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The road to recovery

Riley Donovan’s journey has been inspiring, from tearing her ACL directly after joining the Dalhousie University Tigers women’s soccer team to a U Sports second-team all-star selection in 2021. 

Just after committing to Dal, Donovan injured herself in practice on May 15, 2017. The striker said she was running around a defender and changed directions.  

Then, she heard a pop.

Initially believing she tore a meniscus or nothing at all, Donovan’s father drove her from Ontario to a private clinic in Buffalo, N.Y. for an MRI.   

“It was really sad in that moment, but I didn’t think it was going to be anything that severe,” Donovan said.  

Upon finding out it was a torn ACL, Donovan was shocked.  

“I didn’t expect it. I was walking and everything,” Donovan said. “Hearing that I wouldn’t be able to play and I’d be out for nine months was pretty devastating.”  

Support network during rehab 

The rehabilitation process started before surgery. Donovan needed as much strength in her legs as possible before going into the surgery, as it would cause her to lose muscle. She went under the knife on July 6, 2017.  

The first three months after surgery were intense. Donovan went to physiotherapy around four times a week to improve movement in her knee.   

An injury can become one of the most mentally demanding and exhausting experiences in an athlete’s career. Donovan said she had some low points in the beginning, coming to terms with the idea of not playing for three-quarters of a year.   

“It was quite draining. My support system is great. My family helped me so much and my friends,” she said. “It was a summer of just doing exercises and hamstring curls on the ball or trying to get a full rotation on the bike. No sports. Lots and lots of cards, and lots of other things.”  

Donovan was dedicated, determined towards her goal of playing university soccer. She wanted to be the best she could be.

It was not just Donovan’s mindset that helped her through the ACL tear, but her support system as well. Her father, mother, brother and friends were all there for her. However, she feared other things were on the line, like her scholarship. 

“I didn’t want to lose it and I didn’t want to lose my spot [in the lineup],” she said. “[Coach Cindy Tye] had torn her ACL herself when she was playing, and so did assistant coach Rieka [Santilli]. They both reassured me that everything was fine.”  

Her father knew the injury wouldn’t slow her down. “I’ve seen probably every one of her sporting competitions. She always gives 150 per cent and more, and I knew this would be really difficult for her,” he said. “But my quick reaction once it happened, and as I observed how she was dealing with it, was that it was going to make her an even stronger person and a stronger player.”  

Back in the lineup 

Donovan gradually began training with Dalhousie again. She would stay to the side during practices doing balancing exercises and then try running around the field as much as possible, in straight lines and curves.  

On March 5, 2018, Donovan was finally cleared for contact play. She said it was difficult to go back to the field after an injury of this severity. She said some athletes are never able to recover both physically and mentally.  

“Even going to tackles can be scary. But I decided when I tore my ACL, I wanted to be an even better player than I was before coming into the injury,” she said. “I’m definitely faster and stronger today than I was in grade 12 which is really nice. Not having any injuries anymore and not even being scared to go into tackles or to hit people, it’s very reassuring. I’ve seen so many other players [recover], so I was like why? Why can’t I do it?”  

Donovan returned and made her Dal debut in Sept. 2018, maintaining her starting position throughout the rest of her career. She started in 33 of her 36 games played.   

Donovan registered her best season scoring-wise in 2021, her senior year. Scoring eight goals in 12 games, she finished second in the AUS in goals while captaining the Tigers. 

Best of all, since the ACL tear, Donovan hasn’t had any more major injuries.  

“I’ve never had a problem today from it at all. I’ve had ankle injuries but that’s about it. No knee problems,” she said. “Thank God. 

She’s made her family, especially her father, proud too. 

“I coached her from when she was a very young kid and you can always tell when she’s on the field,” he said. “I think she really makes magic happen.” 

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