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Breaking her back in an on-field collision has left Hayley Raso physically and mentally stronger than ever. Hayley joins host Sam Squiers to discuss being the only girl on her soccer team growing up, missing out on the 2016 Olympic team and how it felt to make the most awesome of comebacks to the Matildas after her broken back to now be on the road to the Tokyo Games.


On Her Game with Sam Squiers – Matildas Player Hayley Raso

Transcribed by Nadine Maraldo www.gossipcom.com

  • Sam Squiers (Squiers)
  • Hayley Raso

A Podcast One Production.

Hey, I’m Sports Journalist Sam Squiers, welcome to “On Her Game”. 

Fiercely determined and freakishly skilled, it’s no wonder Hayley Raso is enjoying her time at the top of the football world. Playing in America, in the UK for Everton, in Australia for the Brisbane Roar and for Australia as a star for the Matildas. But the thing is none of this has come easy for Hayley, she’s had to work so hard for everything that’s come her way. There have been so many times when she’s wondered whether her dream was coming to an end, after missing out on a team and not being selected for another. But her career was never more at risk than in 2018, when a collision on the pitch saw her break her back and endure a painful recovery. Hayley feared she would never walk, let alone play football again. But now she’s stronger physically and mentally than she’s ever been before. Competing in last year’s World Cup and was due to play in this year’s Olympics as well. Hayley’s story begins as a super active kid on the Gold Coast.

RASO: My mum always tells me that I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t just sit in front of the TV, I couldn’t be left alone, I always, you know, had to be doing something, running around, playing with somebody, talking to somebody and I think I’m still a little bit like that. So, I haven’t changed too much (laughs) I don’t think.

SQUIERS: Were you obviously then always a sporty kid if you couldn’t sit still? Was she dying to get you into sport from an early age?

RASO: Yeah, I played a few sports. I played netball, um, basketball, touch football, soccer obviously, um, I think if I wasn’t playing sport, I was doing something like having a kick around with my brother at home. So, I was always pretty sporty.

SQUIERS: So, how did you then first find soccer? What age did that happen?

RASO: So, I started playing when I was eight and my brother was playing, so my older brother was playing and they needed people to fill in and I used to just fill in, but I honestly hated it, um, (Squiers: really?). Yeah, I didn’t like it, I didn’t want to play, my dad was the coach at the time, and he kept saying like, “they need an extra number, just fill in”, so I used to just play around with the boys and, um, I ended up being not too bad, so I kind of just stuck to it.

SQUIERS: So, were you the only girl in the team?

RASO: Yeah, at the time, I was, yeah, the only girl playing with the boys and then as I started to get a little bit older, more and more girls kind of started joining and I think around Under 14s was then when I went to an all-girls’ team.

SQUIERS: Really? So, not until Under 14s, did you go into a full girls’ team?

RASO: Yeah, so back then it was just very few girls and mostly boys whereas it’s crazy now because I see so many girls like Under 8s, Under 9s (Squiers: mmm) and they’re full girls’ teams. So, it’s, it’s great how people, how many girls are playing now, I guess.

SQUIERS: Well, I think when you look at the stats along with netball, it’s the most popular sport for little girls, so to not have it until you were fourteen, at your own girls’ team. But, what, what difference do you think that that made for you, playing with the boys, and obviously playing with your older brother, with the older boys too.

RASO: Yeah, I think it probably made me a little bit tougher, um, playing against those boys, but, um, it was also good because the, the boys are, are quite fast and quite skilful, so I think it probably helped me develop a little bit quicker so then when I did, um, go into all-girls soccer I was a little bit ahead, I think.

SQUIERS: So, you were obviously very talented at touch football (Raso; yeah) and at soccer, but at what point did you realise that touch really wasn’t the direction that you wanted to go in and that you would pursue soccer instead?

RASO: Funny story actually, um, I got injured playing touch football and, I think that was the point for me where I was like, “I don’t really want to play this sport”, and I put my mind to soccer. So, I was playing for Queensland over in New Zealand and I had a collision with another girl and it, um, completely shattered and broke all of my front teeth and it knocked the girl out, so we both, um, went to hospital in an ambulance (Squiers: oh, no) together and I couldn’t play, um, in the tournament anymore and all my teeth needed work for years after that. But, um, I was like, “yeah, I don’t think I want to do that anymore” and it was kind of an easy decision from there to choose soccer.

SQUIERS: Wow, so they were your adult teeth so you can’t? (Raso: yep, yeah, they were my) So, you can’t repair those, they don’t come back, do they?

RASO: No, they were my adult teeth, and it was my, um, four front teeth so, they were all over the place and I have since had them, them fixed up, so. 

SQUIERS: So, you’ve got fake front teeth, do you?

RASO: Yeah, my front, my front four.

SQUIERS: Oh, wow, so I always thought you had a great smile, but, um. (laughs)

RASO: It’s fake. (laughs)

SQUIERS: Wow, that’s vicious, that’s hard, who would have thought in touch football that would, that would happen, it’s not, you didn’t play, it’s not a tackle, there.

