Georgia Wilson - Rebuilding my identity
30 May 2019
HOCKEY: For an athlete, a serious injury can derail so much more than a sporting dream. Being taken from routine and structure, in addition to the sudden isolation from peers, can in some cases lead to athletes feeling like they have been robbed of their identity.
For Hockeyroo Georgia Wilson, when her ACL gave way during a practice game, it was the start of a slip into an increasingly alarming state. Her happy-go-lucky persona was being replaced by depression, anger and at times self-hate.
Objectively, she’d lost the chance of competing at a home Commonwealth Games. But deeper and far more personal, she’d lost her veil of confidence and the central fibre to what made her feel special.
She’d suffered injuries before – notably a hamstring tear that cruelled her hopes of representing Australia at the Junior World Cup in Argentina – but this one was different.
"There was such an intense pain internally. It was a deep internal pain, that’s how I would describe it,” she said of the injury sustained in January of last year.
"I fell over someone’s stick, a movement that I’ve done so many times before and I didn’t hear a pop or a bang, but everything just sort of went numb and as soon as I tried to get up, I just knew that something internal wasn’t right.”
An ACL test conducted by an increasingly ashen-faced specialist soon confirmed worst fears, and as Wilson recalled, the initial disappointment soon gave way to disbelief.
"I was a bit in denial at first, I went in to training the next day on crutches and it probably hit me about a month after the surgery," she said.
"It’s such a lonely process rehab. It’s often on the sidelines, in the dark, with very little recognition or acknowledgement.”
Having grown up in and around teams, the arduous process of a solo 12-month recovery had left her vulnerable.
During high school days, Wilson said she had become known to her peers as 'hockey girl' due to her regular absence from first period school classes on account of hockey training or from being away from school completely, through camps or competitions.
And whilst she knows and understands that was the path to becoming the athletes she is, she also believes it’s a factor that potentially influenced how her athlete self-identity became too fixated on a single pursuit.
"A lot of the choices I have made growing up have been to get the best outcome as an athlete and as a hockey player,” she said.
"That has meant compromising relationships with family members, friends, not being able to go on a Europe trip for a month during middle of uni break. It means sometimes having to do online units, not being able to go in and have that physical presence with other people and making those connections.
"You feel quite isolated from something that you’ve invested everything in up until that point. But these are choices, not sacrifices,” she asserts.
However, with the goal of the Commonwealth Games removed, Wilson was struggling to come to terms with this circuit breaker. And the impact of that change became significant.
"I doubted myself for a long period of time about whether I’d get back, and when you’re in that head space it’s very scary.”
She’d masked those feelings initially, but the lingering questions of why, would keep coming back.
"Why does this stuff happen to me and why does my body give up on me when I probably need it the most?”
This frustration went beyond rehab and began to affect her home life too.
"It was just a lack of motivation to do basic tasks such as brush your teeth, or shower, and you really remove yourself from wanting to see any of your friends or family.
"You probably don’t realise you’re in a dark place until you need a lot of help,” she recalled candidly of a challenging time. "Everything in life was just a chore.”
What hadn’t escaped Georgia however, were strong passions. Although the most significant of those, in terms of her hockey, was gone for at least 12 months, a love for cooking, which increasingly found value in connection with emerging interests in meditation and yoga began to de-fog the uncertainty and map out new joy.
"I learned a lot about myself in the last year and the importance of having activities outside of sport. And that was one of the things I’d struggled with initially the most, was that although I had my uni, I still didn’t really have any other avenues that I enjoyed doing and that’s where my cooking started for me, really becoming an output and a mode of release.”
With a background in marketing studies and strong competence with all things social media, Wilson’s new endeavours started snow-balling into something tangibly positive and shareable.
A quick scroll through her Instagram account – The Nourished Athlete – will provide followers with her zest for recipes, fitness guides, tour and travel snapshots and of course, a hell of a lot of hockey.
The fact that Georgia has such a strong interest in food preparation and healthy eating stems from her own experiences growing up and the pressures she had placed on herself.
The drivers to be elite, had on occasion, led her to self-regulate.
"I suffered with disordered eating before and that has come from more of a perfectionist mentality of wanting to be the best athlete,” she said.
"So many young girls aren’t correctly educated around what their body needs, and also this extreme pressure to look or act a certain way.”
The connection between diet and body image is particularly close to home for Georgia, not only through her own lived experiences, but so too, through the struggle of a cherished family member.
"My sister was hospitalised with an eating disorder last year and her Instagram feed was full of photo-shopped, distorted images of girls that filled her mind with what she thought she needed to be like.”
This sparked something of a personal revolution for Georgia.
"No foods are now off limit. I used to have this mentality that food was either good or bad food and it creates binge eating tendencies. And a lot of athletes struggle with it so much and just a lot of females in particularly.”
She now enjoys a wide variety of food sources and makes no attempt to stigmatise meal choices, exercises or body-types.
Her focus instead, is on creativity, fun and wellness that also factors in her passions for yoga and meditation.
Unsurprisingly, her social presence has drawn a lot of public support, and she says she loves nothing more than helping share her own message with fans.
