Perspectives: Havana Solaun’s Road to France

April 4, 2015, 7 p.m., Seattle Reign versus University of Washington

Flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is defined in positive psychology as the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. For the first time in almost a year, I had finally found my way back to that zone in my mind.

I ended my junior season at the University of Florida with a torn ACL.

I spent the spring season of my junior year recovering and my senior season trying to find myself in the game again. Typically, ACL recovery time is eight-ish months. Technically that’s true, it’s around that time your surgeon will “clear you.” The truth of it is, it takes much longer before you feel like yourself again. The mental obstacles are just as challenging as the physical ones.

On 2015 NWSL College Draft Day I was selected as the 15th overall pick by the Seattle Reign.

At my first professional practice one of my new teammates asked me, “Why do you always smile so big when you’re playing? What’s so funny?” I was slightly taken back by the comment because it wasn’t something, I was even aware of. But my answer was simple. Once you’ve spent so much time on the sidelines it’s hard not to smile any chance you get to play between the lines.

April 4, 2015 was a perfect night for a game under the lights. Without a doubt, I was smiling from ear to ear. No thoughts were occurring, I was lost in the moments of the game I loved so dearly and was still falling more in love with soccer every day.

People always say, “Appreciate what you have because you never know when it will be gone.” When I used to hear that, I’d say, “Trust me I get it!” Or I thought I did.

One moment I felt like I was on top of the world. I was back. Finally. I just signed my first professional contract. I was living in Seattle, across the country. Most importantly, I was finding my flow state again.

Then, the next moment I found myself lying face down in the corner of the field, just outside the 18-yard box. Pain ripped through my leg and the sounds echoed and replayed through my mind. I tried to rewind to what happened, but it happened too fast. The defender didn’t touch me. It felt like I rolled my ankle, my stream of thoughts unraveled: “This can’t be happening. Okay, maybe you’re fine, this is just another little setback, you’re fine.”

My mind was running one hundred miles an hour as my new teammates leaned over me. I nodded that I needed the trainer to come on.

“Where does it hurt?”

“From my knee down.”

“Okay, but where?” His question caught me off-guard. I ran my hand from the bottom of my left knee down to my ankle.

“Here.”

“Okay, let’s go.” He lifted me up and then took two steps away from me. “Try and walk heel to toe.”

I proceeded to walk 80 yards to our bench. I am not one for a scene or tears, not in front of a crowd anyway, but looking back, some theatrics may have helped.

“We are gonna tape you up and put you back in.”

“Umm, I am in a lot of pain. I am not sure I can go.”

“We are just going to try.” He started fumbling with the tape and asked me to take my cleat off.

“I really don’t think I can go.”

“Where is your pain on a scale of 1–10.”

“9.”

He looked puzzled and disappointed.

“Okay, I guess there’s only two minutes left in the first half anyway.”

I crutched in the next morning in a state of numbness. My pain was unbearable, swelling and bruising had collected around my ankle. Whenever I rotated my ankle in circles I heard an unsettling click.

“We are going to do an ultrasound and massage,” the trainer said.

My body instantly tightened at the thought of him trying to massage my ankle.

“It will be light.” I took off my ace wrap to reveal the fifty shades of blue that looked like watercolor paint over my ankle. The trainer ran his hands down the back of my leg. “Click.”

I closed my eyes but didn’t flinch. He ran his hand down again. “Click.”

“Do you feel that?”

I laughed so that I wouldn’t cry.

“Yes, I feel that.”

“Okay I am going to stop. I’m pretty sure you have a high-ankle sprain, which is typically more painful than a regular ankle sprain. They take about six to eight weeks to heal. We will go to the doctor on Monday to get you fitted for a walking boot and take some scans that the doctors can read over on Monday as well.”

I hobbled out of the training room. It was Saturday morning and I had a day and a half to get through before the doctor. Devastated by the thought of six to eight weeks of not playing, I knew in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that long.

I was laying in my bed letting tears flow when my phone buzzed. One of my new teammates, Keelin Winters, texted to check in on how it was going and what I was doing. I lied and said I was fine, doing well, just hanging out. She proceeded to invite me to spend Easter with her and her in-laws. I was shocked by the invitation and appreciated the distraction. Whether or not she realized it, I needed that escape more than I even knew and am forever grateful for her kindness. It was my calm before the storm.

I climbed onto the table in the doctor’s office trying not to rip the paper, which just never seems possible. The room was darker than most doctors’ offices with no windows. I wasn’t happy about having to be in a walking boot, but things could be worse, right?

X-ray confirming the break in Havana Solaun's leg. (Havana Solaun)

X-ray confirming the break in Havana Solaun’s leg. (Havana Solaun)

The doctor walked in and shook my hand, and the hand of my trainer. He introduced himself and then opened his folder with my scans in it.

“So, it looks like you have a spiral fracture. You will need two surgeries and some hardware.“

I’m not sure what words came out next. All processing stopped. My world froze. If there was a pause button on life, mine was hit. I must have done a poor job showing my shock because he rambled on. I tuned back in, just in time to hear…

“Alright, I will go prep for surgery”

I stared at my trainer. I was speechless. He came over in an attempt to hug me. I held my hands out and stopped him.

“You need to go tell him I am not having surgery today.” He quietly left the room. I called my mom.  I knew it was early for her with the time change, but maybe she would be up early knowing I had my appointment.

It rang once before she picked up.

“Hi!” I could hear the worry in her voice.

