When Sportsnet learned that Kara Lang, the former star of the Canadian women’s soccer team, was quietly working on a comeback, we asked if we could follow her progress as she rehabbed her knee, working feverishly with the goal of returning to the national team in time for the 2015 Women’s World Cup on Canadian soil. She agreed. We wrote about her journey—her stubbornness in the face of long odds, her inspiring effort to return to the game she loved—in the current issue of the magazine.
Two days after we went to press, she reached out to tell us that the comeback was over; that she’d torn the ligaments in her rebuilt right knee. Our story was overtaken by events—but that didn’t make it irrelevant. Kara Lang’s comeback attempt, wherever it goes from here, matters. It matters because we’ve all been down. We’ve all faced long odds. We’ve all had hopes dashed by bad luck, and we’ve all searched for the strength necessary to do whatever it takes in pursuit of our dreams, whether we ultimately succeed or not. On that level, Lang’s story is truly inspiring, and the effort, in this case, is more important than the outcome.
It was a scene straight out of an Academy Awards ceremony, a moment of genuine emotional overload unfolding before a silenced and sympathetic crowd.
Polished and preened and looking like a Hollywood starlet in all-black, Kara Lang began to speak, her voice crackling and her eyes filling with tears. More than once she brushed strands of golden hair out of her eyes as she stood trembling at the podium, explaining to the gathered media at her hometown Oakville Soccer Club why she was retiring.
Two anterior cruciate ligament injuries in her right knee suffered in the span of five years had taken their toll. For Lang, one of Canada’s brightest women’s soccer stars, the spirit was willing, but the body wasn’t so much weak as it was broken. “I’m only 24 years old, and I don’t think I should be in pain every day,” Lang said. “There is a lot of other stuff I still want to do in my life, and I’d like to be healthy to do it.”
That was 2011. A lot has happened since then. The Canadian women’s team found new life under coach John Herdman, winning bronze at the 2012 Olympics. Canada was named host nation for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. And Kara Lang has come out of retirement, undergoing a comprehensive rehab program that would take her back to the very basics of movement, literally learning to crawl before she could walk. All so she could run without pain. All in service of her dream of competing in that World Cup on home soil. If she pulls it off, it will be the stuff of Hollywood drama, one of the most incredible comeback stories in Canadian sports history.
To fully appreciate why Lang is doing this—why she’s risking further injury—you have to understand the kind of player she was. If Christine Sinclair is the best women’s player Canada has ever produced, Lang wasn’t far behind, a huge talent cut down before she really had a chance to blossom.
Born in Calgary, Lang debuted for Canada’s women’s team against Scotland in 2002, as a 15-year-old. She scored her first two goals two days later against Wales. Lang went on to become one of Canada’s most prolific players, starring as both a midfielder and forward. She scored two goals in six games to help Canada make the semis of the 2003 Women’s World Cup—still Canada’s best showing at the tournament—and played at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. By the time she played her last game for Canada in 2010, Lang had an impressive 34 goals in 92 national team appearances. Though she hasn’t played for more than three years, Lang remains fourth all-time in Canadian scoring.
It’s a career any player would envy, but injuries robbed the now 27-year-old of further accomplishments. No more. Lang admits the upcoming World Cup is one of the reasons she decided to come back, but there are other motivations. The biggest is that she has something to prove—not to others, but to herself.
“I don’t think I fully reached my potential as a player before. A lack of confidence held me back,” Lang says. “And as much as this rehabilitation process has been about physical work, a lot of it has been about the mental work. I’ve learned self-belief is what makes the difference.”
Lang’s decision to come out of retirement is a brave one, especially given how well life had been going since she hung up her cleats. Aside from a number of soccer-related projects off the field, she began a broadcasting career, and found personal happiness with Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Romero. The couple live together in L.A.
Before Lang decided to try it, she talked to her parents, who more than anyone understood the pain and struggle she endured in the final months of her career. Not surprisingly, they expressed concern that their daughter was jeopardizing the many opportunities with which she had been blessed since retiring. She also talked it over with Romero. “He was very involved in my decision, and from the beginning he was nothing but supportive,” Lang says. “He asked me once, ‘You still love it, don’t you? You still want to be out there.’ I did.”
The chances of re-injuring her knee are very real. Lang is taking a big risk, and says she’s ready for it. “It didn’t kill me the first two times and if anybody is prepared to handle it, it’s me,” she quips, adding seriously, “You can’t play with fear.”
