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The Comeback Kid

U.S. defender Rachel Quon kept her eyes on the prize to come back from two major injuries on the same play and make the USA’s 2008 U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup Team.

Rachel Quon planted on her right leg and heard a pop. She then fell hard and heard a crack.

Unless you are eating Rice Krispies, the “pop and crack” is never a good thing.

It was July 8, 2007, and she was training with the U.S. U-16 Girls’ National Team in New Jersey during a scrimmage against Seton Hall University.

A ball was played over her head and she raced back to win it with an attacker in tow. She cleared the ball back over her shoulder, but then landed awkwardly, tearing her ACL. Sadly, it was an all-too-common occurrence among young female soccer players, but what happened next wasn’t.

In perhaps one of the most painful cases of adding insult to injury, or more appropriately injury to injury, Quon hit the artificial surface hard and broke her right collarbone.

“I don’t even know how it all happened,” said Quon, who at 5 feet 2 and one half inches plays bigger than her diminutive frame. “I guess I didn’t use my hands to brace my fall. It was sort of stupid but it all happened so fast. You never really hear of soccer players breaking their collarbones. My friend broke her collarbone, but she fell off a ski lift.”

Crumpled on the ground, Quon was pretty sure she’d hurt her knee, but at that moment it was the burning in her shoulder which was her main concern.

“When I tore my ACL, it was like everything else was zoned out and you could just hear the pop,” she said. “But the most painful part of the whole thing was my collarbone. It hurt so much I couldn’t even feel my knee.”

The doctors put her wing in a sling and told her to keep it still. One month later, when her shoulder was strong enough to walk with crutches, she went under the knife to repair the ACL.

When she emerged from the operating room she had 14 months until the 2008 U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup. More than enough time to recover from the injury, but was it enough to make up for the many training camps she would be missing? Was it enough to catch up on the improvement her U.S. U-16 teammates would be making as they moved to U-17s? Was it enough time to show U.S. head coach Kazbek Tambi that she could make a positive contribution to the World Cup Team?

With much uncertainty, Quon began the long road to recovery, which she admits was about as frustrating as it gets.

“I worked hard and never quit, but it was a tough experience,” said Quon. “Getting the range of motion back was just painful. Mostly I wanted to play, but it seemed like it was always taking too long. At physical therapy, I just wanted to kick a ball or juggle, but I wasn’t allowed to. I got mad at my physical therapist once, but I apologized later.”

She started playing again in March of 2008 and soon after was chatting online with U.S. goalkeeper Alexa Gaul, a club teammate with the Eclipse Select out of Libertyville, Ill.

Gaul typed that her goalkeeper coach had asked her to write down four goals, and that Quon should do it too. So she did.

She put pen to paper and wrote:

1) Get my starting spot back on Eclipse
2) Get asked back to a National Camp
3) Get asked to the World Cup
4) Stay healthy

Number one was accomplished as soon as she was cleared to play full-out. Number two happened in June when she got her first call-up to the U-17s, but then she didn’t get asked to CONCACAF Qualifying in July.

“She’d been in touch with me letting me know that she was healed up and cleared to play, but I actually didn’t invite her right off the bat because from a health perspective,” said Tambi. “I didn’t think it made sense to go from being just cleared straight into a National Team camp.

“I probably wasn’t ready,” said Quon. “Ok, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t really going into tackles and I needed some more time to get my legs under me. Thankfully, I got called back again and I was a bit stronger and fitter.”

Quon did well enough in camps that come September, number three came to fruition as she was named to the Women’s World Cup Team, completing the long journey back from that piece of hard turf at Seton Hall.

Quon has now regained her form and the skillful outside back is one of the USA’s cleanest strikers of the ball while showing composure under pressure well beyond her years. She is also a feisty ball-winner.

“It wasn’t until a month or two after she got cleared that I invited her in and of course she was a bit rusty, but the good stuff started coming right out,” said Tambi. “Her brain, her vision, her knowledge and those parts are obviously there irrespective of how you are physically, and those are the qualities that enabled her to be on the team at the beginning. Those things were clearly showing and warranted her being invited back. Then with each camp she got stronger and stronger until she was all the way back, and even better. It is a great story and she should be proud of the hard work she put in to get herself back here.”

“I do feel like I’ve accomplished a lot and that’s a good feeling,” said Quon. “I felt like I was at the highest point at the National Team camp where I got hurt and then I just kind of fell all the way to the bottom. Then I slowly made my way back up. I had to be patient and I don’t think it’s easy for any teenager.”

As for number four, Quon is feeling healthy and fit, and besides a bump on her collarbone, has no ill effects from that fateful summer day. She has committed to attend Stanford University in the fall and could play a key role on the back line for the USA during the U-17 Women’s World Cup.

“When you are so young, injuries like that may seem like forever, and at times it felt like it,” said Quon. “But if you work hard, and set high goals, you can earn another chance.”