meant to be my year.

What are your objectives once you’re fit again?

HR: My plan at the moment is just to take things slow and as they come. This injury has been extremely traumatic and I think it’s going to take some time for me to recover from that. After playing for a number of years non-stop, my body will appreciate this break its being given. I am determined to come back stronger and fitter than ever and I know I can do that. My long term goals for the next two years are to make the World Cup and Olympic squads, and to consistently play major minutes at these tournaments. I won’t stop until I’ve achieved that.

What will keep you motivated through this tough period?

HR: Going through this injury has really tested my character and changed my perspective on life. I am so lucky to be okay, to walk again, to play soccer again and to do the things I love again. I have always been motivated to play hard, to win, to exceed expectations and to prove people wrong. I want to continue doing that. I want show everyone that I’ll be back better than ever. I am lucky, I am fortunate and I am blessed. That’s what keeps me going.