Brandi McDonald knew something was wrong right away. The East Bridgewater High midfielder went to pivot in pursuit of the ball last October against Norwell.
“I collapsed,” recalled McDonald. “There wasn’t as much pain as there was this weird feeling in my knee. I tried to stand up and I just couldn’t. I knew it was my [anterior cruciate ligament].”
McDonald tore the ACL in her left knee, joining a growing number of young athletes, particularly young girls, who have suffered the same fate.
Seventy percent of ACL tears, according to Dr. Martha Murray, orthopedic surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, are the result of noncontact injuries.
“It’s usually a plant and a pivot that goes badly,” she said. “They often plant their foot on the ground and then they turn to go the other way and they lose control of their knee and their knee drops down towards the ground and twists and that’s how they tear it.”
Murray said the injury is more common among females than males, with the ratio ranging from 2 to 1 to 8 to 1. She said there are multiple theories as to why young women are at greater risk, such as hormone levels during the menstrual cycle that may affect the strength of knee ligaments, or that females have wider hips than males, changing the angle of pressure on the joint.
Murray, also the codirector of the hospital’s female athlete program, said one key difference is that when boys go through puberty, they get taller and gain muscle mass, “but the girls tend to get taller and they have to work really hard to get their muscles stronger, so they are trying to control these longer legs with larger lever-arms around the knee, with not as much muscles as the boys have.”
According to Murray, the peak age for women to tear an ACL is between 15 and 19 years old. She said the best way to avoid ACL injuries is perform specific exercises targeting the knee, and she encourages coaches to download a training program for young women posted online by FIFA, the sport’s international governing body.
McDonald, who underwent reconstructive surgery last December, has been stellar in her return this fall as a senior captain, recording a team-high 12 points (six goals, six assists) in East Bridgewater’s 5-2-1 start.
“At first, I was very hesitant,” said McDonald, who now plays with a brace, remembering the first cut she had to make on the field after the injury. “I’m pretty much there now to where I can cut without thinking about it too much, but it is in the back of my mind.”
At Notre Dame of Hingham, junior Kristen McCrea and sophomore Lexi Noyes have been relegated to spectator status after tearing ACLs this past summer with their club teams.
They will not play this fall for Notre Dame, the defending Division 2 state champion.
“I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting out for six months and just watching,” said McCrea, a center midfielder. “I was in denial. It might be the worst thing to happen to a soccer player.”
Her teammate shared the same emotion at the thought of missing an entire high school season.
“I was devastated,” said Noyes, who suffered the injury during tryouts for her South Shore Selects club team in early June. “I was looking forward to training really hard this year.”
The two have created a support system as they both go through physical therapy separately two to three times a week.
“It’s definitely better going through it with a teammate,” said McCrea. “When one of us has a bad day the other one is there and we are excited for each other when one of us reaches a milestone.”
Their next goal: being able to run again.
“I’m a very athletic person and I hate being out of shape and not being able to run,” said Noyes. “You don’t realize how much you use something until you can’t do it.”
McCrea, who said she is hoping to begin light jumping and jogging exercises in the next few weeks, said: “You see someone out on a run, and you would give anything to be able to do that.”
Danielle Gordon, the varsity assistant coach at Notre Dame, said she feels their pain.
She had earned a scholarship to play at Boston College, but suffered a torn ACL the spring of her senior year at Rockland High.
“It’s tough to even talk about because it was so emotionally and physically draining,” said Gordon, who finished her career at Northeastern after one year at BC. “It’s tough to get taken out of something you rely on every day. You lose a part of yourself.”
As a coach, she said she emphasizes the importance of taking care of yourself as an athlete and knowing when you are ready to come back
“I tell every girl from the freshman level to the varsity level that they need to be honest with themselves,” she said. “They want to come back so quick, it’s a mental battle to sit out until you know you’re ready.”
No matter how long an athlete takes to rehabilitate a torn ACL, the likelihood of retearing the cartilage or tearing the opposite ligament is higher.
“The really hot area of research is thorough muscular training because that’s something we can change,” said Dr. Murray. “If we can teach girls to strengthen their hamstrings and how to jump and land with their knees in a safe position, then we can really help start to prevent these types of injuries.”