RASO: No, and it was my own teammate (laughs) (Squiers: oh, really, ohh). We both went in to make a touch on a girl and she dived for the try line and we hit like my teeth into her head (Squiers: oh, no). Yeah, so, it’s, it’s a ridiculous story really but it was.

SQUIERS: So, four front teeth, but that was it for you, you were like, (Raso: yeah) “I’m out, I’m gone”?

RASO: Yeah, it made, it made the decision for me.

SQUIERS: Were you good? You can say? But you, you didn’t like it at first, but were you good?

RASO: (Laughs) I didn’t like it, um, I think I was good and that’s the reason my, like I think other people’s parents would tell my parents, “Oh, she’s good, she’s fast, she’s going to be good” and I’m just like, “no, it’s not for me” (Squiers: wow). And when I was older my mum was telling me this story just recently which I couldn’t actually remember, but there were like Gold Coast rep teams and all my friends, um, who I’d played with locally would trial for it and everybody wanted to meet, wanted me to trial for it and I used to just say, “no, I don’t want to, I don’t want to” (laughs). So, I, I think I, I don’t know, I mustn’t have thought I was very good.

SQUIERS: Wow, so when did that all change for you then, when did you start actually enjoying it? Was it when you started playing with the girls in Under 14s or?

RASO: Um, yeah, I mean by that time I was definitely enjoying it, I think it was just when I was younger, I, I didn’t really think it was for me but, ah, a big turning point I think for me was when I was playing club locally on the Gold Coast and then somebody, um, one of the coaches I had, recognised me and said I would be alright for, to trial for a W League team and that’s when like, I thought, “oh, this is probably for me” (Squiers: yeah), um, if I’m going to go and trial for a W League team and kind of start playing in the, in the top league in Australia.

SQUIERS: When, that was quite young wasn’t it? Were you fifteen or sixteen when that happened?

RASO: I think I was sixteen, yeah, it was 2011, I was in Year Eleven in school.

SQUIERS: Yeah, right, and then you, um, you went down, was it to Canberra? Because you wanted to play for your local W League team, Brisbane Roar, didn’t you?

RASO: Yeah, I did. So, at that time I was in the Queensland Academy of Sport, and I was training with Roar girls, but I never broke into that team (Squiers: yeah), so I was just kind of in the squad and I was playing locally at Palm Beach (Squiers: mmm) on the Gold Coast. And my coach there knew the Canberra United team and he said to me like, “you should go down and trial, I’ll organise it for you, I think you’ll make it”. And that was when I made the decision to, to pack up my stuff and go down there and I did a three-day trial and I got signed with Canberra United after that. So, that kind of kick started my career.

SQUIERS: So, you found it hard to break into the, the Brisbane Roar team but you also found it hard to break into the QAS squad as well, didn’t you?

RASO: Yeah, um, it was, there was a really good group of girls up there at that time and I mean, I didn’t think I was too bad, I was hoping to, to break into those, those squads but it was, it was always quite tough. Um, so for me I had to move away from home and, and play a couple of seasons at Canberra and from there when I came back, they wanted me to come to Brisbane Roar (laughs), um, so then I got to come home after that.

SQUIERS: You, you got to, you finally broke into your side, but you had to do it the hard way.

RASO: Yeah, I feel like I do everything the hard way though. (laughs)

SQUIERS: I can’t wait to tell more of your story (laughs) because you did, because people will soon realise that’s, that’s definitely the case (Raso: yeah). Um, but I just want to go back a little bit, um, you talked about your brother and you’re the youngest of three, you’ve got older brothers Lachlan and Jordan, tell me more about your relationship with them.

RASO: Yeah, so my oldest brother Jordan is disabled (Squiers: mmm), um, so it’s been tough for us growing up, um, my mum looking after him but my brother Lachlan who’s just above me we’re like best friends, I have such a good relationship with him, um, I always have. And a lot of people say to me, “but, don’t you fight sometimes, don’t you argue?” It’s funny because we actually don’t (laughs), I couldn’t tell you how many times we’ve had a fight we’re so close and, and he’s a great person so it’s, it’s amazing having such a great relationship with my family.

SQUIERS: I’ve seen you before asked who inspires you and you answered Jordan. Tell me why he’s your inspiration.

RASO: I just think that I’m so lucky and so grateful that I can play sport and that I can study (Squiers: mmm) and that I can do everything that I want to do in life and then I look at him and he’s disadvantaged and he can’t live a normal life like I do and like everybody else in the world does and, um, so I just look at him and think that, “I’m so grateful to be doing what I’m doing and I try to not to ever take it for granted because I’m so lucky”.

SQUIERS: What do you think having a, a big brother like Jordan taught you both with sport, um, and in, and in life, you mentioned then, not really to take anything for granted.

RASO: Yeah, definitely I think that would be it because I, I even look at him and, and it makes me sad to think he can’t even just drive a car, he can’t (Squiers: mmm) ever have a relationship, he can’t play sport, he can’t study, he can’t work, um, but I also look at him too and he’s so happy (Squiers: mmm). And for him he does things like he’ll be happy doing a puzzle, he’ll be happy playing a game, he’ll be happy watching My Little Pony movie whatever it may be that he’s doing and he’s so happy doing that thing, so I look at, um, you know, me playing soccer for example, and it’s something I love, and if we can find happiness in anything, I think that’s important too.

