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'It was completely torn, ruptured, gone... but I would have regretted it if I hadn't tried it'

A devastating cruciate injury denied Nicole Owens the chance to play in Dublin’s recent All-Ireland final win – but she didn’t go down without a fight.

Updated Wed 9:57 PM

NICOLE OWENS DOESN’T have to look too far for inspiration. An old team-mate, whose name is on everyone’s lips at the moment, is one of a few.

Trinity Sport_02 Dublin All-Ireland winner and Trinity Sport ambassador Nicole Owens. Source: Cathal Noonan

Last night, Ireland striker Rianna Jarrett lit up Tallaght Stadium, scoring her first international goal in an inspiring performance as the Girls in Green picked up an important Euro 2021 win. It’s hard to believe that she suffered three devastating cruciate injuries in the space of five years before she turned 22.

25 now and with no shortage of setbacks since, she’s defied all odds.

This afternoon, three-in-a-row Dublin All-Ireland winner Owens sat in a boardroom at her alma mater, Trinity College, detailing her current struggles with the dreaded knee injury. In casual conversation beforehand, Ireland’s victory arose and with that came talk of Jarrett’s excellence. The pair played together for Ireland at underage level, Owens pointed out. 

She balanced the soccer with her beloved Gaelic football until her late teens, and was involved with the Ireland U17s at the same time as the likes of Jarrett, Megan Campbell and Denise O’Sullivan. 

To see the prolific Wexford Youths star do her thing on the biggest stage last night surely gave Owens hope. It’s not just now though, the St Sylvester’s woman saw her as an example from early days. 

“I remember those few days of… mourning is probably a bit dramatic, but it kind of was because I was mourning the rest of my year almost,” Owens, who suffered the initial blow in late July but battled back to start in the All-Ireland semi-final, said.

“I was looking up everything about ACLs and ended up on an article about Rianna doing the three. Having done hers for the final time, she was kind of saying, ‘Well I know I can do this, I’ve done it twice before.’ That is astounding to me.

“But also, it’s great to see someone that has come back and yeah, it’s happened again but they’ve managed to come back and still play at such a high level.”

*** 

“Initially it was just bizarre,” are Owens’ first words when she opens up on the difficult end to her 2019 inter-county season.”Cruciates, people are doing them all the time but you never think it’s going to happen to you.”

nicole-owens On the ball in Croke Park during the league. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

To map the entire journey, and get a sense of just how tough it’s been, one must go back to Dublin’s All-Ireland championship group stage clash against Monaghan at Parnell Park on 27 July.

The warm-up was coming to a close, the back-to-back champions ready to turn on the style in the race for the Brendan Martin Cup and Owens preparing for another typically brilliant attacking performance.

Into a quick one-on-one she went, to get her fired up before throw-in, however uncharacteristic it was as she’d normally just take shots on goal to ease herself in.

30 seconds before the match, she reckons, and that was it.

She knew she was badly injured, but didn’t know the full extent. Perhaps she was hoping for the best, but Owens didn’t realise the gut-wrenching damage inflicted at the time: the dreaded cruciate curse. Fully torn, completely ruptured.

“The classic thing is you hear a pop and especially with a complete rupture, you would expect a pop,” she reflects. “Maybe there was one, but I didn’t hear it. I was kind of clinging on to that.

“When I got up, I was able to run forwards and backwards and it felt okay, but then the medical team were like, ‘Do a single leg squat and I was like, ‘I can’t do that.’

“The other thing that made me think it was something serious was that I never felt that before, ever. That sensation, I never had it before and hope I never have it again in that my knee went completely the wrong way and just was gone.

“It was the most bizarre sensation, because it was against what your body is meant to do in general. I had an indication. I’ve never wished more for like cartilage damage or meniscus, because that is shorter recovery time. But, yeah…”

The days that followed were filled with uncertainty, and more than likely, refusal to accept. But she was faced with no other choice when a scan confirmed the greatest fear of many athletes. 

rianna-jarrett-celebrates-scoring-her-sides-second-goal Rianna Jarrett (12) celebrates scoring Ireland's second goal last night. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“When I got the MRI result I was just in shock,” the 26-year-old remembers. “The first few days were really tough, mentally.”

