My Walk With the Boss on the Road to Recovery

Zarek Valentin, Portland Timbers defender

We are all used to our routine, and I am no different. Every day we get out of bed and carry on with business as usual.  We can mostly be assured that this process will begin again the following day. Most like myself, probably take this familiarity for granted.  A routine shadows my life as a professional soccer player as well. Each day consists of a lengthy warm-up and practice that prepares me for the games ahead. 

On this particular day in April, we were playing a standard eight versus eight player drill in a small grid on the field. While trying to intercept a play by the opposing attacker, I jumped up and trapped the ball with my right foot while landing back down on the left. POP. The most eerie sound pierced my ears and I instantly knew something was wrong. I proceeded to look back at my teammate and yelled in anger while trying to process what I had understood as a really bad kick to the back of my leg. Little did I know, he was over ten meters away. I looked around to try and make sense of this awful sound that I had just heard. This is when the extreme pain overtook my body and everything around me seemed to fade away. I lay there numb as my teammates carried me off the pitch on a stretcher. The only thing flooding my mind was the chorus of one of my favorite songs. Come on, come on down, you got it in you…Sweet Virginia. 

They say in sports that noncontact injuries are usually the worst. This was unfortunately what happened to me. I lay on the training bench with my head in my hands. A trainer came in and quickly identified a torn Achilles tendon. I wasn’t able to understand everything that was being discussed in Norwegian but easily picked up on the mention of a minimum six-month recovery time. There I was with tears escaping my eyes while wondering how this had happened to me. With all the emotion overtaking me, I simply wanted to call my brothers. They are my first calls in moments of weakness or triumph. Their calls were followed by my trainer coming in to explain what was next. Looking perplexed, he wondered why I was quietly laughing to myself. I wondered out loud if I should wish my girlfriend a happy birthday before or after I shared the news. Oh the irony.  

There was no looking back from that moment on. I spent my time focusing the future and what was soon to come. On my way back from having a cast put on at the doctor’s office I happened to check my Instagram and noticed my eldest brother Zach had tagged me in a posted clip of a Sweet Virginia recording minutes prior to me injuring myself. This coincidence had a calming effect on me and served as a reminder that maybe this was simply out of my hands and I would have to trust that everything happens for a reason.

As one could imagine, this season ending injury was a lot to take in. I resorted back to my brothers for comfort. Music has always bonded us together. Zach suggested I listen to No surrender by Bruce Springsteen for which “No retreat, No surrender” eventually became my motto going forward throughout the long recovery process.  

The first eight weeks of the injury were spent in a cast. I was left partially immobile until it was removed and replaced with a walking boot. For the first two months, I would sit up in bed and sigh. I would proceed to turn on No Surrender where Bruce’s words would echo in my ears and feed me the motivation I needed to get on with my day. 

The constant mental struggle was the hardest part about the injury.  I was granted two and a half months of rehabilitation time back home in the United States close to my family. Everything fell into place when my brother picked me up in a wheelchair in New York. We drove straight to a Springsteen concert to cheer me up and for the first time since the injury occurred, things were looking up.

No time was wasted before rehabilitation was started the following week with arguably the best in the business, James Hashimoto.  I shuffled between his clinics in Delaware where I made an hour long drive every single day with my girlfriend, my unsung hero during this process. Having someone by my side every step of the way granted me relief and brought a sense of calm to the whole process. 

Rehab was long and painful. Despite this, it taught me a lot about myself. You are forced to make adjustments to your usual ways when you can no longer do things that have always come easily to you. The simple act of walking, which most of us take for granted, became a struggle. I worked hard with Hash for two months to simply regain this ability. I will never forget the feeling that overcame me when this was finally accomplished.   

The silver lining of this injury was the time spent at home with my family. It had been years since I had been able to spend an ample amount of time back home with them and during such a mentally taxing time, their banter and laughs were enough to make me smile and keep me in good spirits. 

I realized during this process that mentally rehabilitating myself would be the actual struggle. Bodies will heal with time but the memory of a severe career altering injury is haunting. Learning to trust myself again was very difficult. I was injured while engaging in a very routine movement so attempting this again would be an obstacle in itself.  Like anything else, I would eventually need to bite the bullet and force myself through this mental barrier that had built itself in my mind. 

I eventually left America walking on my own two feet and back to Norway where I would work my way back onto the field. The last game of the season had finally rolled around where I would eagerly make my return with the team. This would prove to be a game I would never forget. I stepped on to the field and all the sound around me slowly faded into the background and all I could hear were my inner thoughts focusing on my next move. I jumped off my left foot as a reminder that I could finally trust my body again. All the pain was worth the feeling of accomplishment I felt in this moment. 

We all need to find things that keep us going in life. There were several times I would be running fitness around our stadium all by myself and I would visualize my family cheering me on. I would have never thought to find myself rehabbing a torn Achilles in the Arctic Circle away from all my loved ones, but there I was. Despite the circumstances that life threw my way, I carried on pushing for the things that mattered most to me. Springsteen’s words got me started and my family carried me though to the end.