As the Football Ferns travel to Wellington to take on the Philippines in their second game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the woman in the spotlight, Hannah Wilkinson, reflects on her journey to overcome serious injuries and inspire the next generation.
Hannah Wilkinson scored a goal that captured the imagination of New Zealand on the opening night of the FIFA Women’s World Cup but it’s a moment that might have never happened.
The 31-year-old from Whangārei has overcome incredible adversity throughout her career to be in a position to produce a goal that will be forever remembered in New Zealand football folklore.
Major injury setbacks have been a regular barrier for Wilkinson to overcome in her career.
In 2015, while playing for the University of Tennessee, she ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee.
“It is such a devastating injury, not only for the body, but for the mind as well. I learned the true power of things like patience, perseverance, and belief,” she says.
Three years later, playing for Vittsjö GIK in Sweden, Wilkinson 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  World Cup and I was just so gutted.”
She made it back for the World Cup in 2019 and four years later is leading the Ferns’ frontline.
Wilkinson never considered giving up playing the game that she loves, but the ACL injuries which can take up to 12 months to recover from, have tested her resilience.
Her time recovering from serious injuries helped her see the game from a different perspective.
“Once I was back, physically, I was stronger, more balanced and more stable. And I loved playing the game, even more so than before I was hurt.”
Preventing football injuries
Unfortunately, Wilkinson is not alone when it comes to suffering an ACL reconstruction.
In 2022, ACC accepted nearly 40,000 claims for football-related injuries.
A review of ACL reconstructions saw the greatest increase in females aged 15-19 years, with the rate of reconstructions increasing by 120 percent between 2009 – 2019.
She says: “From my experience you want to do everything you can from preventing this injury happening in the first place.”
Wilkinson’s advice for young players is to invest in their bodies.
“Get yourself into the 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.
ACC partners with New Zealand Football to deliver the NZF Performance and Prevention programme.
“There are some unique female-specific considerations when it comes to reducing the risk of injury in sport,” says ACC injury prevention partner Nat Hardaker says.
“We work with NZ Football to ensure injury prevention is an integral part of the game here. This is critical as it means we can support everyone to keep playing and maximise their enjoyment of the game.
“The 11+ warm up is an evidence-based programme designed to prepare players for the demands of the game. It includes exercises that really target strength and control of the lower limbs.”
Finding her happy place
When things get manic at this FIFA Women’s World Cup – with football fever now firmly gripping the nation – Wilkinson will lean on another love to quiet her mind.
“Music is everything to me,” says the talented singer-songwriter.
Every time the Ferns go on tour, Wilkinson packs her guitar to play with her team-mates.
“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 whole country is behind the team and Wilkinson is proud to put Northland on the world stage.
“It always means the world to represent not only Aotearoa, but Northland as well,” says Wilkinson, who idolised Ferns legend Maia Jackman growing up.
“Being one of the few players from the Far North is quite unique. I hope my representation can influence more young girls and boys in Northland to get involved in the world’s beautiful game.”
Dreaming of playing for her country
As a youngster, Wilkinson attended Kamo High School and was a natural athlete. She loved anything to do with sport and was one of the few girls competing with the boys at school, and also at the Kamo Football Club.
“I played with the boys until I was about 16,” she says.
“My dream throughout those years was to play for my country. I travelled to Auckland weekly, hoping to catch the eye of a national team coach.
“That hard work eventually paid off, and I have to thank my father, and some of my other fellow northerners’ families, for the long nights of travel to Auckland and back each week.”
Wilkinson – who has scored 29 goals for New Zealand throughout her career – knows the team will fight for every moment in this World Cup.
“When we are at our best, we show a great fighting spirit. The team that will win, will be the one that wants it more. And no team will want it more than us.”
Wilkinson has reflected many times on where her career began – a kid who loved to play football in the humble surrounds of her Northland community.
She has sound advice for any young girls and boys who dream of playing for their country.
“Never give up,” she says. “It will get very tough, but always remember why you started.”
Football Ferns games at the World Cup
20 July v Norway, Eden Park, Auckland
25 July v Philippines, Sky Stadium, Wellington
30 July v Switzerland, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
What is the NZF Performance and Prevention programme?
It is a player welfare and prevention programme for our everyday athletes.
It provides support mechanisms for enhancing player performance, injury prevention, and wellbeing.
The 11+ warm up is an evidence-based programme designed to prepare players for the demands of the game. It includes exercises that target strength and control of the lower limbs.
A study published by the British Medical Journal in 2008 found that teams performing this programme at least twice a week had 37 percent fewer training injuries and 29 percent fewer game injuries. Severe injuries reduced by almost 50 percent.
Find out more here: www.nzfpandp.co.nz/