photos courtesy UNC Athletic Communications and Joanna Boyles
Tattooed on the inside of Joanna Boyles’ right ring finger are two words so small and unassuming it looks like they could have been scribbled there by her opposite hand.
It’s reminiscent of when a student takes notes on their arm because they need to remember something. That is what she’s trying to do, after all. These words and their permanence serve as a reminder that some things will remain long after the scars on both her knees fade away. That no amount of soap and water, no amount of sweat and tears and pain and anguish could make her forget who she was and who she’ll continue to be.
When Boyles takes the field at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary tonight against Duke, it will be the first time in more than 21 months that the redshirt senior midfielder has played in a real match for the North Carolina women’s soccer team. But it’s that time off — especially the last 12 months — and everything that’s come with it that have allowed Boyles to remember the things that helped her get here in the first place.
Because without them, who is she?
“I wanted to have something that I could always ground myself again when life would get hectic or when things were out of my control,” she said. “You can always control who you are, and that's something that I always wanted to remind myself and never lose sight of the fact that I am who I am …
“I am tough. I am strong. I am resilient. And I wouldn't be here if I didn't have those qualities.”
Boyles went down in a heap.
Defending during a five-on-five portion of UNC’s practice on Nov. 9, 2015, she planted with her left leg while trying to cut. As a cold rain fell at Finley Fields, Boyles knew what had happened.
It was hard not to recognize the signs. She had already seen two of her teammates — Dorian Bailey and Darcy McFarlane — lose their seasons to ACL tears earlier in the year. So when Boyles planted during that November practice, just before the NCAA Tournament, she knew she had torn the ACL in her left knee. She knew what happened 10 minutes later, too, when teammate Cameron Castleberry crumpled to the ground clutching one of her knees.
Eleven days later, Summer Green tore her ACL — the fifth Tar Heel that season and eighth in the calendar year. Dr. Alexander Creighton, the team’s orthopedic surgeon, said he’s seen an average of just under two ACL tears annually through his 14 years working with UNC.
So what happened in 2015?
“It was obviously a statistical anomaly or bad luck or I don't know what you want to call it,” Creighton said. “But (it was) certainly unfortunate."
Boyles doesn’t spend much time talking about that first recovery process. After the second one, it seems almost irrelevant.
The midfielder was already planning to redshirt the 2016 season to ensure she’d be at full force heading into her senior year. But on August 31, less than 10 months after tearing her left ACL, she pushed herself a little too hard.
Boyles was feeling confident on what she called a “beautiful day.” So after hitting a few solid passes, she took on a teammate one-on-one. When she stepped over the ball with her right leg, that feeling came back.
“I knew immediately then that I did it again,” she said.
Just like that, all the progress she made to that point was gone. Staring at another 9-to-12 months of recovery, Boyles made it her mission to see the field before then.
“I'm going to be back on the field for a spring game,” she said.
Chris Gorres talks about building an athlete the same way you’d build a car.
“You kind of have to fix the chassis and the alignment first before we can start to add horsepower,” he said.
That’s the strategy he pitched to Boyles in November when he agreed to help her journey back to the field. Before she could focus on fixing her knee, she had to address the reasons that led to the injury.
Gorres, a personal trainer, identified the primary area of concern — Boyles didn’t have great posture, and as a result her glutes weren’t firing the way they were supposed to. Improving that, along with her core strength, would help her when she started running.
Of course, that was still months away.
In the interim, the pair laid out a list of concrete goals they wanted to accomplish during her recovery. Before they met, Boyles had done something similar on her own, tracking when she ditched her crutches and started walking without a knee brace — both of which she checked off a few weeks after surgery.
The items on their checklist seemed small at first: do a proper deadlift; do five pull-ups, then 10 pull-ups. But as the tasks grew larger and more daunting — like learning to run and jump and cut the correct way — she rediscovered the things that got her where she was.
She was tough. She was strong. She was resilient.
“You can kind of get clouded in who you are,” she said. “I was able to reground myself and reanalyze and realize who I am and who I always have been. It really helped me re-identify myself again."
As Boyles passed milestones during the winter, her confidence began to grow. She made sure she was always one or two steps ahead of protocol so that she’d be 100 percent by the fall.
All Gorres did was make sure she didn’t work through things too quick.
“She was always very determined in getting back,” he said. “She knew where she wanted to be. She knew where the end goal was. I think a lot of it from my perspective was actually holding her back so that she doesn't rush it too much …
“You start to see her eagerness to get back into the game. It started to grow more and more and more, and it's peaking now going into Friday's game against Duke.”
Boyles raised her hand at the corner flag before taking a few steps and whipping a cross into the box.
She checked into UNC’s spring game against Georgia on April 9 with 10 minutes left and the score tied, 0-0. Emotions were already high in her first game back with the team — she took the time to hug head coach Anson Dorrance before jogging out onto the field.
As the ball traveled toward the middle of the box off Boyles’ corner kick, sophomore forward Bridgette Andrzejewski met it with her head and beat the Bulldogs’ goalkeeper for the game-winning tally. Boyles was credited with the assist in a moment that seemed scripted for her return.
“It's probably a little nerve-wracking stepping back onto the field for the first time,” said redshirt junior Jessie Scarpa. “So for her to come in and get an assist like that was awesome ... You never know where your game's at until you're actually playing.”
When the final whistle blew, Boyles walked to the sideline before doubling over and sobbing. Just as important as playing in this game was going through all the emotions of her comeback.
It was just another one of the goals she needed to check off.
“To be able to release all those emotions that day was pretty important and pretty special for me to kind of acknowledge everything that I went through,” Boyles said, “but then kind of go through toward the next chapter, which is this season.”
Boyles is now just a few hours away from completing her comeback, and she says she feels better than ever before.
The injuries and subsequent recoveries caused her to rebuild herself from the ground up, but she hasn’t lost the things that got her where she is. Dorrance said Boyles’ his most technical player, and he’s considering playing a system this season that he said will “highlight and protect” the midfielder.
So far, he’s been amazed with her return to the field.
“Those two injuries hardened her …” he said. “They didn't discourage her or cause her to lose confidence. It almost galvanized the resolve for her to return — not just to her previous level, but to a level above it.”
But for Boyles, this whole process has been bigger than just playing again. Sure, that’s been the goal the whole time, but she didn’t expect her injuries to help her rediscover herself.
“I might have taken eight steps back, but I feel like I've taken 10 steps forward as a person, as a soccer player, as an athlete,” she said. “And in a weird way, I'm not grateful for them, but I'm grateful for what they've taught me about myself. I'm grateful for what they've taught me about who I am as a person and soccer player. I just feel really, really at peace with everything.”
Those injuries, as crippling as they seemed, helped her to regain control. To remember the things that helped her get here in the first place. To find those two little words that serve as a constant reminder of who she is.
Because without them, who is she?