Question after question, scouring the internet for articles like the one she read on Jarrett and other information to educate herself on the injury that’s become more and more prevalent among females; wider hips and menstrual cycles among the things that increase risk factors.

“There were so many things I was trying to look at,” she continues. “I was wearing blades, which is another of the things they say.

“But then again, I’ve done that exact same movement probably hundreds of times in my life. It is one of those things. I don’t know if I was tired or fatigued, you never know.”

That one-on-one was what she couldn’t stop thinking off.

“That was the thing I had to let go of. For the first few days, I was like, ‘Why did I do that? I never do that, and then it happened’. But you can’t control it. If I hadn’t done that, I could have done it two minutes into the match. There’s no way of knowing, unfortunately.”

A severed cruciate, however, didn’t stop her insane efforts to return for the business end of the summer.

There were rumours before the All-Ireland semi-final that Owens had been struck down, and many in Croke Park that day were surprised to hear her announced as a late change to Mick Bohan’s starting team. Wearing the number 29 jersey, with heavy strapping on her right knee, she rolled the dice.

A partial tear was assumed at the time, but no, the full ligament was gone.

“It was completely torn, ruptured, gone,” Owens assures. “It was floating around in there somewhere.”

“Because it was just the ACL that was gone, it was possible to compensate,” she explains, “a very, very small chance. The surgeons were all like, ‘No’, and then all the physios were like, ‘Well, this can actually be done.’

nicole-owens-signs-a-jersey Signing a young fan's jersey after last year's All-Ireland final win. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“I figured I’d have to wait a month for the surgery anyway and I’d have to do a lot of prehab work so I figured, ‘Well, let’s start doing the work and see where we can get to.

“I responded really well, I was back jumping, hopping. Anita [O'Brien], our physio was like, ‘This is really, really, good’. I was in Santry with the team there and their experts on ACLs, I passed all the tests, did a few trainings before the match.

35 individual sessions completed across four weeks or so too, Owens basically put her life on hold as attempted to follow in the footsteps of several others: Michael Darragh MacAuley is among the Dublin players — he still doesn’t have a cruciate, she says — some Monaghan footballers, and of course one of her old foes from the Rebel county.

“I know Ciara O’Sullivan did it six or seven years ago, but I think the All-Ireland final got pushed back because of the hurling replay so she kind of got an extra week or two, even that might have made the difference.

“But sure, it mightn’t have, you’ll never know, but I think I would have regretted it if I hadn’t tried it. There was a slim possibility.”

“For the main building block anyway, before it kind of tapered down towards the game, it was like two sessions a day,” she adds. “I kind of felt that if I was going to try it, there was no point in half-assing it and saying, ‘You know what, I wish I’d done that’.

“I knew it was for a finite amount of time, for those three-and-a-half weeks. I kind of just got my head down and just pushed through it. I showed myself that I can do it, and knowing that I was able to do that, even for just that month, kind of helps now going into a longer rehab time.”

Her involvement lasted just four minutes against Cork on 25 August. 

Her knee buckled, and the curtain came down on her afternoon — and her 2019. One thing Owens can find peace with though, is she had no regrets.

“I kind of done everything and then I was just unlucky with whatever way my foot landed, it was kind of on top of someone else’s foot, so it was just elevated.

nicole-owens-suffers-an-early-injury Being helped off the field in Croke Park. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“The knee was already at a risk and someone came through the back of me, it was a very unnatural hit and probably if I’d got it and hadn’t had an injury I could have tweaked something. It was just unfortunate.”

In typical it’s about the team, not me fashion, Owens continues: “I didn’t want it to be disruptive for the rest of the team, but having to use a sub after three minutes wasn’t ideal. Thankfully, we really upped our game, especially towards the end of the match and luckily, I didn’t effect it.”