SQUIERS: Growing up did you ever feel like you had to protect Jordan from, from people at all?

RASO: Yeah, I feel like even still today, if you’re walking along with him, people will look at him or you, you see, you see the way that he interacts with people and some people are taken aback or afraid and (Squiers: mmm) that makes me sad because he’s just, to me he’s just a normal person (Squiers: mmm), he’s just my brother, he’s just like everybody else, I guess he just shows it differently.

SQUIERS: When you were getting serious about soccer and you mention moving to Canberra, did you have any female soccer role models or inspirations? Was there anyone that, that you looked up to or were exposed to at that stage?

RASO: Being completely honest I didn’t (Squiers: mmm), I just played, and I just enjoyed the game, and it wasn’t until I went down to Canberra United and started training with them that I think I realised and started to gain role models from players within my team (Squiers: mmm). Um, but before that, there wasn’t really anybody that I looked up to (Squiers: mmm), um, it kind of came about as I joined those teams and then saw this new world of these professional athletes and these women playing overseas and these women playing for the Matildas and that’s kind of where I thought, “oh, that’s something I want to kind of do”.

SQUIERS: So, you almost accidentally fell into the professional setup (Raso: yeah, yeah definitely), so to speak. Did you look up to, we talk to a lot of female role models, and they weren’t exposed to female athletes, but were there any male athletes, did you, did you watch, um, were you exposed to like European soccer or football or anything like that, that, that kind of inspired you?

RASO: It’s honestly really interesting but I’m, I’m going to say no. I, I didn’t, I never watched the, the EPL and I didn’t support a team and I think I just used to watch the A League, um, (Squiers: cool) and I couldn’t even tell you too many players then, but I feel like I just played because I enjoyed the game, but I never really watched too much of it. And it wasn’t until time went on and I started playing at a higher level, did I then start watching more soccer and kind of supporting teams.

SQUIERS: I find it so interesting with your story as well, um, you get some athletes who, who come on the show and they were so, you know, they made the State teams early and they made, um, you know, the Under 16s or Under 18s National Team early and that kind of built towards their Green and Gold dream. For you, that didn’t happen, did it? You didn’t make any of those younger kind of sides except for, for Canberra but the National sides it, it happened much later for you.

RASO: Yeah, for me it’s actually quite backward because I played for Canberra United and then I was selected when Tom Sermanni was coaching, um, to go to a Matildas camp and from there I then got selected to go to the Young Matildas (Squiers: mmm), whereas the other girls were coming through the Under 17s, the Young Matildas and then making the full National team, whereas I made the full National team (laughs) and then they kind of picked me up for the Young Matildas after I’d debuted for the National team.

SQUIERS: It’s such a strange way isn’t it, that that kind of came about?

RASO: Yeah, it’s so interesting and, ah, like you said a lot of girls were together for a long time before that and knew each other because they kind of gone through the teams together but mine was a little different.

SQUIERS: So, tell me about your Matildas debut, take me back to the emotions that you felt and, and, um, and the situation around them.

RASO: Yeah, I look back at it as being so long ago (laughs), ah, but it was amazing, I can remember being subbed on, ah, from the bench for the last maybe twenty or thirty minutes of the game. And I think I just wanted to prove myself and show what kind of player I was because at that time I guess nobody really knew who I was, but Tom Sermanni saw something in me, so I wanted to, (Squiers: mmm) to show everybody else that I had something, um, in me as well.

SQUIERS: So, 2015 was a pretty big year for you, you made your Matildas debut in 2012, three years later 2015, it was a difficult year for you, let’s walk through it. You moved to the U.S. to play in their league, but you only played a handful of games for Washington what, what happened there before you were, before you were moved on, and it’s, it’s a harsh system over there isn’t it?

RASO: Yeah, it’s really brutal (laughs), it’s, if they don’t want you within a day you’ll be gone, just like that so, um, so you can’t really, you, you have to give it your all, all the time because you don’t know when it’s, when your time’s just going to be up. But 2015 was the year of the World Cup in Canada and from there I joined Washington Spirit (Squiers: mmm), um, I played that season, um, a number of games but I was new to the league, and I was just coming off the bench, but I did enjoy my time there. And it was the following year that I returned and was there for pre-season and they had a new coach and he waived me before the season started (Squiers: mmm) and just like that I was gone, so.

SQUIERS: Yep, and then you got picked up by Portland?

RASO: Yeah, so, the coach Mark Parsons is the one who actually brought me over to Washington Spirit, he was the coach there, he left to coach Portland in 2016 and when I got waived by Spirit, um, within honestly I think it could have been hours I got a call from him and we had a big chat and, um, he picked me up and the next day I was basically on a flight to Portland to start a new chapter. So, it was a really disappointing time for me, and I went through a period of not knowing what I was going to do, but so quickly I got picked up and, um, was ready to start fresh again.

SQUIERS: How devastating was it, because you, you did say that you, you did go to the World Cup, but you didn’t play minutes there, that was a bit of a tough call as well and then you, you got waived by Washington and that was another, another blow, how, what was going through there? Who did you lean on for support?

