Football Ferns striker Hannah Wilkinson is hoping to bring up 100 caps for her country at the Tokyo Olympics.  She’s done it the hard way in a career full of ups and downs.

It’s almost midnight and Hannah Wilkinson can’t sleep. It’s freezing outside in the northwest of Germany as she looks out her window to the cold and industrial surrounds of her adopted hometown of Duisburg.   

Home feels like a million miles away.

The Football Fern’s body aches as she picks up her guitar and quietly plays a soulful rendition of Six60’s Don’t Forget Your Roots. It quiets her mind.

“Music is everything to me,” says the talented singer-songwriter and Football Fern.

“It’s my release. My escape. There are times when life is hard mentally and you feel homesick… playing my guitar takes me to another place.  That escape is essential to my wellbeing and I wouldn’t cope without it.”

The 28-year-old from Northland is competing in the toughest environment of her football career.

Competing in the uncompromising Bundesliga and living in Covid-ravaged Germany is testing her mind, body and soul. 

“I’m not going to lie, it’s a challenge and it’s shaping me as a person,” she says with a laugh. “It’s all about building resilience and this environment is definitely toughening me up. I’m grateful for the opportunity to test myself.”

Football Ferns coach Tom Sermanni says the Bundesliga is one of the best and most professional leagues in women’s football and will have Wilkinson ready for the Tokyo Olympics in July.

“There are no easy games,” he says. “Most teams follow tough training regimes. Hannah is in an ideal environment to maintain the standards required to continue competing successfully at international level.”

“A time I’ll never forget”

Every week Wilkinson and her Duisburg team-mates get tested twice for Covid-19.

“I’m pretty tired of having that damn thing shoved up my nose,” she laughs.

When the pandemic first broke, Wilkinson was playing in Sweden and has since moved to Germany. There was a stark contrast.

“It’s a very controlled environment here. We train and play and then go home. You can’t go to restaurants or go out at all really. It’s on everyone’s minds all the time.” 

Duisburg had two players in their squad test positive for Covid, and went into lockdown as a team.

“It’s been scary and a hard time for me mentally. I love being outdoors and being free. Being hemmed in like that was quite oppressive,” she says.

Wilkinson says it’s a chapter in her career she will never forget.  

Overcoming adversity

Overcoming adversity is something that Wilkinson has done her whole life. In 2015, while playing for the University of Tennessee, she ruptured the ACL in her left knee. Three years later, playing for Vittsjö GIK in Sweden, she did it again but on her right knee.  

“I know straight away when I’ve ruptured my ACL. It’s an awful feeling. It’s like I have dislocated my knee and it feels like bone on bone. It’s very painful,” she says.

“The second time was devastating. I knew straight away what I’d done and how long the recovery and rehab journey was in front of me. My first thought was the [2019] World Cup and I was just so gutted.”

Hannah Wilkinson gets attention for an injury during the Peace Queen Cup in 2010. Photo: Getty Images. 

Wilkinson says her rehabilitation second time around was easier because she knew what she had to do. She had a plan she kept to religiously and remained patient.

She found a billet in Orewa, 30 minutes north of Auckland, so she could be close to Ferns’ strength and conditioning coach Riley O’Meager. She worked with him every day for six months, slowly but surely building up the strength in her knee as she chased her elusive World Cup dream.

Wilkinson remembers getting ready for a training game against an U18 boys team and the field wasn’t in the best condition. Sermanni said to her in the warm-up “Take it easy out there Wilky because you’re coming with us’ [to France]”.

“I almost cried,” says Wilkinson. “I remember when the squad was named, I just sat in my car and balled my eyes out. It was such a relief to get there after what I’d been through.”

Sermanni says to come back from two ACL injuries requires considerable character and determination.

Even more significant in Wilkinson’s situation was her response to her second ACL tear, only six months before the 2019 FIFA World Cup.

“The normal minimum recovery time for an ACL is nine months, so this injury should have put an immediate end to her World Cup dreams. Hannah was undeterred and achieved the impossible and completed her rehab in time to be selected for the tournament. There can be no greater example of her professionalism and dedication,” Sermanni says. 

Wilkinson says the support of High Performance Sport NZ and ACC has made a world of difference to her rehabilitation.

Football Fern Hannah Wilkinson beats Matildas’ Elsie Kellond-Knight in a trans-Tasman clash in 2015. Photo: Shane Wenzlick | Phototek

“To have an incredible support system there for you to just focus on your rehab, that is amazing. I had doctor appointments, physio, conditioning and all of it was covered by ACC. That gives you huge peace of mind and I am grateful for that. I can’t tell you how important that support is,” she says.

Bringing up a special milestone

“I didn’t know I was that close,” says Wilkinson, who’s sitting on 97 A internationals for New Zealand.

As things currently stand, Wilkinson will bring up her 100th game in the Ferns’ final pool game against Sweden on July 27 (after playing Australia and World Cup winners USA). It could be a hugely decisive game for the team.

“Man, what an honour that would be,” she says. “It would be amazing to bring up that milestone at the Olympics, a really special moment for me and my family.”

Sermanni says Wilkinson is a special player and person because of her personality, team ethic and professional focus.

“To achieve 100 caps is a significant milestone. Despite this achievement and her impressive playing pedigree and standing in the game, she remains extremely grounded and self-effacing,” he says.

Wilkinson will be the 11th Football Fern to join the ‘100 club’.

Covid-19 has played a significant role in impacting the Ferns preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. They haven’t played since their final game of the Algarve Cup in 2019 where Wilkinson scored in a 2-1 loss to Norway.

Sermanni says by the time the Olympics come around, the team will have lost some 18 months of national team development.

“The big advantage we have to overcome this challenge is the experience of our squad and the strong bond within the playing group,” he says. “Our experienced players such as Hannah are critical in driving that connection and tightness between the senior players and inexperienced players new to the squad.”

“Always in the back of my mind”

Every time she laces up her boots for a game, the FIFA Women’s World Cup in New Zealand and Australia in 2023 is in the back of Wilkinson’s mind. 

“I still can’t believe it’s happening,” she says. “I want to keep building and be at my peak for that tournament. I want to make New Zealand proud and put this team on the map. To have the opportunity to play a World Cup at home is incredible.”  

If she plays every first round game at the Tokyo Olympics, Hannah Wilkinson will become the 10th Football Fern to play 100 matches. Photo: Shane Wenzlick | Phototek. 

Wilkinson wants to inspire the next generation. After her experience, her advice for young players is to invest in their bodies.

“Get your ass into a gym. Work on your strength and conditioning and make your body strong. It will make a huge difference to your performance but also prevent injury in the long term,” she says.

“I do activations every time I train and play to make sure my body is ready for a dynamic warm-up and game. I know the cost of a serious injury, so I definitely don’t take my body for granted. I work hard on it every day,” she says. 

It’s dedication that she hopes will help the Ferns get out of their group at the Tokyo Olympics.

“If the past few years have taught us anything, it is that we have to adapt and if we go to the Olympics without playing any games then so be it,” she says. 

“We will have to rally together and do our best. When we last played together, we were stringing together some good performances and building in confidence. I know everyone is looking forward to getting back together and seeing what we can do.”

100 Club – Football Ferns

150 – Ria Percival
141 – Abby Erceg
134 – Ali Riley
125 – Amber Hearn
124 – Katie Duncan
123 – Annalie Longo

119 – Betsy Hassett
109 – Rosie White
104 – Kirsty Yallop
100 – Sarah Gregorius
97 – Hannah Wilkinson

Peter Thornton is an experienced journalist and communications manager. He is a senior media advisor for ACC.

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