A long road but worth it.

25 March 2011.

The West Asian Championship Club Rugby Final. Doha RFC v Dubai Hurricanes. Six and a bit years’ ago.

It was set to be a good day – a home final for Doha, the team I captained passionately at the time, and going for the club’s first silverware in 40 odd years of history.

The day didn’t turn out as planned. You always remember the day and date. I dislocated my knee in the 10th minute of the final and tore everything (ACL,PCL, Lateral ligament, Hamstring, IT Band, Medial ligament) and was rushed to hospital.

The damage? I have never really gone into it – don’t talk about it at all – it’s been my challenge to own and meet. No one else’s.

 But this week, I have sat back and reflected on it after hitting a bit of a milestone.

It’s been a long road.

Going back six years, to when it happened, I was playing at No.8 tracking our 7 from a scrum. The Hurricanes 10 and 12 did a cut. Our 7 got him and swung him, a big lad, around. I planted my knee and the guys’ legs came around and basically axed my knee in half.

Initially it was the pain. I have a pretty high pain threshold I reckon but when that knee was dislocated out, I was screaming. For a good 5 mins. It was out for two hours until it got put back in when I was in hospital and xrays had confirmed what the scenario was. By then the screaming had quietened  to a dull whimper. The reason was my common peroneal nerve was being crushed by my femur which had shifted an inch down and was close to compound. I put the pain up there with being electrocuted – true story – an indescribably horrible feeling that you can’t escape from because the electricity has got hold of you and you can’t let go. 240 volts for 10 seconds back in 2007.  That story is for another day. I still touch any door before I open it so I don’t get one of those little shocks when I touch the handle.

Back to Doha. When the knee was finally put back in the damage was done. Seven centimetres of nerve was crushed. What this meant was that I was numb from the knee down and couldn’t pull my foot up from the ground. If you sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground and then pull your foot up, mine stays flat.

It means I walk with a little bit of a jilted gait and have to flick my foot a little before I put it down. It has taken a while to get used to it. Six years.

We lost the West Asia Championship final by the way, 24-20. Devastated would be a way to put how the season ended up for the DRFC. Losing is hard to take when you put so much effort into something. But such is life sometimes.

And life had thrown me a challenge.

In those first two years, because the nerve wasn’t working (and still doesn’t), my calf muscle had atrophied (wasted away a lot). After two ops I had to get used to walking again, and was living in New Zealand at the time with a young family, on Whangaparaoa Peninsula. They were hard days on the recovery front. I would try and go for a jog from Big Manly Around to Little Manly and would pull either calf muscle within a couple of hundred metres. It was always a slow, frustrated walk back to the house, especially during winter.

After this had happened a few times, and frustration levels were sky high, I resolved to start off slowly and walk before I could run so to speak. With a very understanding and supportive wife, and  spirited two and one year old daughters at the time, I started walking initially, needing to  build up the muscle again on the calf. We would go out to Shakespeare and Tawharanui Regional Park, and hike the hills. There were a few mishaps, falling over with my daughters and rolling down the hill a bit. The family was key. Sometimes you have to go down to get back up.

At the time and feeling like I was making progress, I made two goals, this was back in 2012-2013. The first was to surf some solid waves like I used to pre injury, and the second was to try and play a high level of rugby again. Both were looking doubtful at the time.

On the surfing, in January of 2013 a solid cyclone swell hit the East Coast of Northland. Six to eight foot. Offshore. I had a mare of a session. Every time I would go to take the drop, I’d  be thinking, ‘Up, flick foot, stamp, then go.’ I must have fallen on 9 out of 10 and got absolutely rinsed in what was a sizey swell. Like those initial runs when I pulled my calf, I was so frustrated. The two things I loved doing the most – and used to be pretty good at – surfing and rugby, I couldn’t do either.

Northland. Surf.

That swell. Northland, New Zealand. Things didn’t go according to plan.

For me there was nothing more frustrating than not being able to do what I loved.

Over the next six months I worked hard. Morning and night I would be doing exercises to strengthen the calves. Walking and then running a slow jog around Shakespeare or around Big Manly Park. I had to stick to the grass as the road jarred too much. I also learned to balance on a paddle board.

I would catch up with people and I got the feeling that they felt sorry for me because I walked with a bit of a limp. Stuff that. No one was going to feel sorry for me. Pride can be a good motivator.

Worked harder. And harder and harder.

About that time we made the decision to return to the Middle East, Abu Dhabi. I was due to have a third operation a month before this; this time to tie my foot into neutral with a ligament from another part of my body.

A big winter East Coast swell hit – bigger and hairier than the failed January session. Me and a mate hit the coast. I was feeling pretty good although it was huge. My mate got injured early and sat on the beach so I was out there by myself. I went for it, didn’t overthink it, just charged and backed the hard yakka that had been put in over the previous two and a half years, and particularly the preceding 6 months.

It was a special day that. I surfed for six hours straight.

I was back.

I saw the doctor the next day for the pre-op check up. I told him I didn’t want to have the op anymore. I told him about the surf. He told me that another op, to permanently alter my foot would be another year of recovery and rehabilitation.

“I’m not doing it,” I said. He shook my hand and backed me.

“Good on you,” he said.

I think my family were pretty surprised I didn’t have the op. I’m pleased I didn’t. I was getting where I needed to go.

Fast-forward to 2014. And not being satisfied with the status quo, I travelled to Indonesia with a good mate and pushed the surfing harder at Gland, East Java, a renowned big wave spot. After a couple of near drownings, including my fin nearly chopping my wrist off, and getting coral cut fever, I got in the flow and got some good waves.

Winston Cowie surfing GLand, Indonesia

Getting back in the mix. GLand, Indonesia

Goal 1, achieved. I could surf again.

