‘Will I walk again?’: Australian soccer star’s battle back from horror on-field spinal injury
Hayley Raso lay motionless. Her cheek pressed against the ice-cold turf on a soccer field in New England. Grimacing from the excruciating pain assaulting her body.
Her legs were completely numb, but her mind raced.
"'Will I be able to play again?" she recalls thinking. And an even bigger question: "Will I be able to walk again?"
The 24-year-old Australian international had just suffered a traumatic back injury, breaking three vertebrae in a sickening collision with a blameless opposition goalkeeper while playing for Portland in the National Women's Soccer League in the US.
She remembers the moment with sobering clarity. The sheer agony of it. But more so that terror over what it could mean.
"I couldn't do anything at that moment, I was just in so much pain, I couldn't move my body," she told the ABC.
"I can remember just saying: 'Help me, help me'. I knew that something bad had happened."
Dreams in the balance
The Matildas winger had backed into Washington's goalkeeper while trying to head a ball during a fixture in late August.
Replays show the moment two committed players clashed awkwardly at high speed, with a knee buried deep into Raso's back.
Some of Raso's teammates stood over her, watching with deepening concern, as medical staff tried to diagnose the injury.
An anxiousness fell over the crowd, too, all eyes locked on Raso, who was clearly in distress.
"My athletic trainer came onto the field and she was asking me: 'Can you feel your legs, can you wiggle your toes?'" she said.
"I was just thinking, you know, I have been hit in the back and I know these injuries can be serious.
"I have had so many dreams to play at the World Cup next year and the Olympics and now I am not going to be able to anymore."
In the days that followed, Raso was eventually given the news she had feared she might not hear.
"A neurosurgeon came in and spoke to me and said: 'You will recover from this, it's going to be hard, but you will play again.'
"In that moment I felt such relief because I had all these things in my head that I thought I was going to have to go through."
Raso had been stabilised in an emergency room of the hospital until 4am the morning after the match.
A photograph of her taken at the time shows her still wearing her Portland jersey from the game.
"It was hard. I couldn't even move or roll over in bed let alone stand up," she remembers.
A gruelling rehabilitation process started from the confines of her hospital bed on the east coast of America, with her mum Renaye Sweeting by her side.
Raso spent a week and a half in hospital before being moved to a local rehabilitation centre.
"I had a few episodes where I passed out because of the pain and I went into shock," she said.
"Eventually I was able to get up, slowly and with a lot of help.
"I was firstly in a wheelchair then I went to using a walking frame and I was just taking really small steps trying to get around the hospital."
Hayley's mother had been watching the game from her home on the Gold Coast and immediately flew to Washington to be with her daughter.
Ms Sweeting said seeing her daughter suffer while being so far away was a tough thing to go through, although she knew Hayley's father was by her side initially, having been at the game.
"I couldn't ring Hayley and I didn't know whether this was something that was going to totally change her life," she said.
Questions over on-field treatment
Ms Sweeting's sense of helplessness was compounded by concern over how her daughter was being managed in the immediate aftermath of the collision.
Raso was stretchered off in the 57th minute without any neck support. She was left on that stretcher on the side of the field for another seven minutes, before finally being moved to the dressing room.
"It could have been the difference between her walking and not walking," Ms Sweeting said.
"I was worried that if she had some type of spinal injury that this could cause some extra damage."
Raso, who was in agony in the minutes after the incident, said she was pleading with medical officials to move her off the sideline, away from teammates and fans.
Though grateful for the attention she received once the seriousness of the injury had been identified, Raso was left feeling she "could have been looked after a little bit differently" on the pitch.
The long road back
Raso's early stage of recovery has been remarkable.
She is back in Australia now, and even well enough to pay an emotional visit to her teammates at Brisbane Roar.
After a one-hour drive from her home on the Gold Coast, Raso walked gingerly across the car park towards the clubhouse, where her teammates were preparing for an early morning session at the team's new training complex in Logan.
Coach Mel Andreatta was one of the first to greet Raso.
"[It was] nice to give her that hug," Ms Andreatta said.
"I really care about her, she is a top person and when she said she was coming down I was so excited, although I didn't want to squeeze her too hard!"
The pair kept in touch throughout the ordeal and both know Raso's upcoming W-league season will be pivotal to her pressing her case to win back her place in the national team ahead of the 2019 Women's World Cup, which starts in June next year.
"She is one of those players," Ms Andreatta said. "She hasn't had the easy road through her career.
"She has always fought and never given up and that's what I expected and that's what she's shown.
"It's the approach and mentality you have in these moments that matters. I actually think she's a role model and a leader in these situations.
"We are confident that the way she's been managed early has allowed for the possibility that she will be able to take the field this season."
First Brisbane, then the world
Raso was part of the Matildas squad at the last FIFA World Cup in Canada in 2015, but didn't see any game time.
In France next year, should she recover sufficiently to book a place on the plane, she should be at the peak of her game.
Given what she's been through, the challenge could be mental as much as physical.
"It is something I think about and it's basically my main goal, focusing on that and getting my body right and strong again to play at [the World Cup], because that is the biggest priority," she said.
"Thinking I was in a challenge where it hit me so hard that it broke my back is a scary thought.
"So to go out there again where I am playing aggressively, making challenges again, it makes me a little bit scared."
Raso cemented her starting spot in the national side at the recent Tournament of Nations in July, which saw the Matildas post impressive wins against Brazil and Japan.
"I think we are just showing the world that we are a world-class team and we can play," she said.
"Once I get back to my aggressive style of play and knowing that body is strong, and my back is strong, then I think I will be ready to go."
Hayley's mother, for one, has no concerns at all.
"She is motivated. When she puts her mind to something she achieves it," Ms Sweeting said.
"Whenever she wears the green and gold we all wear the green and gold at home as well. We watch every game, it doesn't matter what time it is.
"The only thing is I get really nervous. [After what she's been through] I don't think that's going to change anytime soon."