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Heather Mitts

World Cup Dreams almost Hamstrung


It has come down to the wire for U.S. defender Heather Mitts, who has made a Herculean run for a spot on her first Women’s World Cup Team.

Heather Mitts’ “uh-oh” moment came during the USA’s training camp in Florida this February.

But before we explain what caused the consternation, a little history.

Mitts, a veteran right back with 115 games for the United States and two Olympic gold medals, had traveled with the USA to the Four Nations Tournament in China. She played the entire 90 minutes in the first match against Sweden on Jan. 21, but woke up the next day and couldn’t lift her left leg.

Thus started a slow and frustrating slide into injury purgatory, putting serious doubt in Mitts’ chances of fulfilling her World Cup dreams.

With the hamstring still not healed, Mitts came to the USA’s training camp in February, but did not put on her cleats once, instead doing rehabilitation and riding the bike. When the hamstring still didn’t respond, she got an MRI.

The diagnosis was not good: a partially torn hamstring.

She was told by team medical staff the injury could possibly require a three-to-fourth month recovery. Of course, she immediately did some very quick mental math.

“It’s February.”
“The World Cup Team will likely be named in May.”
“We seem to be at least a month short here.”

“Uh-oh.”

Despite contributing to the Olympic gold medal runs in Greece and China, Mitts has never been in a Women’s World Cup. She was on the outskirts of the player pool in 2003, but a broken leg suffered in the WUSA ended any slim chance of her competing for a spot in that World Cup.

She surely would have been a key player in 2007 in China, but tore her ACL in May before the Women’s World Cup in September

“I was wondering if it was a ‘here we go again’ moment,” said Mitts, looking back to that diagnosis in February. “I really thought I might have a World Cup jinx.”

Mitts, though, is what is known as an over-achiever. She earned four caps in her first four years in the WNT player pool, but never stopped her charge to become a WNT regular. Now at 32, and wanting to start a family sooner rather than later with her husband AJ Feeley, a quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, this was probably going to be her last chance to experience soccer’s ultimate stage.

So she wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

She knew it wasn’t in the cards to play at the Algarve Cup in Portugal in early March, but was hoping to be ready for the trip to England in late March. Prior to the trip to London she was to undergo a fitness test in Atlanta, where she plays for the Beat in WPS, but it soon became clear that she just wouldn’t be ready.

She called U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage in Portugal and had a difficult conversation. She would have to skip the England trip and hopefully be ready for the USA’s last extended domestic camp, a three-week event in West Palm Beach, Fla.

“I was concerned and nervous when I talked to Pia,” said Mitts. “I just didn’t feel like I wasn’t getting any better. It was definitely a low point and I was freaking out. It was the most frustrating and depressing time, but at the same time, there was only so much I could do, and I did whatever I could to come to camp healthy and give myself a chance to make the World Cup Team.”

She then went about doing everything humanly possible to turn that three-to-four months into six weeks. “Six very long weeks,” said Mitts.

Remember what we said about the over-achieving? Take a gander at this:

She went to rehabilitation five days of week.

She underwent platelet rich plasma therapy (PRP), a procedure in which her blood is extracted, then put in a centrifuge to separate the red blood cells, which are injected back into the affected area to promote healing. The needle is big, the procedure can be painful.

She did active release, a type of intense point-specific massage.

She got general sports massages. A lot of them.

She got Pulsed Electro Magnetic Field Therapy (PEMF), which influences cell behavior by inducing electrical changes around and within the cell. It is supposed to improved blood supply and increase the oxygen pressure, activating and regenerating cells.

She underwent K-Laser Class IV Infrared Laser Therapy, which uses specific wavelengths of light (red and near infrared) to create therapeutic effects such as improved healing time, pain reduction, increased circulation and decreased swelling.

She started a program of active stretching designed to lengthen and strengthen the muscles, making her more flexible and less susceptible to injury.

To keep her fitness up without being able to run, she did hours on the elliptical machine and she swam, and swam, and swam some more. Mitts doesn’t like swimming, but she did approximate distance of the English channel several times, much of it on a SpongeBob Squarepants kickboard as she couldn’t stroke due to a shoulder injury.

She also did tethered running in the pool, basically sprinting against resistance and in water. Try that once and see how long you last.

To top it all off, she slept in hyperbaric chamber five nights a week, which basically kept her in a highly oxygenated atmosphere during the night to promote healing and recovery.

“My husband was really supportive, but I was home for three weeks in San Diego with him for the first time in forever, and I barely saw him,” said Mitts, who spent her days doing rehab and most of her nights, well, in the hyperbaric chamber. At 6 feet, 3 inches and 220 pounds, it would be tough for Feely to fit into the cocoon shaped contraption.

The work paid off and she started to feel better and get her fitness back. By the time she got to U.S. WNT camp in Florida, and after a careful pre-season in Atlanta, she was ready to go.

“I feel amazing and I have a new routine that I follow every day,” said Mitts. “I need to continue to take care of my body and make sure I don’t have any setbacks, but I’ve stepped up the level of my professionalism. I wear compression tights, make sure to take ice baths, get my hips checked to make sure I’m in alignment. You name it and I’m still doing it.”

Ironically, Mitts feels it was her over-achieving that led to her getting injured as she perhaps hit the weights too hard and too heavy (see the above-mentioned shoulder injury) during the end of 2010 in an attempt to get stronger and faster. But if it was her work ethic that got herself into this fine mess, it also got her out.

As she finishes up a quality camp in West Palm Beach, and 100 percent healthy for the first time in months, Mitts is in good shape to earn a coveted roster spot for Germany.

“Making the World Cup team already would mean so much to me,” said Mitts, “but knowing everything I did to get to this point would make it so much sweeter.”

Wonder how the customs agents in Germany would feel about bringing in a hyperbaric chamber?

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