Wheels in motion: Holli’s hectic return

This article was first written for and published by NRL.com.

Plenty of players have come back from ACL injuries, but it would be safe to say none have done it the way Holli Wheeler did.

The mental and physical questions after having not played for more than 12 months can be expected on game day.

What can’t be is that Wheeler was also forced to spend the bus trip to the ground completing a coaching course that was a necessity for her to be able to take the field.

Here’s the lowdown.

After rupturing her ACL at the Perth 9s in February 2020, the Australia Jillaroos second-rower sets her sights on getting back on the field.

For months, Wheeler had been dreaming about pulling on that jersey and the lead-up to her first game.

That day came against the Central Coast Roosters last Saturday.

“It’s a funny story, but it always is with me,” Wheeler recalls.

As part of Wheeler’s contract with the Bears, she has been given the chance to hold an assistant coaching role with some of the junior squads.

This is important because in the NSW Women’s Premiership, players are allocated points based on the level of footy they have played. Each team can only field a team worth a certain number of points.

Given Wheeler has represented Australia, NSW and played for the Dragons in the NRLW, she has the highest possible number of points allocated to her. Her involvement in coaching actually reduces the number of points she is worth.

The morning of her return game, Wheeler had her plans set. Her partner Shontelle Stowers, who also plays for the Bears was going to take the team bus to the Central Coast.

Wheeler was going to drive so she could mentally prepare for her first game back. It’s been a long 12 months so Wheeler acknowledged that she thought on that drive she would laugh, cry and just have some time to reflect.

It was not to be. When Wheeler dropped Stowers off to take the bus, the Bears team manager made a beeline for her.

The night before, the Bears were informed that Wheeler had not completed a mandatory coaching course.

While that didn’t prevent her from playing, it meant that if she did the team would have exceeded its points allocation and been unable to play for competition points.

So instead of having the opportunity to prepare for the game in her own way, Wheeler took the bus with the rest of the team. She sat at the front of the bus and completed the coaching course in transit.

“I was a bit upset that I had to be on the bus, but in the end it gave me a distraction,” said Wheeler.

Holli Wheeler in action for the Jillaroos.
Holli Wheeler in action for the Jillaroos.©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

“It was a bizarre morning, but this small bit of paperwork almost changed my whole weekend. That whole week was a comedy of errors – I even rolled my ankle on the Tuesday of that week.”

Wheeler had offered not to take the field despite her parents driving from Old Bar down to the Central Coast to celebrate her return.

Her team was having none of it.

“Everyone said, we will play because you have worked so hard and you deserve to play,” said Wheeler.

“They were crazy with their support and it meant a lot to me.”

While Wheeler can laugh about the experience now, it did demonstrate to her how much she has changed.

Rehabbing such a serious injury has meant Wheeler has faced plenty of challenges. Plenty of opportunities to ask “why me?”.

The time away her a chance to develop skills in determination, resilience and gratitude.

“My attitude has a lot to do with a positive mindset,” said Wheeler.

“Two years ago, I don’t know how I would have handled the rehab. I would have kicked up a stink at the smallest setback.”

During her 12 months of rehabilitation, Wheeler remained connected to the footy community through coaching.

She had the chance to coach at the Bears and then the Dragons during the NRLW season.

While coaching might be the next big opportunity for women in the game, Wheeler hopes that if she chooses that path, it is many years away.

“I still just want to be out on the field, running around,” said Wheeler.

“But there are some incredible women that I think are close to taking that step – like Ali Brigginshaw and Ruan Sims. They have the capacity and knowledge to do that.

“The sky is the limit and we are just going to keep knocking on the door as women and changing the paths set for us. We will go our own way and continue to grow.”