“Mom.” It was all I could manage, hearing her voice alone broke the dam that I had been fighting so hard to control. I sat on the doctor’s table alone in the dark room and sobbed.

“Havana, what is it? What did the doctor say?” I heard her voice crack. I didn’t know how to articulate the facts. This could not be happening. I had to be dreaming. It was a high-ankle sprain, right?

I composed myself as much as I could, but every time I attempted to say the words my throat closed. My body refused to let me verbalize and accept the news I had received. I somehow managed to communicate the facts. My mom’s voice showed no sign of concern as she told me that everything would be okay. I’ve always wondered if it’s humanly possible to run out of tears. According to the morning of April 7, 2015, I would say it’s not.

The next two days I was in a daze of pain, both physical and emotional. I broke my leg. Now I would need a plate and seven to nine screws to fix the break. I was looking at a one-year recovery with two surgeries. I was crushed. Why was this happening again? I just had my “comeback.” Would there be anything left when the time came to start all over again? The internal demons of doubt consumed me.

I have learned that life often forces us to hit restart throughout our journeys. I wasn’t prepared to hit restart when I had hardly taken my finger off the play button.

I flew home to Gainesville, Florida, to start over, knowing I wouldn’t be able to do this alone.

In business, they say you can’t take things personally, which can be difficult when in my business my body is the vehicle that produces my work. It’s personal. In injuries sometimes removing yourself is the only way you can manage to put one foot in front of the other (or one crutch).

Logistically, the way my leg had broken the bone had somehow slightly twisted and was no longer lined up. The technical term they used was a “spiral fracture.” The surgeon, the same one who had repaired my ACL a year prior, would put a plate with nine screws in my leg. Two of the screws would go through my tibia and my fibula.

Surgery number two would happen three months later, and they would take out the two longer screws going through the tibia and fibula. I asked what rehab would be like, but it wasn’t as black and white as an ACL recovery. A lot of the answers I was getting started with “Well, it depends.”

My professional soccer career was broken four days after it became real.

The recovery process was long and tedious. I spent months relearning how to walk again. Between surgeries, the only activity I was allowed to do was walk. I spent countless hours walking in circles around soccer fields. In those moments, my mind and body were incapable of visualizing what it would feel like to run.

Between surgery one and two I ran into some complications. The two screws going through my tibia and fibula had broken. I knew the day it had happened, the pain I felt in my leg was different, but I kept my secret to myself. I attempted to push away the idea that I had complicated my recovery more and prolonged my return to play.

My second surgery was supposed to be “four minutes.”

My mom sat in the waiting room anxiously waiting, when the surgeon came out.

“Did something happen between now and when we last evaluated her?“

“What do you mean, what’s wrong?”

“Well, her screws have broken. So instead of simply unscrewing them from the bone we’re going to have to cut the plate and get whatever pieces of screws we can find. Also, the parts of the screws in the bone, we’re going to have to leave in because we would have to core (meaning they would have had to cut the bone around the screw in order to get it out since unscrewing was no longer possible) the bone to get them and that would be too invasive. I thought about taking the whole plate out, but that would also prolong her recovery and I know she is on a time crunch.”

I woke up from anesthesia looking for familiar faces.

Screws from Havana Solaun's leg surgery. (Havana Solaun)

Screws from Havana Solaun’s leg surgery. (Havana Solaun)

The grogginess was consuming my body but I struggled to keep my eyes open long enough to see my mom. She was sitting next to my bed. She smiled at me, but I knew the smile well. Her smile told me all that I needed to know. Something hadn’t exactly gone to plan but she would hold that smile until I believed it to be true.

My mom has always been my mental and emotional rock. In that moment if she had broken down or magnified the truth she would only be adding to my plate. If my mom was able to take this all from me I know that she would have. In those moments when our eyes met, I knew that’s what she was telling me. She knew she couldn’t fight this battle for me, but she would sit there with me through it until I came out on the other side.

I received a small plastic container with the remains of the screws the surgeons had recovered. I was told my four-minute surgery became a four-hour surgery. At that point, I felt as though I had reached a state of numbness that didn’t require any anesthesia.

The road to recovery had only just begun.

In a recent conversation with a friend about the upcoming World Cup in France she asked, “So, where were you for the last World Cup? What were you doing?”

The excitement in her voice made it clear she was ready for a fun story recounting where I had spent my last World Cup and the thrills that come with watching one of the greatest football tournaments in the world.

However, my answer isn’t glamorous. I was sitting on the couch trying to calm the throbbing in my broken ankle. I watched the screen as other soccer players lived their dreams. I couldn’t help but feel that mine were fading away.

On May 26, 2015, I got my cast cut off, and revealed my emaciated leg, which matched the rest of my body.

On May 26, 2019, I found out I would be participating in the 2019 World Cup in France,  representing Jamaica’s Reggae Girlz.

 

The “Road to France” is different for everyone. Individual players are on their own journeys. Some starting days, months, weeks, or years ago. If you asked me what my dream was sitting on that couch four years ago, I may not have had the courage to answer. I may not have been able to admit out loud that playing in a World Cup would be the ultimate dream.

Watching the game I love on the TV screen broke my heart because of the uncertainty of my injury. It wasn’t until I was asked what I was doing for the last World Cup that I fully appreciated and understood the parallels of life.

Summer of 2015 forced me to press pause on my dreams. Summer of 2019, I’m ready to push play again.

 

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