September 22nd 2014, 07:38am, a baby girl was born into the world. That baby girl belongs to me, Helen Ward. She is now around 6 and a half months old and is ever changing. During those 6 and a half months I have been trying to juggle first time motherhood with resurrecting a domestic and international football career.
“It will be fine.”
“I’ll be back playing in no time.”
“I’ll be running at 4 weeks and playing by 8.”
That was me prior to delivery. It wasn’t ‘fine’, I wasn’t back in no time. I wasn’t running at 4 weeks and I certainly wasn’t playing within 8. And it most definitely was a problem.
There’s a condition called Diastasis Recti which is fairly common in pregnant and post-natal women. So common that the NHS didn’t think to mention it to me during the 9 months of pregnancy or the weeks following birth. It was only that I had been in touch with my national team physiotherapist that I was even aware that the condition existed. In basic terms, when a woman is carrying a child, her abdomen – or six pack – is separated and you are left with what i can only describe as a big gap between your abdominal muscles. This is a problem for anyone, let alone someone who is actively involved in some sort of sport.
I was trying to do all the right things in order to return to fitness as soon as possible. Having not moved for nearly 6 months I didn’t want to waste any time. I went for my first run around 5 weeks post delivery and all did not feel right. I wasn’t in pain, as such, I just didn’t feel right. I wrote it off as rustiness and just not being used to physical activity for so long but as the days and weeks went by, I knew there was probably more to it. That’s when I spoke to my physio and she diagnosed Diastasis Recti. She informed me that it would take a lot of hard work and dedication to return my muscles to their former glory – not that they were particularly glorious in the first place.
So, in November 2014, I took a bit of a step back from football and focussed my full attention on correcting the problem. Physio sessions were attended and daily exercises completed all over the Christmas break. It was hard work made even harder by the fact that all of my Reading team mates had returned to training and started on a mega fitness programme for the upcoming WSL 2 season. I knew that when I could return to full training, I had a huge mountain to climb to be anywhere near the levels I needed to be.
In January 2015, I went to another Wales camp where the physio informed me that my muscles were healing well and that I could complete almost full training sessions. This was just what I needed to push on and make sure I was in contention for the first league game of the season in March.
From that moment I was at every club session joining in with all of the training, going out on non-training days to the local parks to sprint up and down like a lunatic while my husband / dad / mother in law looked after Emily. My load still had to be managed as I needed to build up my fitness rather than jump in at the deep end. But I was doing it and progressing well. Turning up to training on cold January and February evenings was hard, especially when I was doing some extra running while the majority of the squad were doing some finishing drills was the hardest part but with each metre I ran and each minute that passed I knew I was getting there.
At the start of March the Wales team were due to take part in a 10 day, 4 game international tournament. I made it onto that plane. It wasn’t until I was over there that I realised how far I had come. My manager, Jayne Ludlow, told me how she didn’t think she would have me available until at least April or May and that my club manager, Kelly Chambers, had written me off for the first half of the season. To have been involved in that tournament was a huge moment for me. To then play in 3 and a half of the games was a huge bonus.
I wasn’t ‘back’, though. Nowhere near it. Yes I had played my first games in over a year, and yes I had played 3 and a half games in 10 days, but I still wasn’t me. I am a goal scorer, or at least I used to be, and until I smashed the ball into the back of the net, I wasn’t back.
The start of the club season has come and gone, I’ve played a role in the first three games – albeit from the bench – and still no goal. This sort of thing eats away at me. As a forward, you are judged on goals and no matter how well I might have played, or whether I have set up a goal or two, I still hadn’t scored. So I went to North Wales to play a couple of friendlies against Slovakia. A team who I have scored against twice before. I knew I had it in me then, could I still do it now? I played my way into the starting line up and on Monday 6th April, we stepped onto the pitch at Bangor City FC. During the first half I had a shot that hit the bar and the post, I had slid in with the ‘keeper in an attempt to slide it past her and then had a one-on-one chance that she came out to block. Doubts were creeping in, could I still do it? Thankfully, I can. I closed down the goal keeper and the ball fell kindly for me. I dribbled it towards the open goal via my chest, knees and shins before deciding I was close enough to smash it in without any doubts. The relief that came over me was something I have never felt before. Not only had I had the opportunity to play for my country again but I had managed to score my 33rd international goal. The work I had put in over the winter months had paid off.
I am still only two thirds of the way up that mountain but what this international week has told me is that the desire, hunger and determination to play games and score goals is most certainly still there. Possibly even more so than before. I will not settle for just being involved and mediocre performances. I haven’t worked this hard to be average.
So the challenge continues.
Club: Reading Women FC
I started my career as an 8 year old at Watford Town Girls – which later became Watford Ladies FC. I was there until I left the club at the age of 22 having helped the team to promotion into the national Premier League for the first time in the club’s history. I went on to captain the club and leading the all time goalscoring records before moving onto Arsenal Ladies in January 2009. At arsenal I won the Premier League title twice and also reached the FA Women’s Cup Final on two occasions, winning it once in 2009. I also made several appearances in the Champions League for Arsenal in the 2009/2010 season. In the summer of 2010 I left Arsenal to join Chelsea Ladies in time for the inaugural Women’s Super League season, starting in 2011. I was at the club for three season, reaching another FA Cup Final – and scoring the opening goal in 2012 but ultimately losing out on penalties against Birmingham. Having spent three years at Chelsea, the time came where I felt I needed to move on and start a new challenge. With my former team mate and captain for both Wales and Arsenal, Jayne Ludlow, taking over at Reading, this is where I felt my new challenge lay. I joined Reading in November 2013 all set for the first Women’s Super League 2 season in 2014. As it happens, I didn’t actually make a league appearance for the Royals until March 2015 – just two FA Cup games – as I took a break from football to start a family. I have since had a baby girl (Emily) who is now my biggest fan and attends most of our home games in her very own Reading Kit!
Internationally, I made my senior Wales debut in September 2008 and have amassed 60 caps and scored 33 goals. My ultimate aim, and that of the team, is for us to qualify for our first major tournament and our eyes are set firmly on the European Finals in 2017 with qualifying beginning in Norway later this year.