RASO: Ah, I called my mum straight away, I can remember being in tears too, she’d come to the World Cup and I, I, like you said I hadn’t played a single minute, which was really disappointing for me (Squiers: mmm). Um, but overall, it was still a great experience and then I, yeah went to Spirit and I got waived and she was the person I called straight away and, I can remember her telling me, “Not to worry that everything would be okay, it would all, it would all work out”. And I didn’t really believe her, I was like “I don’t think so (Squiers: mmm), like this is really bad, um, where am I going to play? What am I going to do?” Um, but she was right and I’m getting picked up by Portland was just the best thing to happen to me.

SQUIERS: Portland’s something else, isn’t it? Describe for those who don’t know what Portland over in America, playing for them’s like, but in terms of the women’s team it’s, it’s just incredible scenes and incredible crowds that you get to the games, aren’t they?

RASO: Yeah, it’s unbelievable I don’t think I even expected it because when I was playing for Spirit, um, I never actually played in Portland against Portland (Squiers: mmm), so I didn’t know what it was like. And when I went over there and played my first game I was just sitting there on the bench like, “wow, this is what it’s about”. They have so many fans, you know, plus twenty thousand people there every single game, um, cheering for you, letting off smoke, they’re so passionate and it’s amazing to go out and play in front of such a dedicated group of fans.

SQUIERS: Is it cool when you’re living there as well? Do they, do you get recognised, do people, what, what’s it like when you’re living and breathing that?

RASO: You do, you’ll be walking down the street, and someone will pass you and just be like, “Go Thorns” (laughs), it’s, it’s really cool. You’ll be sitting at a café, and somebody will come up to you and say, “just wanted to say you had a really great game on the weekend”. So, a lot of people live and breathe soccer over there (Squiers: mmm) and they’re all, um, very friendly and very kind when you see them on the streets. So, it’s, it’s amazing being in a soccer city like that.

SQUIERS: Let’s stay with 2015 because we did describe with the World Cup and not being able to play and then being moved from, from Washington, um, you also had some news about your brother Lachlan as well, that he was in a bit of trouble as well, can you take us there?

RASO: Yeah, so, Lachlan has had trouble with his heart since he was born, um, and every year, you know, it gets checked up on and, um, in 2015 we found out that he needed to have open-heart surgery (Squiers: mmm). And for me it actually still makes me upset that I wasn’t there (Squiers: mmm), that I was overseas, but he said to me before his surgery that he wanted me to stay, um, playing overseas, he wanted me to keep doing what I loved and that while he was recovering, he wanted to be able to watch me play (Squiers: yeah). So, I knew that it would make him happy (Squiers: mmm) if I kept playing over there but it was, it was really hard for me being over there and seeing him go through such a major surgery and knowing that all my family were there going through it as well and I wasn’t. 

But, um, I did have support from some of my friends, some of my close friends, um, at Spirit who I told about what was going on and I was in touch with my mum, um, the whole time. So, while he was in having my surgery I was constantly talking to my mum (Squiers: mmm) and she was keeping me updated and as soon as he got out, um, you know, like I got updates as he recovered and, and as the weeks went on and like he had said, he got to watch me play while he was recovering in hospital. So, I think that was nice too, that I was able to keep playing and, and kind of do it for him and give him something to watch.

SQUIERS: Yeah, how, um, I feel like I keep going down, but this is a really difficult time for you, and it continued on into 2016, you didn’t make the Matildas side to play at the Rio Olympics, how, how hard was that on you, how tough was that?

RASO: Yeah, that was really hard, I can remember not being in the squad (Squiers: mmm) and watching the girls play and I was so happy for them, supporting them, but at the same time there’s kind of something missing when you’re not there (Squiers: mmm) and when you feel like you should be kind of part of it. So, um, that was really tough, and, um, as I watched the Olympics I just kind of dedicated myself and was like, “I’m going to get myself to the next Olympics, no matter what” (Squiers: mmm), so, um, it was kind of like a motivation for me and I had been through a lot the past couple of years. So, I just put everything into, into playing and doing what I loved so that I could then, um, compete in, in the next World Cup and the next Olympics and kind of tick those goals off that I wanted to.

SQUIERS: But you insisted on watching their matches, it would have been bittersweet and really difficult to watch.

RASO: Yeah, it was, I, because it’s my country, it’s my team I, I obviously wanted to support them but it’s definitely bittersweet seeing them win not being able to enjoy it with them and not being a part of, it’s hard and especially at something like the Olympic Games. It’s, you know, if you talk to, to everybody in the world, it’s something that they would have loved to have done if they could have. So, having that opportunity and missing out, it was tough.

SQUIERS: Mmm, because we, we always talk about making, what it’s like to, to make the teams and to have that Olympic, Olympic dream come true, but you don’t often hear the stories about the people who put in so much work and make so many sacrifices, but that Olympic dream doesn’t come true.

RASO: Yeah, and like you said you don’t hear about those stories, but they happen often, at, at the end of the day it’s an, an eighteen-player squad and people have to miss out and that’s why I think you’ve got to be putting in one hundred percent all the time. You’ve got to be top of your game all the time, you have to be playing consistent minutes all the time, um, if you want a chance to make the team but at the end of the day the coach makes, has to make tough decisions and there’s always people that are going to miss out and unfortunately, um, that was me. But I, I look at it now and, ah, I know that I wasn’t in peak condition, and I’ve gotten myself back to the top so I’m just hoping to be part of the next one.

