Senior Shealeigh Crombie spoke at a recent assembly about coming to terms with the damage caused by a sports injury, and how those instances aren't always a setback, they can also be opportunities to create something new and beautiful. (Click below to hear her speak, or continue down the page to read the transcript.)
You probably noticed me a little while ago walking around with crutches for like two months or wearing a really cool looking knee brace, and I have gotten a lot of questions so I thought I would share my story and hopefully share a few things that I have learned along the way.
In a way, my story is a lot like anybody else’s. You all know what it’s like to have something you love that has become a part of you. Soccer has always been something I love, something that I can always depend on and something that has connected me with some of my favorite people to this day. Many of my fondest memories are connected to soccer; from orange slices and baggy reversible jerseys to traveling all around the country with my teammates today, I can definitely say that soccer has always been a key part of my life -- it’s an escape, a paradise, a home.
I can still vividly remember the day I first got hurt when I was a freshman. I remember the game we were playing in Maryland, and the way the ominous rain clouds painted shadows over the turf, and the sharp feeling of the brisk wind on my face. I remember the push, the crack, the fall. But most of all I remember the feeling, one that I hope none of you ever feel. And I remember the overwhelming sense that I knew something that I couldn’t know, that somehow this must be a mistake and must not actually be happening.
So when I eventually heard the doctor say that I tore my ACL, MCL, and meniscus, you could say that I was devastated. I felt like a part of me that I had always counted on had been stolen from me, torn away as I hit the rain-soaked turf that day. I felt betrayed -- that despite all of my hard work, despite all of the time I took to exercise and eat properly, that this could happen to me. I felt powerless.
But I like to consider myself a pretty positive person, so I would like to point out that the one thing I never felt was alone. I can’t even begin to describe how much all of the support I got from my friends, my teammates, and all the people around me meant to me. The texts, the hugs, the random visits and concerned questions all showed me that even though none of them really knew what I was going through, they were there for me and would help me get back to the things I loved. And after the initial shock of it all wore off, I began to see that they were right; this was just a thing that wasn’t ideal, sure, but would only make me stronger in the end.
So if you know me well you know that I really like a bunch of random words, and one word that I learned that has stuck with me is the word “kintsugi.” Kintsugi is an ancient Japanese art in which people take broken pottery, and instead of throwing the entire piece out they fill the cracks with gold and repair the pottery in a way that makes it even more beautiful. This is also a term in philosophy; as a metaphor, it means not letting the cracks that the world throws at you tear you apart, but rather finding ways to fill them with beauty and meaning (or in other words gold). Kintsugi emphasizes embracing one’s cracks as a part of what makes you who you are, rather than something that you have to cover up.
This word gained new meaning for me as I worked through my ACL recovery process. It allowed me to see that despite this inconvenient circumstance, taking a step back could really allow me to see all the beauty in my life instead of just the heartbreak of my injury.
I used my desire to get back to where I once was as fuel to work hard at the things I could control while also acknowledging the beauty in every little milestone I reached. I lived and breathed my recovery in everything I did; I woke up early every morning to do my exercises with a newfound passion; I ran every morning for four months straight to watch the sunrise; I pushed myself in every possible way so I could get back to doing the things that I loved.
In time, the fact that I felt such an absence when I couldn’t play soccer just made me appreciate all of the wonderful ways in which soccer has impacted my life. All of the amazing people I have met, all of the wonderful times I have had, and all of the amazing things I have in my life now thanks to soccer, all of this gold that I was finally able to see which pushed me further to give everything I had in every step of the recovery process.
And after nine long months of growth and hard work, the moment I had been waiting for finally came. I can still vividly remember that first game back with my team. We were in Florida for a tournament and despite the almost 90 degree heat I had goosebumps when I heard the referee’s whistle at the beginning of the game knowing that whistle was now for me too. And the thing is I don’t even think I played that amazingly that day, but the point was that I could. I was back on the field amongst the hard work and smiles of my teammates, back where I belonged, finally free from something that I couldn’t control that had defined me for nine months. I felt so free. The overwhelming beauty and wonder of finally being able to live a part of me that had been put on pause was unlike anything that I have ever experienced.
And the thing is, that wonder never left me. After I came back, people would always tell me, “forget about your injury — it’s in the past.” But how could I just forget about something that had made me who I am? And it’s not what they thought; I wasn’t reliving the pain of it all, I was reliving the beauty. I was reliving the way that every hard day in the gym, every long night spent icing my knee when I would rather be playing with my teammates, every practice and game I had to watch knowing I couldn’t help my team in the way I always wanted to had led me to where I was today. I was appreciating the long runs every morning, the hours I had spent on my own at the field here at GFA slowly working myself into the player I once was, and the unique thrill of high-fiving your teammates after a good play. I was appreciating how far I had come because all those little milestones — like being able to walk, relearning how to run, the infinite time I spent carving every little motion into my muscle memory to get back to where I once was — they were all so fresh in my not so distant memory that to be back was surreal. I was reliving all of the beautiful little battles I won along the way, all of the amazing ways that my teammates and friends and family were there for me, and all of the wonderful memories I made along the way. I was embracing the intense and humbling gratitude I felt, which extended far beyond the lines of the field. I was feeling all of the gold I had found along the way, not the crack itself.
