It was a foggy night at Jordan Field in early May. The Boston Breakers were playing the Chicago Red Stars, and their young second goalkeeper Abby Smith was in just her second game of the season and making a case for moving up from second to first.
Smith was drafted in the third round of the 2016 college draft, #27 overall, and she had already had a pretty good showing in holding Portland to 1-0 the game before. She was looking strong against Chicago too, until the 29’ when she came out of the goal on a long Chicago ball forward and something went critically wrong with her knee.
It was one of those freak non-contact injuries you hear about in soccer - someone plants a leg wrong or twists a certain way, and they’re done. Smith suffered a torn patellar tendon, which meant a half-year recovery and the end of her first pro season after 122 minutes.
I caught up with Smith at the end of the season. She was at practice even though she was physically unable to be on the field; that was typical of Smith, who was also often at Breakers games, crutching around on the sidelines and yelling encouragement. She could have gone home, but Smith had a lot of good reasons to stay.
“I had my surgery up here,” she said. “I thought it would be beneficial to stay around the team. Since we’re in season still, because it happened so early on I would have missed this whole season, so going home wouldn’t have really kept me in tune with the team.... I think that was pretty key with my decision to stay here, and I can do rehab here. So by the time that I go home it’ll be in the transitional stage where I’m actually able to start building.... These first couple months were just me being able to get my range of motion back, getting the swelling down, fine-tuning a couple things.”
Home means Texas, where Smith will now return in the offseason. Her parents are there, as well as her fiance. “He’s in San Antonio,” she said. “It’s close to Austin so I’m going to be able to train with the coaches that I worked with in the offseason before, right after college season.... That’ll be home in the offseason. I can get healthy, get the wedding going.”
Being with the team was good for Smith. Of course she was surrounded by people who were on the pitch where she wanted to be but couldn’t go, but that didn’t really factor in for her. “It’s one of those things where if you isolate yourself in an injury like this, it doesn’t do anything for you,” she said. “This is my first major injury like this. I think it’s been beneficial just to stay in this environment and just to stay involved.”
That mental aspect is important for anyone facing an injury with such a long recovery time, but especially for a pro athlete used to the constant grinding and honing to physical peak. “Being injured is not a fun situation and I wouldn't ever wish that upon anybody,” said Smith. “It really just depends on the people that you’re around too. There’s only so much that you can do mentally. You can prepare yourself but you’re going to be thrown through hoops. But once you realize if you can get through just the smallest setback, then it gets easier to get through them because if you’ve done it before then obviously you still have to do it again, but it’s getting there. I would say mentally everybody has their ups and down days even when you are healthy. You may tweak something and it may be great one day but not so great the other day. It’s the same with this. I have awesome days and I don’t have awesome days but it’s going one day at a time.”
So you’re a professional athlete who’s suddenly gone from being match fit to not having a functioning leg. Many pro athletes, simply by the very nature of becoming pro athletes, define themselves by their abilities. How does that affect you, to not be able to do something that you used to do every day? Does it have a mental impact? “I think at first [it did] because I was so used to working out every day and being out on the field and doing things that were physically taxing,” said Smith. “And once this happened I was still tired just because my body was recovering but you have to find the things that fill up your day and make you feel like you’re doing something. But it has to be progressive. You can’t just throw yourself into something and expect your life to go back to normal. Just because it doesn’t. But at the same time, once you find that something and it helps you mentally, because once you’re able to get through that mental stage it helps you in the long run.”
One of the things helping Smith occupy her time is work. “I started working just to keep me on my feet and keep me moving so that’s been nice. I also train. Go to spin classes and I’ll go to low impact classes that keep me active. It’s very different from being on the field but I have to find something that I can feel like I’m still working towards being back on the field. I feel like those are pretty beneficial because I have to get my body back in balance.”
Another thing that helps is getting her master’s degree through UT Permian Basin, taking online courses that let her stay in Boston and work with her rehab and work schedule. “I started my masters August 24,” said Smith. “It’s under kinesiology. It’s teaching, coaching, and administration, so I hit all three aspects. Business, the teaching side, working with people and working with kids, and the coaching aspect, which is more of running, exercise, physiology.”
Smith is now five months into her recovery. She has range of motion back and is ready for the next step. “To get my muscle back in my right leg,” she said, “Because that’s the biggest thing that we’re working on right now...it’s just building the muscle...mentally preparing for next season. Taking it one day at a time. I feel like getting back in shape will be one of the things I want to work on in the offseason but I’m not going to rush it and overdo it in the offseason just so I [can be] like gung-ho on the first day. I’m in it for the long run, not the short run.”
Smith sounded as confident about next season as anyone could while rehabbing a major injury. Head coach Matt Beard has made it clear Smith will be back next season too. But having only played one full game early in the 2016 season before her injury, Smith described 2017 as a mix of being physically new but mentally adjusted to being on the Breakers roster. “I feel like physically I’ll be on the rookie level because I’ll have been out - it was May - so about 10 months. So coming back will be just like going into rookie season, but at the same time I’ve been through the mental aspect of things. I’ve been through a hardship, I’ve been through a season. Even though I’ve not been able to be on the field every step of the way, I’ve been supporting on the sideline. Mentally I’m past being a rookie.”
Still, even with only 122 minutes under her belt, Smith’s good work there combined with her college career has already gotten her national notice, and she’s often included on lists of young GKs who deserve to get a look from national team coach Jill Ellis. Smith was flattered but pragmatic about the attention. “I think [the national team is] obviously my goal, but right now with my knee, I’m trying to take it one step at a time because if I were to only focus on that I would be putting a significant amount of pressure on myself. I don’t want to be in a situation where I have that pressure and then I’m not able to live up to it.... One step at a time instead of taking four steps and then I’m going to have to backtrack because I didn’t do the right things.”
If Smith had to be injured so badly, at least it came at the best possible time. There’s no rush to get fit ahead of a major tournament right now. The two major women’s tournaments have come and gone and everyone has summer of 2019 marked on their calendars.
“Obviously there’s nothing awesome about getting injured,” said Smith. “It sucks altogether. But I would say that with the long run, it’s kind of beneficial because I’m able to fine tune the things that I didn’t know, that I wasn’t aware of my body giving me cues. I think that’s where my mindset is. Getting my body back in balance, finding what works for me on and off the field. Making sure I get into a routine of doing the right things. That’s the goal and that’s what I’m shooting for.”
For Smith, of course it would be nice to see her name on that 2019 roster. But it’s still 2016, and she’s staying firmly planted in the now. “You can’t really focus on [the national team] only because if you’re focusing something else other than getting your body and the right mentality in balance, then you’re not giving yourself the full potential.... I think it’s awesome that I’m getting the opportunity to come back and play...I couldn’t appreciate it more. It’s also kind of like a motivator for me to make sure that I’m doing the right things and making sure that everything's in the right order.”