SQUIERS: When did you after that Rio Olympics, how soon was it that you were back in the Matildas side?

RASO: I actually think it was pretty soon after, which was probably even more disappointing for me (laughs), knowing that I was around before the, before the Olympics and then not making the squad and then kind of getting called back into camps after that, um, but missing out on the (Squiers: mmm), the big tournament in between, um.

SQUIERS: But that whole experience that, that lit a spark in you didn’t it, it just, it fuelled you even more to be able to get back into that Matildas side and, and, and back to the top so to speak.

RASO: Yeah, definitely, I think not playing at the World Cup and then missing out on the Olympics were two things that drove me, so I had said after that, “I want to go to the next World Cup, and I want to play minutes”, and I ticked that off, um, in 2019. So, now I just look at the Olympics and, ah, know I want to make that squad and play minutes there too, so, um, hopefully I’ll be able to tick that one off too.

SQUIERS: August 25, 2018, you’re playing for Portland, and it just happens to be against your old side, against the Spirit and a moment happened which changed everything for you, take us back to that incident in that match.

RASO: Mmm, um, I mean I still remember it so clearly, just a, a long ball, um, coming over the top of their backline, I can remember chasing it down and looking in, in the other direction and went to head it, ah, backwards and just felt an impact in my back, that’s, um, still to this day I, I think about how painful it was (Squiers: mmm) and, and how bad it was and I, I, I can remember just lying on the ground and, and screaming for somebody to help me, because it was just so painful. I, I didn’t know what had happened, but I knew something really bad had happened and, um, yeah, I broke my back.

SQUIERS: Three vertebrae in your back. Straight away you knew something, something wasn’t right, didn’t you?

RASO: Yeah, I, just the pain was unbelievable like it was excruciating, I, I, I honestly thought I was dying it was so bad I didn’t see how I was going to make it out of that.

SQUIERS: What was going through your mind right at that point?

RASO: I don’t remember, I just remember just yelling for somebody to help me, that I needed help and straight away, you know, the medical team, doctors, ah, physios were coming onto the field, and I was stretchered off. Um, my dad was in D.C. at the time (Squiers: mmm), he was over there watching me play and I was saying to them, “you need to get my dad, you need to get my dad”, like I don’t know how they were going to find him in the stands (Squiers: mmm), but I was just like I, I, I need somebody, I need a family member with me and, um, I feel like it took forever, um, I was getting wheeled around this stadium. I was just saying like, “I just need to be inside, I need to be inside” (Squiers: mmm). Um, I can remember eventually somehow getting inside and my dad being there and just, he, he just held my hand and, the, the ambulance came, and I was taken to the hospital from there. But the whole time it was just, I, I couldn’t lay on my back, I couldn’t roll over (Squiers: mmm), I couldn’t lay on my side, I didn’t know what to do, but it was just this unbelievable amount of pain in my spine.

SQUIERS: I’ve seen photos of you, um, being stretchered off and I keep thinking if that’s your back that was broken at that stage, it would have been pretty dangerous to even move you or to, or to roll you at that stage.

RASO: I’ve, I’ve actually never really spoken about this (Squiers: mmm) but I’m, it, it really affected me the way they treated me (Squiers: mmm) and I think something needs to be done about that because for, for them to know that it was my back (Squiers: mmm) and for them to roll me to touch my back, to move me back to, to pick me up to put me on a stretcher to then (Squiers: mmm) put me on a, on a golf cart wheel, and we’re wheeling around this stadium, this whole time I haven’t been stabilised, I haven’t been put on a spinal board, I haven’t gotten a spinal collar on (Squiers: mmm). 

I see injuries in Australian sport where players get injured and they’re say, holding their neck, holding their back (Squiers: yeah) and the first thing they do is, you know, hold their head, they don’t move them, they make sure they’re stable so I just think that they’re lucky that I was okay because if it had have been on a different spot on my spine or somewhere else (Squiers: mmm) I could have been paralysed and I think about that and just think that there needs to be some kind of protocol or, or, or something needs to be done (Squiers: mmm) differently to look after the, the player or the patient.

SQUIERS: That was my first thought and I guess for them it’s so unusual isn’t it, to have, like who would have thought playing, playing soccer that you could break your back and, and break three, three vertebrae it’s, it’s so incredibly rare. Was it the goalkeeper’s knee that went into your back?

RASO: Yeah, so it was the goalkeeper’s knee went into like the left side of my lower back (Squiers: mmm) and when I was in hospital and the neurosurgeons had told me it was, um, a broken back they said to me, “the impact, um, you know, an impact like that is usually from a car accident or somebody falling off a horse or (Squiers: wow) quite severe things”. So, it was crazy to me that her knee had, had caused that much damage.

SQUIERS: But you knew something was wrong, so they probably should’ve known that this is not, that this is quite serious (Raso: yeah) the pain that you were, you were experiencing at that stage.

