The Southern Steel seemed cursed when their two shooters suffered season-ending knee injuries within two weeks this winter. But the tenacious netballers are now helping each other return to the court in 2021.

Jen O’Connell and Georgia Heffernan sat in hospital beds alongside each other and could only laugh. They kept asking each other: “How did this happen?”

The Southern Steel shooting pair were waiting to go into surgery on the knees they had busted within a fortnight of each other in this year’s ANZ Premiership.

As awful as it was that both young shooters had ruptured their anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs), prematurely ending their season – and they were being operated on in the same Christchurch hospital on the same day in August – there has been a silver lining.

O’Connell and Heffernan have been able to help each other through the excruciating, often drawn-out rehabilitation – pushing each other along, sharing their comeback milestones, and understanding what the other is going through.

Both players share an identical goal – to come back to playing elite netball again, and to come back stronger.

“It’s just so good to have someone else to talk to, who fully understands what it’s like, because we did pretty much exactly the same thing,” Heffernan says. “Someone who’s doing the same things as you every day.

“And we talk about playing on the court together again – and coming back on the same day. Imagine if we did that together? It would be so cool.”

When that day comes, their coaches expect them to have a special connection on the court, forged by overcoming this major setback together.

A shooting circle cursed

Jen O’Connell can tell you play-by-play the moment she hit the floor with less than a minute to go in the Steel’s nail-biter with the season champions, the Pulse, in Auckland mid-July.

“It’s on my mind quite a lot. I’m still working through it,” the 23-year-old says. “I just remember the biggest fright. And then the most extraordinary pain.”

Although she can recount how it happened, O’Connell – who was having the best season of her young career – still has no idea why.

“There were 55s left in the game to be precise. People tell me I wasn’t warmed up enough – well, I don’t think I could have been more warmed up,” she laughs.

“It just came down to a landing. And the pressure of the game.” She landed awkwardly leaping for a rebound after missing a crucial shot at goal. “If I’d scored that one, we would have been even and it was our centre pass. There were just so many factors.

“But my attitude now is, ‘It is what it is’.”

After O’Connell was wheeled out of the Auckland Netball Centre on a stretcher, and the shock subsided, it began to occur to her how unreal it was.

She had been rooming with Georgia Heffernan when the 21-year-old shooter had ruptured her ACL two rounds earlier, in a game against the Northern Stars.

“I helped Georgia to cut off her tape, and take her socks off after her injury. I had been with her for that,” she says.

Then, two games after O’Connell’s mishap, the Steel’s shooting import from Trinidad and Tobago, Kalifa McCollin, rolled her ankle (fortunately she wasn’t out for long).

“I was sitting at home and I messaged George [Heffernan] straight away and said ‘What’s going on with us? No shooters will want to play for us!’” O’Connell recalls.

Steel goal shoot Jen O’Connell warming up before the game where she tore her ACL in July. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography.

Heffernan, playing her debut season as a regular member of the Steel, remembers watching O’Connell’s injury on TV.

“When I saw her go down, it was probably the worst thing ever. Because I knew straight away what she’d done. And I kept asking ‘how has this even happened?’” Heffernan says.

“In the first couple of weeks I just wanted to know why I did mine – even if it was the tough truth of ‘you’re not strong enough’. I have done that movement every day for the last eight months, and then that one time, my knee decided to go. I just wish I knew why.”

Playing at goal attack, Heffernan fell to the court and clutched her right knee. She knew something was wrong, but she hadn’t felt the ‘pop’ that many athletes who rupture their ACLs experience. “It was really weird; the shock took over from the pain,” she recalls.

She immediately looked to her twin sister, Kate, who was playing at wing defence for the Steel in that game. The sisters, who’ve played netball and cricket together all their lives, were also flatting together in Dunedin.

“It was pretty tough on her,” Georgia says. “She initially stood back, waiting for me to get up. I was looking at them with wide eyes because I was in so much shock. Gina [Crampton] was right there beside me, and she knew from my face that it wasn’t good.”

Her twin helped carry her to the sideline. “I kept saying, ‘not my ACL, please not my ACL!’  My tests were so good after the game,” Heffernan says. But scans revealed she’d ruptured her ACL and torn her lateral meniscus. It later turned out she also had a fracture at the top of her femur.

“At first, it was a lot to take in. I was hoping for the best and prepared for the worst… and the worst happened,” Heffernan says.