From there, the acceptance was more straightforward with surgery on the horizon. She  went under the knife a few days later while the rest of her team-mates were enjoying All-Ireland final preparations. 

Thankfully, surgery was a success, though she felt the effects for some time after — “The anesthetic absolutely knocked me out,” she giggles now, “I was comatosed for the first week anyway” — but it wasn’t just physically testing.

‘Really odd,” Owens, who finished studying in Trinity in 2015 and won the Giles Cup under new Wicklow manager Davy Burke there, says of her relationship with football then.

“I was trying to stay as involved as possible, do whatever I could and have whatever positive effect I could but obviously in the past, the effect I’ve tried to bring has been on the pitch so not being on the pitch is a bit different.

“Being in meetings and knowing I wasn’t going to be involved, watching videos that are put together for us and not being part of that, I found really, really tough because I love the team so much and want to contribute to the team so much. Not being able to in the way that I’m used to was really tough. 

“Obviously, we’re a team for a reason. Injuries happen, the next person steps up and that’s what we’ve always sort of said is so important in our team; that we don’t have one individual who is carrying the team or is necessary for the team to function.”

That showed, she says, as they reached the Holy Grail yet again and made it three-in-a-row.

However difficult it was for Owens, watching from the stand on the biggest day of the ladies football calendar.

nicole-owens-after-the-game Smiling on All-Ireland final day. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“It was really weird because obviously I was sitting on the subs bench,” she nods. “All-Ireland final day, it’s a bizarre thing.

“I’ve been lucky enough that it was my sixth All-Ireland final in-a-row but like, I wasn’t involved in this one so I kind of felt like a bit of a spectator. Watching it was frustrating because I know we can be a lot better.

“You can say the conditions didn’t help, it being horrendous weather and the rain coming down on the pitch — it was like watching Olympic skating at some points, there were people sliding all over the gaff. But yeah, we got there in the end.”

And get there in the end, she will too. Like so many who have before her.

Owens, who speaks glowingly of her place of work, Storyful, and their support and accommodation, tells of conversations she’s had with previously injured team-mates Hannah Leahy, Rebecca McDonnell and Oonagh Whyte (who has done both knees).

“It’s been great, just talking to them. It was good to get a kind of an idea of when I can expect…. because ideally I’ll be back running after three months, about 12 weeks, and I know Becks was so it’s like, ‘Okay, she was okay then.

“I know each person is an individual but that is a good goal to set. I suppose it’s just more to remove the time-based ones, and just hit each little step along the way.”

“Mick has been brilliant too,”He understands the mental side of the injury as well. Keeping me involved, he has been so supportive, the whole team has been. We win together, we lose together.

“The team goes through all sorts of ups and downs together. That helps me realise this is just a blip in the road. It’s sport, you just have to take the downs with the ups.”

Like with everything else in life, her family have been a major support too, and it’s safe to say that all things considered, Owens is in a good place and upbeat about her recovery to date.

Trinity Sport_05 Owens in Trinity today. Source: Cathal Noonan

With a return date in mind, while fully understanding the in-or-around nine-month return-to-play period, running is her next big goal.

“Once the surgery is done it’s really all moving towards getting back towards playing, so now that’s kind of done at least I feel I’m building towards something,” she smiles.

“I can now swim and run in a pool which is a little step towards that. I’m kind of doing everything I can, I’m trying some things that have worked for other people.

“It’s unfortunate but it’s a very well studied injury. I know multiple people who have come back and been flying. I know my Mom said to me about Jack McCaffrey; Jack came back and won Man of the Match in the final and was nominated for Footballer of the Year after he did his cruciate.

“Knowing that people come back as strong, especially nowadays… I’m trying to just look at it now as a challenge, see how much I can push myself and test the resilience that sport has built up in me in general.”

***

Dublin Ladies player and Trinity Alumna Nicole Owens was today announced as a brand ambassador for Trinity Sport to recognise her achievements as part of the three-time Ladies Football All-Ireland Senior Champions Team

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Emma Duffy

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