RASO: Yeah, exactly and my mum was watching back at home and she’s actually a nurse (Squiers: mmm) and I’ve obviously spoken to her about it afterwards and she felt the exact same (Squiers: mmm). She just couldn’t believe that I was just lifted off, she could see in my face, she was watching and knew that I wasn’t okay and that something was wrong with me (Squiers: mmm) and the way that, um, it was all handled doesn’t really sit right with her either.

SQUIERS: No, as I said, I just saw, I remember seeing it and just thinking, “I don’t know that’s how you should be doing it if a back is involved” and thinking about the excruciating pain that, that you must have been going through at that time. When they gave you the diagnosis that you’d broken your back, what was your immediate thought, Hayley?

RASO: Um, I thought that I would never walk again and let alone play soccer or, or run because I’ve known that if you break your back, ah, I assume you’re paralysed. But I’m thinking I’m, I’m not paralysed so like what does this mean? Will I never be able to play, will I never be able to walk, what, what kind of, does this mean? (Squiers: mmm) And they, they immediately told me you will recover, it’s going to be painful, but you will be back to yourself, you’ll be able to play soccer again, so.

SQUIERS: How lucky was that the situation that you found yourself to break three vertebrae but to still be able to, to walk again, considering as you said, we all know, you just don’t mess with your spine and your back. How lucky were you in that situation?

RASO: Yeah, I, I think I was extremely lucky and like I said it, it was all dependent on the spot she hit me in and fortunately it wasn’t somewhere that caused me to be paralysed. Or fortunately it, you know, the damage wasn’t so bad that when they moved me, um, that something, something could have happened. So, um, I think I was very lucky and although I went through such a serious, um, recovery and rehabilitation I still look at it as, that I was very lucky to, to come out of it the way I did and be back to completely normal again.

SQUIERS: And the recovery, and the recovery was tough, take us there, how long were you in hospital and what was that recovery like?

RASO: Yeah, the recovery was, was really bad, um, I, my dad left the following day as he had a flight back to Australia and my mum hearing the news obviously being my mum, um, got on a flight and flew straight over (Squiers: mmm), ah, to be with me. So, she was basically there my whole, um, time in hospital and my recovery, although when she was flying over it felt like forever (laughs) (Squiers: yeah) until she got to me (Squiers: I bet it did). It felt like days but, um, when she got there, it was just amazing to have her there because I was in hospital for, to be honest I can’t remember the exact, (Squiers: mmm) um, times, but I think it might have been three weeks. So, I think I was hospital for a week and then I moved to a rehabilitation hospital where I stayed for about two weeks.

SQUIERS: Yep, and what was that like in the, in the hospital with your mum. I hear, she, she made an effort to inspire you didn’t she, that whole time you were in hospital?

RASO: Yeah, she did, and she actually did everything for me so I don’t think I would have been able to get through it. Otherwise, she would, um, you know, take me to the shower, take me to the bathroom, put my hair up, brush my hair, put my socks on, dress me, everything, literally everything. Pull my sheet up because I couldn’t do it for myself, move my pillow if like, you just think of every single little, tiny thing and she was doing it all for me and she continued to do that and she never showed that anything affected her and, um, she put my jersey up in my room. Um, I had my birthday while I was in hospital and she, I kid you not, bought the whole gift shop for me (laughs) because she didn’t want me to miss out on having my birthday, every little thing she could find I had it and I just thought, “oh, this, this is going to be one of those birthdays where I’m just here and I’m just doing my rehabilitation”. But she made it really special, I got a cake, I had balloons it was just amazing, she, she really helped me get through and, um, I’m, I was so lucky to have her there.

SQUIERS: What was that process like to walk again?

RASO: It was challenging to say the least (Squiers: mmm), the first day they got me out of bed I had this really big walking frame thing, um, I couldn’t even sit up that was the problem (Squiers: mmm), I actually couldn’t sit, so to, for me to be able to stand up I had to be able to sit up. So, I can remember the nurses like pulling me up to sit on the edge of the bed and I was just in excruciating pain and then they said, “you’re going to stand up” (Squiers: mmm) and I was like, “ohh, this is going to be really bad” and they pulled me up and I stood up and I was holding onto the walking frame and they were like, “take a few steps” and I’m like, “I can’t” (Squiers: mmm) and they’re like, you know, “you need to take a few steps” and they’re trying to help me, “we’re just going to get to the windowsill”, which was like four steps from my bed and I was like, “I don’t, I honestly don’t think I can”. Anyway, with their help I took these four, four steps and held onto the window frame, and just tears running down my face (Squiers: mmm) because it was so painful. And I was like, “I can’t even take a couple of steps, like how am I going to be able to walk again, how am I going to walk down the corridor?” (Squiers: mmm)

So, they were trying to, you know, help me, get me out of bed but it was just so difficult.

SQUIERS: Did you find it hard, as you said I can imagine when you are just in that position where even just sitting up is excruciatingly painful, the thought of playing soccer did that just seem impossible at that stage or (Raso: yeah) you just always had that in the back of your head.

