Holli Wheeler: how a ruptured ACL taught her patience

This post was first written for and published by Siren Sport.

Holli Wheeler is just a couple of weeks away from making a full recovery from a ruptured ACL—an injury she sustained whilst competing for the St George Illawarra Dragons at the New Zealand Nines almost a year ago.

After a 12-month recovery, Wheeler is itching to get back into the contact side of footy and hopes to be representing the North Sydney Bears for round one of the Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership when it commences later this year.

“I’m nearly there, I’m so close I can taste it,” said Wheeler.

“I can’t explain how much I’m enjoying warming up with my teammates again. I laugh the whole way through the warm-up and maybe some people think I’m not taking my footy too seriously, but I’m just stoked to be there.”

This ruptured ACL was Wheeler’s first serious injury. It was also the first time that Wheeler couldn’t just push through the pain; she had to succumb to it.

“I’ve had injuries where you can just push yourself to finish the game, or push through the week and manage it by biting down on your mouthguard and just pushing through,” said Wheeler.

“But with this injury, I couldn’t do that. It has taught me so much about patience, about how my body works and about how important my knees are. I’m never taking that for granted again.”

Recovering from a long-term injury can be lonely and it can feel isolating, particularly in 2020 when so many of us were struggling through the pandemic.

But fortunately for Wheeler, by her side from the very beginning was her partner Shontelle Stowers, who also plays elite rugby league and represented the New Zealand Warriors in the NRL Women’s Premiership last year.

“I was so fortunate that when the injury happened, that Shon was competing at the Nines too,” said Wheeler.

“She met me at the hospital and was with me when I had my scans. When I found out what the injury was, she was there too. Throughout the recovery she showered me, she helped me go to the toilet after surgery, she held me while I’ve cried myself to sleep and she has picked me up at every set-back.

“She has been that positive voice telling me that things will get better.”

Stowers is no stranger to injury either. During her career across both rugby league and rugby union, Stowers has sustained an ACL tear, broken wrist and a hamstring muscle torn off the bone. Each time, she has returned to her chosen sport stronger than before.

For Wheeler, not only was Stowers unwavering support invaluable, but also having the support and guidance of someone who understood each unique hurdle she was going through.

Despite the challenges of the last year, it hasn’t all been bad for Wheeler. Her time away from the game has reminded her how much it means to her.

“I have never taken the game for granted and I would never wish this injury on anyone,” said Wheeler.

“But in the last year I have learnt about patience. I have learnt to work muscles that I haven’t worked before and learnt to understand my body.

“I had that flame in me belly before, but now it’s a roaring flame and I cannot wait to get back out there.

“People are asking me to take it down a notch at training, but the littlest things excite the hell out of me at the moment.”

2020 was also the year where Wheeler was given the opportunity to be part of the Dragons coaching staff for the NRLW. Whilst recovering from an injury was tough, Wheeler found it harder sitting on the sidelines and watching her teammates struggle.

The Dragons 2020 campaign did not go to plan. The team lost all three games, but also lost several key players to injury including Kezie Apps and Isabelle Kelly.

“Those women are my mates and I just wanted to be out there with them,” said Wheeler.

“It was hard to watch the team go through the season, put the hard work in and not get the results we deserved.

“But I loved being part of the coaching staff; it gave me something to look forward to every week.”

Looking ahead to 2021, Wheeler has plenty to look forward to.

Her goal is to return for round one, but more broadly it’s just to play footy.

“I want to get back to playing consistent footy and doing my job for whatever team I’m playing for,” said Wheeler.

“First, that means the North Sydney Bears. They are such a proud club and I can’t wait to pull the jersey on.”

But there’s something else that has kept Wheeler going during her recovery.

“If I’ve wanted to cry during a session, I think about the Rugby League World Cup at the end of the year. That is my end goal and something I am busting to get back to.”

“I also love nothing more than pulling on the sky blue jersey for the NSW Blues; but playing consistent footy for my team gets me those jerseys.

“I just want to play. I don’t care if it’s in the backyard or a stadium. I want to get out there with my mates, run around, smile and just play some footy.”