I am standing with Danielle Carter in the tunnel minutes after Arsenal’s 5-1 win over Liverpool Women at Prenton Park. Waiting for my Dictaphone to spark into life, I chat with Dan for a moment. “Apologies,” I offer, “For being roughly the 50th person to ask you to recount your rehabilitation in agonising detail.” Before she can answer, she is mobbed by a series of players, Arsenal and Liverpool, who variously squeeze her arm, slap her back and throw their arms around her. Everyone is happy to see Dan Carter playing again.
“It’s ok,” she smiles. “I know the drill.” For Carter, rehabilitation has been more than just a professional necessity. It has been a lifestyle. Last May she crumpled awkwardly to the turf, her knee buckling as she shaped to take a shot on her left foot in the May sunshine in Bristol. Amazingly, she clambered to her feet, motioned to the sidelines that she was ok to continue and played for a further 6 minutes before collapsing again.
I spoke to her shortly before her surgery last summer, “After a few minutes, I knew what I had done,” she told me. Back in June I asked her about the psychological toll of recovery, “I haven’t had a big injury like this before,” she said. “But already it has been quite tough mentally for me. It will be interesting to see how I cope.” Nine months on I remind her of the question and ask for her assessment from her current perspective.
“There’s no handbook for how to deal with this, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through- and I’m still going through it. I’ve had a couple of substitute appearances now, but I’ve still got work to do. Psychologically I need to learn to trust the knee again and that will take some time. I have to rebuild myself physically and mentally. It’s great to be back in the squad, but I’m under no illusions that it’s over.”
Carter has a degree in physiotherapy, but she says there was no intellectual curiosity when it came to her own recovery, “No way!” she laughs, “1million per cent, no. When it was me on the table and it’s me going through rehabilitation plans and it was my body, I didn’t view it from that perspective at all.” Carter reflects that recovery from an injury such as this is a maze of psychological and physical hurdles to clear, a long, gruelling tussle for a series of small, bite-sized victories.
“Every bit is the hardest bit,” she explains, “I’ve not overcome it, I can’t talk like a survivor yet or tell you how I got through it because I haven’t. Not yet. Every part is hard, so there’s no hardest part. It’s hard overcoming surgery when you can’t walk and can barely wash yourself. It’s hard when you are in the gym for so long, it’s hard when you’re on the treadmill for the first time, or when you go outside and train with the ball and go into contact training. It’s all tough.”
One of the main reasons Dan refuses to talk about her recovery in the past tense is the psychological aspect. “It’s getting your head around things, readying yourself for that next hurdle. You have to accept that you have to start again and put the work in. That’s tough for an athlete who is used to being very fit. Every time, there is a different hurdle to jump and there are a few more in front of me yet.”
She reveals that Petr Cech advised her to keep a diary during her recovery, a task he undertook when recovering from a fractured skull back in 2006. The rationale being that, on reflection, you see that there are more good days than bad days and the darkness isn’t allowed to take hold. Dan has, unwittingly, benefitted from a sizeable support network of teammates during her recovery.
Tabea Kemme arrived at the club with a torn meniscus last summer, fellow new signing Viki Schnaderbeck tore her knee cartilage on the eve of the new season and long-time teammate Jordan Nobbs ruptured her cruciate ligament in November too. Jess Samuelsson has recovered from two broken feet in the same time frame.
“I’ve got to give credit to the rehab crew!” Dan chirps, “Unfortunately there were a few of us injured. But they were a great source of support, as was the rest of the team. We really helped each other out.” Jordan Nobbs is still around six months away from her own return, but Jordan shed tears of joy when Carter returned to the pitch against Bristol and even turned up to the match sporting an Arsenal shirt with Carter’s name and number embossed onto it.
This is what tears of joy looks like! Unreal feeling making my comeback after soooo long out. The reception and messages I’ve received tonight is greatly appreciated.. thank you all!! 5 more cup finals left! ??? pic.twitter.com/qTNYKZF6Gz
— Danielle Carter (@DanielleCarter) March 14, 2019
“Yeah, Jordan wanted to copy me with the injury, she couldn’t stay away from me,” Carter chimes, her mischievous sense of humour coming to the surface again, “But we’ve always been close on and off the pitch. We help each other out a lot and I want to keep helping Jordan out. It’s unfortunate that we’ve had to go through this together but we’ve supported each other.”
The 25-year old describes her emotions the day of her comeback, when she was a second half substitute against Bristol City, “The whole day I didn’t know what would happen, I didn’t know if I would get on. But we killed the game off in the second half and I thought, ‘ok, it’s getting closer.’ Everything just flashed back in front of my eyes, all those days in the gym, it was so emotional it all came flooding out.”
Carter’s time away from the field did give her a little more time to focus on her many extra-curricular activities. Carter is a member of the FA Council and Inclusion Board, an ambassador for Goals for Girls, an ambassador for the Heart for More Foundation and has appeared as a speaker for events held by Kick It Out, Women in Football and Arsenal in the Community.
I spent my #InternationalWomensDay @AmblerSchool in Islington with @AFCCommunity ? #WeAreTheArsenal #IWD2019
I love the schools “DREAMS” ethos: Determination, Resilience, Enthusiasm, Ambition, Motivated & Self-Belief – the skills they believe children need to succeed ?? pic.twitter.com/xy7kzAh4iu
— Danielle Carter (@DanielleCarter) March 8, 2019
Dan, who already has a degree in physiotherapy, is currently studying an MBA in Sports Management and sees herself in a sports governance role one day. “I had a lot of time when I was out injured and to be honest, a lot of that activity helped me keep my sanity too! But I will continue to do those things when I’m playing again. I love the idea of giving back.”
One thing is for certain, Danielle Carter still has much to give- on and off the pitch.
With thanks to @kunjanmalde for the image.