RASO: I think it was always in the back of my mind but (laughs), ah, honestly it seemed like it was going to be impossible, they would try and sit me in a chair to eat a meal because the, when I was sitting down it was so painful. So, they wanted me to try and, you know, to build up my tolerance to it (Squiers: mmm), um, I couldn’t even sit so then to think, “oh, I’m going to put my jersey back on and run around and play soccer again” (laughs), it was just like such a distant thought. But in the back of my mind I, I just thought I want to play in this World Cup that was what was basically my driving factor, I was like “I want to play in the World Cup so everything I do is going to be, so I can play in this World Cup.”

SQUIERS: How soon before you were doing something like running from when you broke your back?

RASO: So, I think in January was when I started running again, um, so August was my injury and then back in January I started running and training with Brisbane Roar again.

SQUIERS: But in terms of like, just trying to get strength back into your back but also into your legs, after, you know, going from not even being able to sit up, can you take us through, did you have to do any extra work, more than your, how much extra work did you have to put into that and strength work as well.

RASO: Yeah, I had to do a lot and it all started actually while I was in the, um, the rehabilitation hospital, I can still remember holding these like, tiny little one kilo weights and they’re making me do stuff to try and just get strength even in my arms. But I, I lost a lot of weight after my back injury, you know, from not playing and I guess from losing all my muscle and just from lying in bed. So, um, I had a lot to put back on and a lot of muscle to build back up and I was seeing my physio regularly and I was in the gym regularly and it was actually quite hard because for me to think about lifting a weight or putting weights on my back and squatting them, it was quite scary (Squiers: mmm). Um, but it was, it was really important to do so, they kept making that clear that I needed to, to get this strength back. But, um, I wanted to do it but at the same time it was, it was quite hard.

SQUIERS: So, how, I’m thinking when you went to that rehabilitation centre there’s some, there’s some really sad stories and some really, um, interesting stories there, and you see a lot of people who have spinal injuries and, and everything. Did seeing those people and talking to the people around you in that rehabilitation centre, can you tell me a little bit more about that and how they in turn inspired you?

RASO: So, we all kind of had our own rooms but we’d all pass each other in the corridor because every day you had set times to do occupational therapy and physical therapy (Squiers: mmm) so you’d pass the same people in the corridors, but we actually never really spoke to each other, but I knew the faces and I knew the people. And my inspiration while I was in that hospital came from a young man who had lost both his legs and I used to see him in the rehabilitation room every day and he was dancing to his music, um, on his laptop and doing his rehab and just seemed like he had a smile on his face when he was dancing because it was something he loved. And I thought about the fact he’d never be able to live a normal life and he’ll never be able to walk again. And here I am doing my rehab, knowing that I’ll be able to return to soccer, so (Squiers: mmm) for me it was, it was incredible to see, um, his determination and it kind of drove me to be like, “you’re okay, you’re going to get through this” (Squiers: mmm). You know, there are other, there were a number of other people, um, who inspired me in there, everybody I saw who were struggling so bad but were still getting up every day and were doing what they needed to do to get better, it was amazing.

SQUIERS: That’s incredible that you were back in the Matildas side pretty soon after that incident and that accident and, and the recovery that you made is just incredible, but I’m thinking you would’ve had to, you would have felt like you had to prove yourself even more to get back into that Matildas side given the seriousness of your, of your injury.

RASO: Yeah, I think it was possibly within six months that I was back in the Matildas squad (Squiers: mmm) so if you look at, you know, somebody breaking their back and then coming back so soon, it’s, it’s quite incredibly and I was, I was extremely lucky, but I did feel like I had a lot to prove (Squiers: mmm). I also felt like I had been through, um, such a serious injury, um, not only physically but mentally and I had to make sure that I was one hundred percent there and one hundred percent ready to kind of put this injury behind me (Squiers: mmm) and move forward, because I knew I had to do that if I wanted to be able to compete at that level.

SQUIERS: Did you get any triggers going back on to the field after what happened?

RASO: Initially, it was really tough for me I was scared every time a ball went into the air (Squiers: mmm) because I thought, “oh, if I head it, what happens if somebody’s behind me?” (Squiers: mmm) Um, so I spoke with a lot of people, um, to help me mentally get through that part of it (Squiers: mmm) and it took a little while but I’m so glad that I have put it behind me (Squiers: mmm) now because I think it’s really important that I play and I give my one hundred percent and I don’t have any fear, um, anymore when I’m playing, which, which is important for me.

SQUIERS: Let’s, let’s talk about your comeback to the, to the Green and Gold, it’s a pretty incredible story this, Hayley. Um, you came on in the 72nd minute, you were there three minutes before you scored, that must have been the sweetest goal of your career.

RASO: Just thinking about it right now honestly makes me so happy, I couldn’t have scripted it any better if I had tried. (laughs) I would have dreamed about my comeback game being like that and it was, it was like maybe my second touch of the ball, and I scored. And I can remember turning around I think that some of the girls were there, I just ran past them I was like, “oh my God, like what am I going to do?” (laughs) and I just jumped in the air with a big fist bump and was just like, “thank goodness, I’ve made it”.

SQUIERS: Saying that, you’re playing the best football of your whole career is that because obviously everything you’ve, you’ve gone through, is that why now you just don’t take anything for granted and did it, did it do something to you mentally and, and both physically, obviously physically (laughs) but more mentally?

