By Mark Janzen, Trinity Western University
Jenaya Robertson tried to get up.
It didn’t happen. She crumpled to the ground, with her knee buckling one last time, and the pain that shot through her leg reached a level she had never experienced.
The impending quarter-final loss to UOIT (University of Ontario Institute of Technology) in the 2016 U SPORTS championship tournament stung enough. The ball to the face that had knocked her to the turf also hurt plenty. But the throbbing in her knee was the unforgiving icing on top of it all.
A knee that had given her grief for the better part of five years finally gave way in a newfound fashion. Her teammates carried her off the field.
Eight days later, Robertson had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Her meniscus proved unsalvageable.
Robertson, a third-year midfielder with Trinity Western University’s women’s soccer program, is one of a small percentage of people who can live, function and even continue to play soccer with a torn ACL. The Delta, B.C. product learned this having accidently done so for five years.
In 2011, when the Spartans captain was in Grade 9 at Delview Secondary, she suited up for her high school team – a level that is little more than a recreational league for players of her ilk. But it was supposed to fun. In her first high school game of the season, she sent a cross into the box, only to have her other leg taken out mid-motion. Robertson landed awkwardly and heard a pop. That was the first time her knee, as she says, “buckled.”
A 15-year-old Robertson didn’t believe the physiotherapist that suggested she may have torn her ACL. It couldn’t be. A second and third opinion gave her a more manageable prognosis – probably a torn meniscus, something that wouldn’t require surgery and would only shelve Robertson for two months.
Upon her return to the pitch, a five-year journey to eventual surgery began.
As she would find out in her second year of university, that “pop” was indeed the tearing of her ACL.
After getting back on the field, it started out with her knee only “buckling” every few months. She would leave the pitch in considerable discomfort and take a few weeks off. Then she’d be back playing. It was annoying, but it didn’t affect her on-field success. Playing with Coastal FC, Robertson helped her team to two provincial titles and was amongst the best players on the pitch on any given day. She came to TWU with an impressive résumé in what was a strong 2015 recruiting class that also featured the likes of Brooklyn Tidder, who was recently named a Canada West Second Team All-Star, and Rachel Hutchinson, who has led TWU in points each of the last two years.
As a rookie with TWU, Robertson was an instant success as she started all 14 games.
However, in the fall of 2016, her knee only got worse. Eventually, it was buckling nearly every practice.
“It got to a point where it wasn’t painful any more but it was a really disgusting feeling and I knew it wasn’t supposed to be happening,” she says.
In an early season game against Victoria in 2016, her knee got the best of her and she had to be taken off the pitch in the 53rd minute. Upon review, she says a piece of her meniscus had chipped off. Around that time, she had a doctor further examine her knee and, five years after the fact, tell her she had a torn ACL. While surgery loomed, her unique ability to play through it allowed Robertson to keep playing through the rest of the season. However, eventually, the final straw snapped against UOIT.
Eleven months after her surgery, Robertson is no doubt capable of challenging her soccer ball juggling record. By her count, she once surpassed 1000 touches. However, the first time she juggled the ball post-surgery, she barely did 10.
“I’m thinking, ‘what is wrong with me?’” Robertson says. “How am I going to play soccer again? There were definitely dark days.”
With a team and therapy staff as tight-knit as exists with the Spartans, not to mention three of her teammates also rehabbing from ACL injuries at the same time, Robertson’s darkest days were surrounded by support.
“My teammates were amazing. I would be in the gym and they’d be shouting encouragement from the other side,” she says. “And Nat (Ghobrial, the Spartans head athletic therapist) was a huge support system for me. Not only is she helping me rehab, but she’s almost like a counsellor in a certain sense. It’s amazing.”
At the same time, Robertson remained a leader within the team. After only two years, she was already a burgeoning captain.
Standing in the remote village of Bulembu in the far-flung country of Swaziland in the southern portion of Africa, Robertson looked like a proper coach. Wearing a black windbreaker, black pants and black Nike runners, she walked around, directing drills with a joyful confidence. It seemed she was in her element.
The women’s soccer team was in the midst of a two-week trip to Africa, in which the Spartans helped local organizations incorporate soccer into their already existing humanitarian and missional efforts. After a week in the country of Benin, the team spent nearly a week in Bulembu – a small town dedicated to helping raise and educate orphans, amidst an orphan crisis in Swaziland.
Part of the Spartans role in Bulembu was to run soccer clinics for youngsters and teenagers alike. Robertson looked like she had been coaching and leading for years – teaching the teenaged boys a few soccer skills while also having a laugh.
“Jenaya is caring and thoughtful and conscientious and wants to help others around her,” says TWU coach Graham Roxburgh, perfectly describing the persona she impressed upon the children in Bulembu. “She a good leader who models what it takes to be a Spartan.”
Later on in the team’s stay in Bulembu, Robertson, who was still in the early stages of her rehab, sat at one end of the field alongside many of the younger children from the town as they all watched the Spartans play the local high school’s boys team.
Noma, a 16-year-old girl from the village, sat beside her. They quickly connected over their love of soccer, but, as the week went on, it went further than that. In just a few days, Jenaya and Noma built a relationship. Before the team left to return to Canada, Noma handed her a note.
She signed off, “…Someday I hope to see you again. We are sisters in Christ.”
The second Robertson got off the plane in Vancouver, she wanted to go back.
“I’m just so thankful that we have this sport to make these types of connections,” Robertson says. “Being here (at TWU) and being in Africa really has helped me put my own desires aside and just want the best for the whole group. I have definitely also grown spiritually and that’s been huge. I didn’t think anything like that would ever happen. I’m on a journey right now and I’m trying to figure things out.”
Midway through the first half of this year’s season-opener against UBC, Robertson finally got back onto the field. It had been 302 days between playing in any sort of meaningful game. The Spartans were already down 3-0. Being Robertson, she just put her head down and went to work. She didn’t think about her knee. She didn’t really even get too excited to be back. Her team trailed by three goals and she wanted to make a difference.
“I think Jenaya in some ways provides the heart and the passion and a commitment to getting better,” Roxburgh says. “Obviously how she worked endlessly and how committed she was to recovering from a really serious knee injury is probably what she personifies in games, in terms of work ethic and here willingness to sacrifice her body.”
The Spartans still lost that game against UBC. The final score was still 3-0. But, with Robertson back, the complexion of the team started to change.
After stumbling to a 1-2 start to the season, Robertson and the Spartans began to find their groove. From there, they went 10 straight games without allowing a goal, setting a Canada West record for longest shutout streak.
That momentum rolled into the postseason where Robertson was the catalyst behind TWU capturing the program’s seventh conference championship.
After the Spartans 3-0 semifinal win over UBC, Roxburgh said it was the best performance he had ever seen from Robertson.
“I think her warrior and battling mentality provides an extra level of inspiration to our group,” Roxburgh says. “You add her desire and her will and determination to who she is as a person and you have a pretty special player.”
So it only made sense, when the Spartasn captured the conference title, they lifted their captain on their shoulders. She smiled and laughed, but probably kind of hated it. She’s never been one for the spotlight. And in the back of her mind, she was probably already thinking about the work that needed to be done to win the next trophy and cap her comeback season with a national title.