That fearlessness is one of the reasons Herdman reached out to Lang. He had coached New Zealand for five years, leading them to two World Cups. As a follower of the international women’s game he knew all about Lang. When he took over as Canadian coach in 2011, the wheels started turning and he began talking with her, gauging her interest in playing again. “I was so surprised when I got here that she wasn’t involved in the squad,” Herdman says. “That a player retired at the age of 24 in the modern game, it just didn’t sit right with me.”
After a series of conversations over several months, Lang decided to take Herdman up on his offer. He got the ball rolling when he sent Lang to Montreal last March to begin rehab under the supervision of a team of physical therapists and athletic therapists from B2ten, an organization committed to helping elite amateur athletes.
Tedious doesn’t even begin to describe Lang’s rehab. “It’s been an incredible test of my patience,” she says. “I was prepared for the physical work, but not the mental test.”
Lang’s rehabilitation hasn’t been just about strengthening the muscles around her knee. Although surgery repaired the structural damage, Lang still had pain, indicating that weakness elsewhere was straining her knee. Trainers forced her to relearn basic movements—everything from crawling and squatting to standing and walking. In so doing, they hoped to address undiagnosed problems she was having before her surgery.
The first step was checking her ego at the door. “You’re an elite athlete and here’s some guy teaching you how to walk again and how to run again. It’s very basic movement patterns that any athlete thinks they have down,” Lang says. “It’s hard to be told you’re doing it wrong and even harder to teach your body to do it properly.”
Progress was slow but steady. When Lang joined the Canadian women’s camp in Vancouver in November, she hooked up with a new team of specialists who had her relearn how to roll around on the ground the way an infant does. “One of the first things babies learn is to roll from their stomach onto their back and their back onto their stomach. We went back to that with Kara to teach her how to segment her lower body from her upper body,” said Darren McConaghy, an athletic therapist who has been working with Lang. “We learn [as babies] how to do these movements in order to earn the right to stand up and walk and run, but at some point as adults you lose that. If we correct these fundamental human patterns, the pain goes away.”
Months on end spent learning the most basic movements was mind-numbing monotony for an athlete who competed at the highest level. But there were no “bad days,” Lang says, only ever-so-fleeting moments of doubt. “There was never a day when I thought about quitting, but there were certainly moments where I said to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ ”
How did she stay so motivated? “Part of it is that I’m incredibly stubborn, and I wasn’t going to let this beat me,” she says. Part of it is the promise of playing in a World Cup in Canada. And part of it is Herdman, whom Lang credits for continually inspiring her: “I owe him a lot. Whenever we meet, he always finds a way to hit me at my core.”
And then there’s Romero, who has endured professional angst of his own after a bright start to his career. Today, his future as a major-league pitcher is in doubt after spending most of last year in the minors. But Romero hasn’t complained or sulked and remains focused on getting another chance. “The amount of fight he has in him is something I really admire and something I strive to emulate,” says Lang. “We both are not trying to be who we used to be. We’re trying to focus on right now and trying to be our best at this moment.”
Not wanting to live in the past is a theme Lang goes back to often. Since her comeback began, the question she gets most is whether or not she’ll be as good as she once was. She knows she won’t—how could she be, after everything she’s been through? But she’s not trying to. “I’m a different person now from three years ago. Chances are I’ll be a different player, too. I don’t have any illusions of trying to be who I was. That’s not my focus,” Lang says. “I have a new perspective on life and the game. I’ll bring the same attitude and leadership as before, but I’m older and my body has been through a lot more, and I have to be smarter.”
That suits Herdman just fine. “I came into this [hoping] I can get her on the pitch for even the last 20 minutes of games, and she’s a game-changer,” he says, “I can live with that.”
The worst is behind Lang; she’s in the home stretch now. She’s been working with the ball for the past two months while continuing rehab. McConaghy says Lang is ahead of schedule, and is amazed at her progress. “She’s come from a place where she had a hard time just going into a small jog without pain to today where she can sprint, she’s able to cut and able to hit cross balls, and had no problems.”
Proliferation therapy was the final hurdle, a series of regenerative injections of dextrose, fish oils and painkillers that promote stability in her joints. Lang has now been cleared for full-contact training with the women’s team. If all goes well she will play in the Cyprus Cup in March. And from there, on to the 2015 World Cup where the comeback will be complete.
But in one sense it already is, even if she never plays another game. This long and arduous journey has helped Lang find herself and rediscover her passion for the sport—not as a means to an end, but in the simple pleasure of having the ball at her feet. “I can remember being so giddy to be on the field again. Three years ago, I never would have had that feeling, to have such joy from just going out and kicking the ball around,” Lang says. “Now that I have feeling back, I don’t want to lose it. I’m going to hold onto it. I’ll never let it go.