Julia Costanzo missed the 2018 OUA field hockey season after suffering a concussion. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Injuries suck. As an athlete, the worst thing I’ve ever experienced is being told that I can’t play. Throughout my years of competing in high-performance field hockey, my most difficult moments are when I’m forced to watch my team play from the stands.

No injury of mine has been more difficult to cope with than the concussion I sustained in an August pre-season match against the Calgary Dinos while preparing for the 2018 Varsity Blues field hockey season. With 30 seconds left on the clock, I reached out my stick to trap a loose ball when someone knocked into me. I didn’t know if she had come from beside me or behind me, but I knew that my neck and my head hurt. As I fell to the ground, the half ended and, with some assistance, I waddled uncomfortably to a seat on the far side of the bench, away from the team. As I sat frozen still with the floodlights stinging my eyes, only one thought entered my mind: this is not happening.

I knew what a concussion felt like. My season ended one game too early in 2017 when a ball smacked me in the eye, leaving me with a nasty black eye and a moderate concussion. Sitting on the bench while our therapist asked about my symptoms and tested my memory, I tried my best to downplay how I was feeling and score perfectly on the tests — but I soon knew it was over. Based on my sensitivity to the bright back-campus lights, my difficulty focusing on the words that the therapist kept repeating, and the general sensation that I was spinning, I could tell I was concussed. After the game, my teammates repeatedly asked, “You’re okay right?” to which I responded, “Yeah, don’t worry, my neck just hurts a little,” attempting to convince them I was fine as a way of trying to convince myself too.

A doctor’s appointment the next day confirmed what I already knew but refused to believe: I had a concussion. In the weeks following my injury, I spent time away from the team — missing meetings, practices, and weightlifting sessions. Focusing on my rest and recovery, I still had two weeks before the regular season started to get myself back into the lineup. Those two weeks passed, and despite my dedication to my rehabilitation program, I achieved minimal progress. The team traveled to Waterloo to open the regular season and I stayed at home. Part of me was sad to be missing the start of the season, while part of me was relieved. I knew my concussed brain couldn’t handle the bus trip, the game, or the emotional experience of sitting out of our season opener — a moment I had looked forward to and trained for over the past nine months.

As the season went on, I stayed home while the team traveled. After a month of sitting out, it became clear that I would not step on the field for the 2018 field hockey season. I mourned this news for weeks. I sobbed as I sat at home every night knowing that my team was on the field without me; because of the severity of my symptoms, I wasn’t even allowed to go watch. Maybe I was so upset because it was my fourth season and I felt like I was reaching the peak of my career, or that I devoted most of my summer to training for the season more than I ever had before, or because I’m a captain and I felt that I was letting my team down more and more with every game I missed. Likely, all three reasons, combined with my concussion symptoms, trapped me in a gloomy haze of mourning over field hockey. I was unable to look at pictures, read game recaps, or look at my stick without choking up.

It was not until the final weeks of the season when I embraced my role as an injured player. Due to several other injuries throughout the season, a group of injured players began to emerge — some of whom were also concussed — and we helped each other navigate the difficult experience of sitting out. We formed a community of support, always there for each other because we had a shared understanding of how brutal injuries can be. My fellow injured teammates and I helped the team prepare for games and kept them focused. We cheered them on as loudly as we could from the stands, and we were the first ones to comfort them during tough losses. I felt more a part of the team during these weeks than I had earlier in the season, when I still pictured myself on the field.

Despite never attending a practice or stepping on the field in a game, this season taught me the importance of every member on the team, no matter how seemingly small their role. I learned that I am a valued member of our team, even if I’m at home in bed during practice or in the bleachers at the game. Watching this season from the stands also made me realize how much I love field hockey. Watching my teammates thrive on the field was inspiring and I wanted nothing more than to be out there with them. I still look forward to the day when I pick my stick back up.

Perhaps most importantly, I realized how much I take my health for granted. With my days full of uninterrupted dizziness, difficulty focusing, and struggling to do any basic exercise without provoking symptoms, I long for the healthy field hockey player I used to be. I picture the athlete who enjoyed her afternoons in the gym weightlifting with her team, her evenings and weekends at the field, and sharing in the collective struggle of the climbing machine with her friends. I know she’ll be back soon and I can’t wait.

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