When an athlete tears their anterior cruciate ligament, and they lie screaming on the field, they usually have a pretty good idea of what’s happened. And so it was for Holli Wheeler, St George Illawarra’s lock, when she snapped hers in an NRL Nines match in February 2020. She was 30 years old: old enough that some rotten thoughts got into her head. “My first thought was: will I ever play again?” Wheeler says. “What will I do if I don’t have football? This is my outlet. Lying on the field, I thought ‘I’m done. I’m old, my career’s over.’ But after a few days, my mindset shifted. ‘This isn’t how I finish my career,’ I thought.”
Famously cruel, the injury will oblige invasive surgery, a long and painful spell of rehabilitation, and an absence from the game that’s typically at least nine months. Wheeler’s absence was closer to a year. “You go through an emotional roller-coaster,” Wheeler says. “It’s the most testing injury because it’s so long. You lose little things like being able to cross your legs. After 10 months I could finally do that. It was a very testing time. It was heinous. There were good days and little wins, but then there’s setbacks. I remember smashing rehab, then practically tearing my hamstring. I had to restart. But it changed my life for the better, I think. It made me mentally stronger. Though during the 12 months it was carnage most of the time.”
Wheeler was helped through her rehabilitation by her partner, Shontelle Stowers, a rugby league player herself. Stowers was there for the scans and there when the ugly results of those scans were explained. Stowers was there when Wheeler wept with pain and frustration, and was there to help with postoperative care.
Long rehabs can be isolating but one grace in Wheeler’s was that she stayed close to the game by coaching juniors. And there was another. This being women’s rugby league, its athletes all work other jobs. Wheeler works as a community housing manager and her tenants were curious about her injury – it was often via their questions about her crutches that they discovered she was an elite rugby league player.
“Working within community housing, we deal with people that have had very tough lives – homelessness, domestic violence relationships, Ukrainian tenants leaving war,” Wheeler says. “There’s a variety of complex clients with complex needs. My role is like a property manager, I guess, and it’s rewarding but taxing. It pulls at your heartstrings. But I love it. I had a particular person in my life who’d been through some of these struggles and it’s opened my eyes. It teaches you a lot of patience and allows you to see things from a different perspective.”
Playing, coaching and working full-time in community housing – this workload is the signature of the modern female footballer. “I’m on [Sydney’s] northern beaches and training in Wollongong,” Wheeler says. “Lots of girls have had to give up work during the season, or quit and find other jobs. We get paid for that short time, but it’s not enough to sustain a lifestyle. I’m lucky that my job is supportive of me, but it’s tough to balance some days. It can get on top of you. Last week, I needed a day to switch off and just sit down – I felt like I’d always been running around. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the opportunity. And eventually the girls will be full-time like the men. The men used to work too. They had to earn that [professionalisation]. We’ll earn the right to be professional athletes too. I think we’re close.”
Holli Wheeler was born in 1990 in Taree, on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. She says she was a tomboy and loved nothing more as a kid than playing ball sports with her brothers in the backyard, or staying up with her dad to watch the NRL or, more excitingly, the State of Origin series. “Watching those games was like Christmas,” Wheeler remembers.
Wheeler was a gifted athlete, but in lieu of any opportunities to play league – her first love – she turned to hockey at six or seven. She eventually represented her state and captained the country Australian squad. But despite playing the sport seriously for 20 years, it was an easy decision to give it up for league when the opportunity presented. “I got to the point where I’d represented my state, my country, ticked so many boxes I never thought I’d tick, so I knew I had to take this opportunity,” she says. “My family asks me a lot if I miss hockey and I tell them: ‘No, I don’t.’ I love football that much. It’s the sport that sets my heart on fire the most. So, it’s been a long journey for me. Had we had the pathways then as we do now, I’d have been playing much earlier.”
It was hard to imagine when she was a kid. In fact, those pathways were still hard to imagine when she was well into her 20s. The same was true for her dad. When she was young, she says her father told her to focus on hockey. “Dad was old school,” she says. “He’d only seen men play football. Think back to 2017 even, it wasn’t being televised. So, he had no idea. He hadn’t seen women play. It was a massive eye-opener for him when he did.
“But when I was even younger – I think I was 11, 12 when I asked Dad if I could ever play football – it was just so uncommon, and he probably thought I had a career at hockey. I can see his mindset, that there wasn’t really a career opportunity. I don’t think it was anything other than that. He knew I was just as rough as the boys.
“Now my dad’s my biggest supporter. He calls me weekly. He’s at every game. He travels overseas to see me play. I remember he came up to me after a game and said: ‘Jesus, you hit harder than some of the men.’ ”
In 2018, the NRLW’s first season, Wheeler was named the St George Illawarra Dragons’ best player. She also represented NSW in the State of Origin and was capped for her country. It was a remarkable season for someone who’d only just left hockey.
Which adds additional perspective to how cruel that ACL injury was at the start of 2020. When Wheeler returned after a year, she thought she might vomit from nerves. But she’s now confident of her health and longevity – and that of the NRLW, now in its fifth year and recently expanded to six clubs.
“The NRL has done great work with the women’s league, even if Covid stunted the growth of the women’s game,” Wheeler says. “I’m sure people got sick of the same four teams for a few years, but had we put too many teams in too quickly, I think you would have lost the quality of the game. You don’t want blowouts. They did good to keep it tight enough to ensure the quality’s there. But it will be exciting to see 10 teams next year. And I think we’re seeing better pathways for girls from juniors to the NRLW. We’ll get to 16.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 as "Wheeler balance".
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