"It’s just letting others know, especially with the meditation and how that’s helped me and my anxiety prior to starting, and the whole sporting doubts.
"For me to have a young girl come up to me and try one of my recipes that I know is fuelling their bodies but also knowing that they’re not cutting out pasta or carbs, or sugar or anything like that, that’s probably the most important thing,” Wilson said.
Her point on helping others is directly related to her experience from having to find the courage to ask for help. Following her injury, she found that allowing others in was difficult, but with hindsight, she now believes it was pivotal to gaining acceptance with her own feelings.
"I knew immediately that the biggest challenge I would face upon returning from a major injury was the mental battle required on a daily basis.
"Rehab is quite an isolating time and often one can find themselves automatically removed from the group environment which means relationships with team mates and coaching staff can be put under strain.
"Reaching out when I was struggling was probably also the most difficult but the best thing I could have done in that situation. Knowing my concerns were being genuinely listened to provided a lot of comfort."
From this journey, Wilson says that she has found a purpose through her message. She is an ambassador for youth mental health organisation Zero2Hero and was earlier this year named as one of 21 athletes to accept a role through Lifeline and the Australian Institute of Sport as a Lifeline Community Custodian where she uses her platform to champion mental health awareness and seeking help and support.
"We need to remember that mental health illness doesn’t discriminate. Whether you are 29 years old or 49 years old, male or female, an athlete or artist. It’s crucial that we treat ourselves kindly during this time and access the wide variety of resources that surround us,” she said.
"Your local GP is a great place to start before looking at psychologists who can assist you in the direction where the best help can be provided.
"I feel so much pride when a young individual personally tells me their own life story and the struggles they are currently facing or those they’ve overcome. Breaking down those walls that I had built and letting others know of my weaknesses has become one of my greatest strengths and I’m so grateful that I have the opportunity to work with such fantastic organisations who have the same passion.”
There is no doubt that Georgia Wilson has taken on a lot of challenges. None of it however, changes how ambitious Wilson remains in pursuit of her hockey goals. It’s just that now she’s developed a broader identity around it.
"I have to remember that hockey is always the priority and that’s something that sometimes I forget, but it is a focus that I’m working on.
"That means often when I’m on tour, creating content prior to going, so that my full attention is on my job which is to be an elite athlete.”
With her rehab successfully completed, Wilson is now back playing international hockey for Australia and was even recently part of the team that travelled to South America to face Argentina in the Pro League.
But it’s been a long journey from breakdowns to Buenos Aires and Wilson is under no illusions that there’s plenty more work to be done. And neither has she forgotten those who helped her to get back in a Hockeyroos dress when she feared all was lost.
"There was never a concern about the knee rupturing or anything like that I have complete faith in my rehab coach (Dee Jennings at Hockey Australia) who had a PhD in ACLs and rehab so she’s very well educated, but it was more like the game awareness,” Wilson said.
Going straight from rehab back into international hockey is obviously a steep curve, and she contrasts that with the flexibility that a sport like AFL offers, through state leagues and fuller competition calendars.
"I didn’t have the opportunity prior, due to the timing of the year to play club or to play state, where as normally, if you hear about someone like Nic Naitanui – he goes into play WAFL and then eventually goes in (to AFL), whereas I was thrown in the deep end basically, against the world number one straight way (referring to her return match in Melbourne against the Netherlands).”
As such, she still feels short of her absolute best, but has a timeframe and belief to get there.
"No not yet, and that’s been the hardest thing to digest this year, but it is a slow work in progress and they say that it normally takes between two to three years for an athlete following an ACL return to come back to better than peak performance.”
She says the support of one particular teammate, and the committed advice of some old team staff at WAIS had kept her persevering through the worst.
"Stephanie Kershaw was my biggest inspiration. She’d done one (ACL) at the end of 2015, so she’d missed Rio and also had come back from her rehab and was one of the best players in the team,” she said.
Wilson expressed her personal sorrow that Kershaw has sadly again injured her knee at the start of 2019, but reiterated how important her role had been, in keeping her going.
"She was amazing and just really understanding in saying that what I was going through wasn’t foreign.”
Wilson was also appreciative of her WAIS coach Jeremy Davy and Institute Physiologist Paul Goods for not allowing her to give up on herself, saying their faith had meant a lot.
"Jed always said, trust the process and the outcome would follow. I remember when I did my knee and I was sitting in the kitchen crying to him and the Physiologist at WAIS and I said ‘I don’t know if I can do it? I don’t know if I’ll be able to get back there?’ and they just said, we’ll do it a session at a time,” she recalled.
"It was about every leg press, about every side-hop I did over hurdles and just trusting that those tiny little behaviours and actions would accumulate into getting back to playing for Australia.”
Serious injury can derail sporting dreams, but belief, hard work and a bit of self-care can put things right back on track.
"I haven’t scored a goal for my country yet, I’ve only played 25 games but I am very proud that I wake up every morning and despite maybe not feeling the best mentally, I make sure that I always challenge myself in working hard, knowing that there’s going to be a young girl out there eventually that sees me and wants to work as hard as I am doing.”