RASO: Yeah, I think so, um, exactly not taking anything for granted, knowing that every time you step on the field, you’ve got to give it your all because you don’t know when it could be taken away and I, I feel like I’m at the peak of my game and I’m really happy and I think those two things kind of go hand in hand, being fit but also enjoying myself and enjoying my football, it makes it that much better.

SQUIERS: Um, you played in the 2019 World Cup, that’s one box ticked (Raso: yep), um, Tokyo Olympics were next and you’re in line to play at the Tokyo Olympics, ah, the Matildas qualified but what effect did that postponement have, of the Olympics have on you girls?

RASO: Yeah, it was, it was tough, we were all looking forward to it and we had just qualified but at the same time, I was a little bit worried that the Olympics was going to be cancelled. So, for it just to be pushed back a year, um, you know, for the safety and because of the situation in the world right now, kind of didn’t seem like such a big deal. I was like, “it’s still going ahead, that’s great”, um, I tried to look at the positives as more time to train, as more time to get fit, more time to get better (Squiers: mmm) and then we can all come back together and, and still compete at the Games, so I’m just really looking forward to it.

SQUIERS: COVID’s also given you some rare time at home, hasn’t it?

RASO: Yeah, it’s been amazing. I was over in the U.K. and as soon as everything started happening with COVID they flew me, flew me straight back home and I don’t really get this time at home with my family, so I have been, ah, enjoying it so much it’s been incredible just day in, day out spending time at home with my family, with my pets (laughs), so it’s great.

SQUIERS: The 2023 World Cup let’s talk about that, it’ll be in Australia and New Zealand, where were you when that was announced at 2am in the morning.

RASO: So, I actually went to sleep and then set my alarm for 1am and got up and my mum and my brother got up with me (Squiers: cool) and we sat in front of the TV. And for so long nothing was going on (laughs) and that was the worst part, I was texting other girls in the team and was like, “is your screen black? Is, is anything happening or is it just mine?” (laughs) Um, and finally, um, when everything came on and, um, they started announcing we’re, who’d won, and it was just amazing. But we’d all thought we’d be jumping up and down ecstatic, but we just sat there with complete relief, (laughs) we were just like staring at the screen, we all said nothing. 

SQUIERS: Wow, okay, that’s different from the vision that we saw from the girls in Sydney at the time.

RASO: Yeah, it was, it was the complete opposite and it’s so funny because I think if I had have been with all the girls we would have jumped up and down but I was so nervous, my heart was like beating out of my chest (laughs). I was sitting there so when I just heard Australia it was just like relief, I was just like, “yes, we’ve done it, thank you”. And it wasn’t until later or even that next morning that we were all so excited, so, um, it just took a little bit to sink in I think because it was so amazing.

SQUIERS: We’ve talked about your story and how you were almost an accidental athlete in the fact that, um, you didn’t know that, you know, what the life that you’re living now could, could be possible because you didn’t see, um, any stars on the big stage and any women on the big stage as well. Do you think about what, what effect having an event like that could have had on you, if, if you were little and you could have seen an event like we’re going to see in 2023 on Australian soil?

RASO: Yeah, definitely I think I’d be telling a different story right now if when I was younger there was a World Cup on home soil that I could have gone to and watched and, and seen these amazing athletes compete and kind of had somebody to look up to, but we didn’t have that. So, now I look at it and like I said, seeing how far the game has grown I just think that so many young girls and boys are going to be, are going to be inspired by us and they’re going to have, um, you know, people to look up to and something to aspire to for when they’re older that they can do the same thing, compete in World Cups and play at the top level.

SQUIERS: Is it, was it also incredible to see the kind of support that this news got across mainstream media, across social media, um, right across the country it was a water cooler conversation, what was that like to see that kind of response?

RASO: Yeah, it was amazing and seeing, um, our team on front pages, back pages of papers, ah, that was incredible to and I think that shows in itself just how much its grown and how much women’s soccer is, is continuing to rise and I think by having a tournament like this in a few years on home soil, it’s just going to skyrocket, um, you know, participation levels, everything for, for women’s sport in general in Australia.

SQUIERS: We end every podcast by asking our guest what message they have for your ten-year-old self, so if you could go back in time and talk to the little Hayley what would you tell her?

RASO: I think I would tell myself not to worry so much and to be positive when I look at my mum, she’s so positive all the time and I think that’s such an important trait to have, to always look at the positives of a situation. But I also think I would tell myself, ah, if you have a dream or a goal that you can achieve it if you put your mind to it, even if people tell you, you can’t or they might not believe in you, as long as you believe in yourself and have the determination that you can achieve whatever you want.

SQUIERS: Hayley, you’re incredible, it’s amazing story and it’s only just started. Thank you for joining me on “On Her Game”.

RASO: Thank you so much.

SQUIERS: On her game is presented by me, Sam Squiers and produced in collaboration with Podcast One Australia, Producer Lindsey Green, Audio Producer Darcy Thompson, Executive Producer, Jennifer Goggin. For more episodes, head to podcastoneaustralia.com.au download the free Podcast One Australia app or search on On Her Game podcasts.

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