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There Is Life After ACL

When Jenna Richmond tore the ACL in her right knee in January 2008, she lost more than six months of her soccer career. She also lost out on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent the USA at the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand.

Richmond, a physical 5-foot-8 center midfielder, surely would have been named to the U.S. U-17 squad that advanced to the championship game of that tournament, but during the Future Stars tournament in Auckland, New Zealand, she was injured while making a tackle against Germany.

The diagnosis was not confirmed in New Zealand, but she knew something was very wrong after enduring a sleepless night in which she could barely move her leg. She then suffered through a horrible return to the USA which included a 16-hour flight to Los Angeles, a cancelled domestic connection and then finally a red-eye to get home to Virginia.

An MRI confirmed the tear and the fun-loving 16-year-old was facing the first major challenge of her young career.

“I didn’t cry in the office when the doctor told me,” said Richmond. “I was trying to stay strong, but once I got in the car with my parents I broke down. The realization hit me that I was going to be out for a long time and that I was most likely going to miss out on the World Cup.”

Most teenagers who suffer the dreaded ACL tear go through periods of gloominess and Richmond was no different.

“It was hard for someone so young to deal with something like that,” said Richmond. “I never had such a serious injury before. You play soccer every day, travel a lot with your club and national team, and then suddenly you come to the realization that you are not going to do that for a long time so it kind of stinks.”

She describes the day after her surgery as “the worst pain ever” but soon began her thrice-weekly rehabilitation sessions and the fog slowly lifted, revealing a realization that kept her motivated: the 2010 U-20 FIFA Women’s World Cup was on the horizon. She didn’t waste time. She started playing at six months, was back feeling strong at eight and was ready to compete at the highest level in a year.

“After that I started to come to terms with the fact I was going to be all right and if I was just diligent with my exercises that I could come back strong, then it dawned upon me that maybe it happened for a reason,” said Richmond. “Maybe I needed a break? It gave me time to sit back and relax for once because I had been going, going, going all the time.”

As Richmond set her sights on the U-20 Women’s World Cup team (she would get her first U-20 call-up for the first camp of the new cycle in January 2009), she realized she had to go about things a bit differently this time. Call it maturity, call it experience or call it aging, but she realized she wasn’t 16 anymore.

“Honestly, through the whole experience I learned to take care of my body more,” said the 18-year-old, who will attend UCLA as a freshman this fall. “Before that I would do high school, club and national team non-stop and it started to wear me down. Once the injury happened, I realized it was up to me to do the right things for my preparation and fitness. It wasn’t up to anyone else. I had to stay focused and do everything I had to do at all times. I had to put in that effort and it helped me out a lot.”

When Richmond was told during a May training camp in Chula Vista, Calif., earlier this year that she had indeed made the final World Cup roster, she was at first speechless and then appreciative. “I think I just took a deep breath and said ‘thank you.’”

Thank you to the U.S. coaches, her family, her teammates, her doctors and therapists and maybe even to herself, for working so hard to get back and for having the belief to shoot for another World Cup after the first one was pulled out from beneath her cleats.

“When you are young, you just want everything all at once and if it doesn’t happen you can go through emotional highs and lows,” said Richmond. “This time I just took it one step at a time. I knew I needed to get through my first game, my first tackle, and then from there, I was like, ‘all right I got that, what’s next?’ I had to start getting myself back into the zone and to a level where I could compete with these players and make the team.”

So while Richmond never saw New Zealand again, she is seeing Germany and enjoying the ride.

“I think the whole run up to the U-17s, knowing I would probably make the roster, was just so cool,” said Richmond, who has 13 U-20 caps. “This time around, getting this shot to be on this team after I lost out on 2008, I think I’m even more appreciative of the opportunity.”

So for all those girls out there struck down by major injury, Richmond has a message for you.

“Keep your head up and don’t get down on yourself because it will all come together in the end if you put your mind to it,” said Richmond. “People will give you a lot of sympathy and tell you that you are going to be out for so long. Just brush it aside and don’t let other people get you down. Use your support system and know that you control your own destiny.”

After all, the anterior cruciate is just a ligament. The heart is a muscle.