And maybe that’s part of what I loved about the idea of kintsugi; it isn’t saying “take your cracked pottery and use more clay to fill the cracks, so that nobody would ever know they are there.” Instead it says to find ways to use those cracks to make the overall piece even more beautiful, not just erase them like they are nothing.
But as you can probably guess, that is not how this story ends. In November, I somehow managed to tear my other ACL and meniscus on my other leg. The doctors told me that it was a genetic thing, that I was just predisposed to tear my unfixed ACL and that it wasn’t something I could control. While this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, it made me realize that there was nothing I could have done to stop this, and further that I really had no regrets.
Hearing that news the second time was like living through a memory. I could see my freshman year self in that suffocating doctor’s office, getting the news I feared most. I wanted to reach back and give my younger self a hug, and tell her everything was going to be ok. But it was weird because living through this memory I could feel how much I had grown. Although I was obviously disappointed hearing the news a second time, and somewhat baffled at how unthinkably low the chances of tearing your ACL twice are, instead of the thoughts of all I would be missing, my head was flooded with all of the amazing memories that this sport and others have given me. Visions of my teammates smiling, of that one play that meant everything, of the feeling when that goal was scored. Of the high fives and the huddles and the games in the rain. Of the way my teammates of all kinds never made me feel any less part of my teams when I was hurt the first time. Of the random texts I have gotten from teammates asking me how I am doing. Of that unforgettable feeling of finally stepping back on the field for the first time. Of the overwhelming love. Of all of the beautiful little moments and memories and people that this wonderful game has given me. And, although many of you might not believe me, that I am really ok with where I am. Because yes, neither injury is obviously ideal, but I won’t give anything the power to take away the beauty that this game and all the wonderful people I have met along the way have given me, and also the beauty that is still unfolding all around me.
I also wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all for the overwhelming support I have gotten after both injuries. I can’t even begin to describe how much the kind gestures from my friends and teammates, the random texts asking how I am and the random hugs and words of encouragement I have gotten over the past three years have meant to me. These little moments might have seemed small to the people sharing them with me, but to me they have been a constant reminder that nobody is ever alone, and that empathy and beautiful things are always around you if you just take the effort to see them.
So now, going through it all again, I can’t help but feel a strange sense of deja vu. As I work through the same exercises I once did, the same protocols and little milestones and truncated progress that I went through three years ago, I can see myself in the shoes of my freshman year self. But I have changed since then; my first injury and recovery allowed me to grow and learn and adapt to the point that I feel like a different person going through this recovery. Instead of a timid individual who lost something she loved and was watching one of her greatest fears unfold before her very eyes, I feel empowered; I know all of what to plan for, all of the little things that will push me or frustrate me and all of the wonderful moments on the horizon. Sure, I still feel the same ache sometimes when I watch my teammates play and am reminded of the things I am missing out on, but as I learned the first time these moments make me appreciate all of the irreplaceable memories that all of the teams I have been on have given me. Instead of feeling the void of missing something I can’t do, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the amazing people around me; I choose not to get caught up in the things I can’t control so I don’t miss out on the beautiful things unfolding all around me.
And I know I will have another moment like the one I had in Florida with my team. I know about all the little milestones I am pushing for, about all the little things it will take to get back to where I once was, but most of all that this is just a thing and I will be totally fine. I see my friends and teammates who have gone through or are going through this recovery, like Katie, and I have so much respect for their strength and perseverance. I know that I am not going to let this crack blind me from all of the beautiful gold all around me, and that I won’t give my injury the power to take me away from all of the amazing things and people I am surrounded by. Though I never would have guessed these two injuries would have happened to me, I refuse to let them define me and fill me with cracks.
So why am I telling you all of this? It’s not because I want your validation, and it’s definitely not because I want your pity. Rather, if you take one thing from this speech, let it be that our cracks only define us as much as we let them, and that there is always beauty and gold to be found all around us even if we have to deliberately search for it.
If you had told me four years ago I would tear my ACL, MCL, and meniscus twice I probably wouldn’t have liked you. (And that actually says a lot because I generally like most people). But now looking back, I can’t imagine it any other way. The infinite things that these injuries have taught me, of which I have only shared bits and pieces, have made me who I am. Every step of the way makes me appreciate the amazing teammates I have had and all of the wonderful ways that these experiences have shaped me. Embracing my cracks and looking to fill them with gold has allowed me to turn what some might consider inconvenient circumstances into opportunities for growth and gratitude.
We don’t get to choose the ways the world tries to crack us. What we get to choose is the gold we fill our cracks with, and the beauty that we choose to see in our lives every day. While sometimes it might be hard to see, there is always gold all around us, and it is up to us to bring it into our lives. I hope you all choose to look for the gold, because ultimately it is these cracks, these beautiful rifts in our plans and our lives that make us who we are.