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Serious injury taught Prince the value of patience

Nichelle Prince Nichelle Prince - The Canadian Press

When Canadian forward Nichelle Prince ruptured her Achilles late last year, her mind flooded with doubts.

Would she be able to play in the World Cup? Would she ever get back physically to being the same player she was before?

Now, 10 months after the injury, Prince looks back on that uncertain period knowing she was able to represent Canada at her second FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer and return as a starter for the Houston Dash, her club in the National Women’s Soccer League.

“I definitely did not think I'd be where I am right now,” she told TSN. “I feel good. I feel like myself on the field.”

It’s been a long road to recovery for Prince since suffering the injury during a match on Nov. 15, 2022. In a friendly against Brazil– her last game of the year for club and country – she planted her right foot to chase a loose ball, and immediately pulled up, reaching for her heel.

While the pain was evident on her face, that wasn’t where her mind immediately went.

“I remember in the moment… I knew that the World Cup was around the corner. And so, I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, did I just ruin my chances of making the World Cup team?’” she said.

The non-contact injury was confirmed to be a ruptured Achilles. She had surgery less than a week after the match.

Prince describes her rehab process in Houston as slow, especially over the first three months. She was confined to a boot and very limited in exercises she could do (although she made sure she was able to dance at her wedding in December).

The 28-year-old has dealt with injuries before, including a torn meniscus suffered at the 2019 World Cup that required surgery. But this was an entirely new experience.

“It was a very interesting injury,” she said. “You make some gains, but then like, the next day, you can't move your foot, you can't walk.”

While Prince learned to adapt to the physical challenges, she also had to overcome the mental hurdles of rehab. Along with the isolation of being separated from her teammates at both Houston and the Canadian national team, she had nagging doubts about being able to regain what she had lost.

“My speed is a big part of my game,” she said. “Am I going to be able to sprint again, like how I was before? If I'm not able to do that, am I going to be the same player? Am I going to be able to compete at the highest level? All those thoughts are going through your head when you're literally just trying to do a calf raise.”

Prince learned to fight those mental battles one day at a time and accept that there would be hurdles along the way.

“You have to realize that you're not going to feel exactly the same, and I think that's a big mental push that you have to go through,” she said. “When you start running, it doesn't feel like how you used to run.”

Fortunately, the native of Ajax, Ont. was able to lean on the support of her Canadian teammate, Deanne Rose, who suffered the same injury two months before Prince.

The pair supported one another and swapped tips, although Prince admits it was sometimes difficult not to let her competitive nature take over during rehab.

“It's so important not to compare yourself,” she said. “It's important not to be like, ‘Where are you at? What are you doing?’ But just reaching out in a way where you're like, ‘I'm thinking of you,’ and, ‘Today was a little rough for me, but I'm hoping you're doing well.’”

That shared journey culminated in an emotional moment when the two returned to national team camp just prior to the start of the 2023 World Cup.

“We both teared up about it,” Prince said. “We're like, ‘Oh my gosh, I cannot believe we're both here right now.’ We felt like we're the only two that knew what we were going through in that whole process.”

Both forwards were named to the final roster for the tournament. Head coach Bev Priestman said Prince’s quality and experience were main reasons why she decided to roll the dice on a player who hadn’t seen game time in more than seven months.

“I just felt what she offers in attack, in transition, is critical to this team,” Priestman told TSN. “And I knew that a Nichelle for 30 minutes, if she was fit and able to do that, which is where she was projected going into the World Cup, was absolutely worth having. And I don't regret that decision for one minute.”

Prince returned to the pitch for the first time since her injury when she was subbed into the opening match against Nigeria in the 82nd minute.

“To get into that Nigeria game – it meant so much because it was a lot of long months, not really knowing what was going to happen and if I was going to be able to get back in time,” she said.

In the end, those were the only minutes Prince played in the tournament. She was an unused sub against the Republic of Ireland and Australia, and Canada was eliminated after a 4-0 loss to the Matildas in the final group stage match.

Priestman said she had hoped to use Prince more, especially if Canada had advanced to the knockout round, but other injuries during the tournament derailed her planned substitutions.

“She probably didn't feature as much as I would have thought or projected going into the World Cup,” Priestman said. “But she's very much a big part of our future.”

Prince said she felt confident that she would be able to contribute and get minutes for her country going into the tournament, but ultimately understands the final choice was out of her hands.

“Unfortunately, with tournaments and with players, you just have to make decisions. And I think the coaches made decisions that didn't include me being on the field as much as I wanted to,” she said.

After Canada’s early exit from the World Cup, Prince returned to training with Houston, and stepped back on the pitch with the Dash as a sub on Aug. 19. While she had already returned to action for the national team, the home crowd at Houston made her NWSL season debut feel unique.

“The fans really welcomed me back on the field, and I wasn't really expecting much coming back on,” she said.

Since then, Prince has made three more appearances for the Dash, including two starts. She feels her fitness is improving week by week and that she has also regained the speed that is so crucial to her game.

But she also knows that she needs to be patient.

“I can't go from zero to a hundred,” she said. “I don't want to say I'm going to play 90 minutes. I'm not sure what the future holds in terms of that. But I think I'm in a good spot.”

Prince is currently back with the Canadian national team at camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as the group prepares to face Jamaica in the two-legged CONCACAF W Olympic Play-In series. The winner on aggregate of the home-and-away series will earn the last CONCACAF berth for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The Canadians will travel to Jamaica to face the Reggae Girlz on Friday before playing their home match at BMO Field in Toronto on Tuesday.

The defending gold medallists last failed to qualify for the Olympics 20 years ago, and Prince believes the team is more determined than ever after their disappointing World Cup.

“After how we finished, there's no other way that we're feeling. We're just hungry,” she said. “We have a lot to prove. And we have to prove it to ourselves as well.”