“I’ve since learned that I’m really prone to knee injuries, it’s just the way that I’m built.” Her mum, former Silver Fern defender Annette Heffernan also ruptured her ACL on court. “It’s definitely genetic. So I’m working on getting my other leg stronger so it doesn’t happen again.”

No common denominator

ACL injuries remain a serious problem in netball. In an ACC study on netball injuries carried out over a decade up to 2017, there was a 120 percent increase in ACL injuries over that time for 15 to 19-year-old girls – for reasons not explained. But it proved it wasn’t an injury exclusive to elite or adult netballers.

The study also revealed 20 to 24-year-olds represented the highest cost of injury (still the biggest contributor to female sports injuries in New Zealand, netball had in excess of 25,000 ACC claims last year at a cost of $30m).

But the sport has made a massive effort to turn that around, with the NetballSmart programme, run by former Silver Ferns physio Sharon Kearney, which has a strong focus on preventing knee and ankle injuries.

During the past three years, NetballSmart prevented more than 4600 claims and has reduced and stabilised ACL injury rates. Determined to continue the downward trend, ACC has increased its investment in NetballSmart to $3.6m over the next three years.

“I wasn’t having my best game when I did my knee. And I can’t leave like that,” – Jen O’Connell

Heffernan had been told that returning from serious knee surgery could be a ‘lonely’ journey. But she says she hasn’t felt that way.

Both O’Connell and Heffernan were in Dunedin at the start of their rehab, before O’Connell moved down to Invercargill. They are both working with the Steel’s strength and conditioning coach, Mikey Jacobs, who’s based in Dunedin.

Jacobs has been amazed, he says, by the progress – and attitude – of both young women.

“They were both devastated at the start – with any injury you have to grieve a little. But I’m already seeing them change as athletes and people, and they will definitely come back stronger. I can’t wait to see what happens with them,” he says.

The Steel management team looked to find a common denominator between the two shooters’ injuries, but couldn’t find one.

“ACLs are all different, but we wondered if there was a common theme,” Jacobs says. “It turns out it was just a freak thing that we lost two shooters so suddenly. You’ve got to pay credit to the other young girls who stepped up and took on the shooting responsibility.”

One of those replacement shooters, Kiana Pelasio, is now helping Heffernan daily, doing circuit work in the gym.

Georgia Heffernan hopes to finish her vet nurse studies and make a netball comeback in 2021. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

“The overarching picture for both Jen and Georgia is the same, around where they need to go and how to get there. They are a week apart on some things – with a little complication or a little swelling that stays around,” Jacobs says. 

“But they get to talk to each other about it, which is key to their psych. That’s the silver lining here. This opportunity gives the girls the power to develop their relationship, not just on a court setting.

“It will blossom, and I hope they come back to the Steel together. I couldn’t want for anything more for these two amazing girls.”

O’Connell and Heffernan send messages to each other through the week, checking in to see how the other is doing. O’Connell texted to say she had done her first pull-up in the gym the other day.

“That was a huge win for me. You should have seen the buff guy after me pumping out 20 – but it was my win,” she laughs. 

O’Connell struggled in the first few weeks after surgery on her left knee: “It was awful. I wasn’t prepared for just how tough it would be.

“But this whole experience has brought huge personal growth for me. Every day in the gym it’s quite repetitive and it can be hard to find the little gains. But that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. That and my job.”

This year she started working as a teacher aide at Aurora College in Invercargill, which she says has been a welcome distraction.

O’Connell doesn’t want to work on a timeline to get back on court. Like Heffernan, the 1.93m shooter, who has been in the NZ U21 side and Silver Ferns development squad, hasn’t been re-signed to the Steel next season, which she says has taken the pressure off her. “I’d like to play some Beko League next year to work myself back up. My goal is just to return to netball,” she says. “I’ve been surrounded by incredible people at the Steel – the support has been overwhelming.”

She has a simple, but powerful, driver.

“I wasn’t having my best game when I did my knee. And I can’t leave like that,” she says. “Every day, if I don’t want to go to the gym or do my exercises, that’s what keeps me going – I can’t leave like that.”

Rehab has meant Heffernan has been able to concentrate on her studies to become a veterinary nurse. She’s hoping she can finish her degree next year, and get a few games under her belt.

“I know it’s going to be a bit difficult. From the get-go I got told it would be a good 12 months. But I’ve been working really hard on my rehab, so even if it’s just a few club or Beko games,” she says.

“I understand the risks of going back too early. So I’m doing what I’m told. My big goal is to get myself physically and mentally confident to play again.”

And if she does so alongside O’Connell, her partner in rehab, the comeback will be even sweeter.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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