Paige Rachel remembers the game as if she left the field only moments ago. The day still brings tears to her eyes.
Last season, the Owls’ junior captain and her teammates were playing in their first competitive action of the fall — a preseason scrimmage against Lafayette College at Ambler Soccer Field on Aug. 14.
A few minutes into the game, Rachel saw one of her teammates fire a pass to her in the middle of the field. As she received the pass, Rachel tried to trap the ball with her left foot and turn the other way.
But her foot got caught.
In the blink of an eye, Rachel was on the ground, writhing in pain.
“I knew,” she said. “Everyone knows the ACL scream, and I had that initially, but when I went down … I was crying because I knew I tore it.”
It’s an injury Rachel has become all too familiar with throughout her soccer career.
As a sophomore at Central High School in her hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire, Rachel was playing at a tournament with her club team when she leaped into the air for a header and came down awkwardly on her right leg.
“It just popped,” Rachel said. “And I knew something wasn’t right … and I was crying … and everyone was around me.”
Rachel missed her entire sophomore season of soccer at Central after surgery to repair the torn ACL in her right knee. Four years later, she underwent another surgery after her freshman season at Temple to shave down a patch of shredded cartilage on that same knee, sidelining her for spring scrimmages and workouts.
“As a coach, you feel so terrible when one of your players gets hurt,” coach Seamus O’Connor said. “I tried to be strong in front of Paige and the rest of the team, but I cried when I got in my car that evening after the [Lafayette game].”
While her teammates resumed play against Lafayette, graduate extern athletic trainer Erika Johnson escorted Rachel to the training room, where she scheduled an appointment with a doctor. Once the call was made, Johnson drove Rachel back to the field so she could watch the rest of the scrimmage.
Although Rachel had a gut feeling about her injury, the diagnosis didn’t become official until a few days after the game.
“The day Erika took me to the doctor was actually picture day for our team,” Rachel said. “I found out I tore it … and then I had to come back and take my picture.”
Rachel’s teammates, many of whom were at Temple during her second surgery, had trouble processing the news.
“When we found out it was an ACL, there’s just no words,” senior goalkeeper Shauni Kerkhoff said. “It’s like one of those situations where you don’t even know what to say, because it’s just so much, and how can one person go through so much?”
Two weeks later, Rachel underwent her third ACL-related surgery in an approximately five-year span on a Friday morning in the first week of September. By the following Monday, she was in the training room.
Seven days a week, Rachel met with Johnson for at least an hour of rehab each morning, performing a variety of tasks such as weight and balance exercises at Pearson Hall and underwater treadmill workouts at Edberg-Olson Hall.
Kerkhoff witnessed a handful of Rachel’s rehab sessions during the 2014 season, but one in particular has stuck with her.
“She had to do like 60 single leg squats on each leg,” Kerkhoff said. “I’m not even kidding. It was actually 60. I’m sitting there like, I’m so glad I don’t have to do that.”
In addition to her daily workouts with Johnson, Rachel attended every practice and all but one of the team’s 20 regular season games in 2014. Her only absence came on the day of her surgery, a road victory against Rider University.
Johnson had only recently met Rachel when she helped her off the field against Lafayette, but the two became extremely close as they trained together every day.
An especially emotional time for the two came on the road in early October while the Owls were in Dallas, Texas, the night before taking on Southern Methodist in an American Athletic Conference match.
“I’m sitting there videoing her walking and she’s walking back and forth, and then I’d show it to her and she’d do it again,” Johnson said. “We probably sat there for a half hour just practicing walking and by the end of it, both of us were kind of like teary-eyed, and I’m like, ‘You’re doing it!’ and she’s like, ‘I’m doing it!’”
Giving up was never an option for Rachel, who fell in-love with soccer since learning the sport from her father at the age of five.
Although he passed away in January 2008, Rachel still feels a strong connection to her father, whose memory serves as one of her biggest motivating factors in life.
“Even though he’s not here, knowing he went to Temple law school and him being my first soccer coach, he’s always believed in me so … whenever I step on the field, I know he’s watching and I feel his presence,” Rachel said. “That’s a really big driving factor I have.”
O’Connor and the rest of his coaching staff also gave Rachel, who was medically cleared to return on July 8 and will be a senior, motivation for the upcoming season when they scheduled the University of New Hampshire on Sept. 11.
“One of our traditions we have is to play a game in the home state of as many of our players as possible,” O’Connor said. “I had agreed to the game at New Hampshire before Paige got hurt, and it was the perfect motivation for her during the early stages of the recovery, which are really difficult, and I just kept reminding her, ‘Sept. 11, Sept. 11, Sept. 11.’”
Despite not having competed in an official game since the injury, Rachel said she will be ready when she returns to the field.
“I can’t wait for it,” Rachel said. “Just to be able to put on my cleats again, put on my jersey, and walk out with my teammates.
“It’s going to be an emotional day.”
Tom Reifsnyder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tom_reifsnyder