Plenty of players have come back from ACL injuries, but Holli Wheeler’s return from injury was far from conventional.
The mental and physical questions after having not played for more than 12 months can be expected on game day.
What can’t be is the series of events leading up to game day and the hurdles each player has to overcome to get back on the field.
Here's how Wheeler’s week went.
After rupturing her ACL at the NRL Nines at Perth in February 2020, the Jillaroos second-rower sets her sights on getting back on the field.
For months, Wheeler had been dreaming about pulling on that jersey and the lead-up to her first game.
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That day came against the Central Coast Roosters last Saturday.
In the week leading up to selection, Wheeler rolled her ankle at training. What is a fairly innocuous injury, was worrying for Wheeler who is a little bit
“All I could think about was that I had rolled my ankle in the week leading up
to the 9s,” said Wheeler.
“This is déjà vu. “Could anything else go wrong?
“All those thoughts creep into your head and I just had to choose to focus on
the positives and make sure I got through the rest of the trainings.”
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And she did. Wheeler made it to game day. But the unconventional moments continued.
During warm-up there were a couple of distractions. Wheeler forgot how hot
it could be in Sydney during March. The heat was intoxicating.
She also went to put her mouthguard in, something she has done over and
over before, but the moment she did, she started gagging. It was nerves.
“If you look at the walk-out video from the weekend you can see me in the
corner just struggling,” said Wheeler.
“I feel like I spent the first 10 minutes of the game trying to hold down vomit. I
have never been so nervous.”
Fortunately for Wheeler, Stowers was her left-side centre and could keep
checking on her and reminding her of how important this opportunity was.
Even though Wheeler made an early error and remembers going backwards
in some of her early hit-ups, it took about 10 minutes for her to get back into
the game and to remember why she loves playing so much.
Whilst Wheeler can be credited for her incredible resilience and commitment
to rehab, she is also grateful for the support of those around her, including
Stowers and her family, who she says are very close knit.
In fact, her family drove down from Old Bar on the weekend to cheer
Wheeler on in her return match.
Then there are her Bears teammates, who have put up with her extra
enthusiasm at training while she couldn’t be on the field. Wheeler jokes that
she drove the squad crazy, because she was so excited about every
"They were crazy with their support and it meant a lot to me."
While Wheeler can laugh about those first 10 minutes now and the
challenges of that week, it did demonstrate to her how much she has
Rehabbing such a serious injury has meant Wheeler has faced plenty of
challenges. Plenty of opportunities to ask "why me?".
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The time away her a chance to develop skills in determination, resilience and
"My attitude has a lot to do with a positive mindset," said Wheeler.
"Two years ago, I don’t know how I would have handled the rehab. I would
have kicked up a stink at the smallest setback."
During her 12 months of rehabilitation, Wheeler remained connected to the
footy community through coaching. She had the chance to coach junior footy at the Bears and then the Dragons during the NRLW season.
While coaching might be the next big opportunity for women in the game,
Wheeler hopes that if she chooses that path, it is many years away.
"I still just want to be out on the field, running around," she said. "But there are some incredible women that I think are close to taking that step – like Ali Brigginshaw and Ruan Sims.
"They have the capacity and knowledge to do that. The sky is the limit and we are just going to keep knocking on the door as women and changing the paths set for us. We will go our own way and continue to grow."
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The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.