And then there was the rugby dream….goal 2……

We moved to Abu Dhabi with our young  family. I helped coach one of the local footy clubs, the Harlequins initially. It was good for me that, and the knee rehab. I would do the fitness with the boys – and after Year 4 since the accident had reached a pretty happy medium.

Occasionally I would get a bit of nerve flaring, and the numbness was always there – at night it would annoy me a bit, but it was manageable. Through regular exercising I could just hold the foot in neutral.

With the goal at the back of my mind, to play some good rugby again (not really having defined to myself what this meant), I tentatively started again. Admittedly I was a lot edgier about playing a game of footy than surfing – the landings in rugby are hard, especially on the pitches in the Middle East.

I started with Sevens, and with a group of mates we set up the Mike Ballard Foundation Conquistadors – a charity team to support our mate, Mike Ballard, who suffered a serious spinal injury in 2014. Mike’s story is inspirational – the guy is incredibly mentally tough – since his injury, and six operations, he moved back to Abu Dhabi to take up his old job and now is a huge part of the fabric of the community. Mike epitomises the words ‘positive attitude.’ He inspires all around him and has certainly inspired me on this journey. Four and five years on from the injury I played in the Dubai 7s with the Conquistadors. It felt good to be playing footy again and the body got through ok, with Mike and a great bunch of lads.

In 2016, five years after the injury, I moved over to coach the Abu Dhabi Saracens, a good bunch of lads with a real family vibe. I started the season as coach – that was the intention initially. I still wasn’t one hundy into Goal 2. During Match 2 of the 2016 season that all changed when we travelled to the same field that I had initially got the injury, to play my old Doha mates.

Eight of our team’s visas were rejected, so we had a bare 17 to play Doha in Doha, including our physio. Not having too much time to consider it, I went for it, not wanting to forfeit. Not in the DNA. I played 80 minutes at No.8 in 40 degrees.

After getting through that game, and the knee feeling solid, I sat back and after knocking that monkey off the back, I wanted to play better.

A good article on that Doha shift was written by Paul Radley at The National.

We had a few injuries during the course of this season – 2016-2017, so I ended up playing at least 20 minutes of every game – 12 in total.

Admittedly at the start I was a little tentative, and I think naturally so after the rehab frustrations and the numbness, but by the start of this year, 2017, I was throwing myself into games like I used to. Six year’s older, a little slower, but getting stuck in. While the numbness was still there, I ignored it and got on with it. Goal 2, playing a high level of footy, was starting to look like a possibility.

At this time I had just clocked over three years in the United Arab Emirates, which made me eligible for the national side.

Like surfing at Gland, I thought Stuff it, I was going to have a crack.

I pitched up to the first UAE trial training in January 2017. The UAE, ranked No.72 in the world, was coached by former Samoan dual international superstar Apollo Perelini, and had earned promotion to Division 1 in Asia, where they would be competing with Malaysia (54), Sri Lanka (40) and the Philippines (58).

Attending that initial training, and as a loose forward and hooker, the quality of players was high – I thought that this was going to be a hard team to make – there were good players in all of these positions.  I went hard, trained hard, doing a lot of extras on the grass field at the compound our family lived in. I must have done over a hundred set of sprints on that 80 m patch of grass under the Palm Trees.

There and back. There and back.

Apollo, an outstanding coach, asked me if I could play prop. In day’s gone by, a loose forward may have taken such a query to heart – prop is not the most glamorous of positions. I was just stoked to be in the mix.

Yes I said, only having played it a couple of times 10 years earlier when at Oxford University in the Varsity Match campaign.

I started watching a lot of footy, in the evenings when the kids were in bed. I mainly watched the scrums, trying to learn as much as I could. I also enlisted the help of my team mates at the Abu Dhabi Saracens for some technical scrumming tuition. I also started smashing the gym.

Rather quickly I found that playing prop is hard. Respect to all props around the world. You don’t get a rest. When its scrum time, you are pushing with every ounce of energy you have, and then you have to get up and run around the field as well. It’s physically challenging. You walk off the pitch absolutely shattered.

A long story, short, after six years since that day in Doha, on 20 May 2017, numb knee and all, I made my international rugby debut as a loose head prop, representing my adopted home, the United Arab Emirates v the Philippines.

Winston Cowie rugby UAE

Winston Cowie. International rugby debut for United Arab Emirates v Philippines. May 2017.

Goal 2 knocked off.

A really well written article was written on the journey by Matt Jones at Sport360.

A big thank you to everybody who has supported me in eventually getting there over the past six years.

My family, Lucy Jones, who must be the most understanding wife in the world, and our kids Issy, Evie and Zac for not rolling their eyes too much when Daddy had to go to another rugby training, especially the past six months.

My friends who have kept me motivated and consistently pushing myself.

The Doha Rugby Community were incredibly kind in supporting me with my operations back in 2011. I am always indebted to you. And this year the Abu Dhabi Saracens family have been just that, a family of mates.

And four months ago I met a great bunch of gents from the different clubs in the UAE. We became a team, a close knit bunch who for the past 10 days have represented out adopted country, the United Arab Emirates, in Malaysia with pride. Thanks to all of these gents, now mates, for sharing that journey. Thanks to Apollo Perelini, our coach, and management for doing an outstanding job in preparing us. While the results didn’t go our way, we learned how competitive this top level in Asia is, and will be better for it next year….there is always next year….

UAE Rugby Team v Philipinnes. May 2017.

UAE Rugby Team v Philippines. May 2017.

This was a story I was keen to share.

A long road but worth it.

Never say never.

If it’s your challenge, own it, work hard. And nail it.