Bianca St-Georges' first call-up to the Canadian women's soccer team proved to be painful when she injured her knee in camp before the SheBelieves Cup in February, requiring surgery.
"A freak accident," she said.
The Chicago Red Stars defender felt something odd when she planted her foot, but not enough to quit training. A subsequent MRI revealed a meniscus tear, the same injury she had had to her other knee which sidelined her in 2019.
The 23-year-old from St-Felix-de-Valois, Que., returned to Chicago and underwent surgery on her left knee on Feb. 24, some five months before Canada's opening game at the Tokyo Olympics.
Her recovery time depended on what the surgeon found when he went into the knee.
"It was either six weeks or six months recovery. I was really really praying for the six weeks," St-Georges said from Spain, where eighth-ranked Canada is preparing for friendlies Friday against the 27th-ranked Czech Republic and Monday against No. 7 Brazil.
The news was good when the surgeon saw the damage, with a six-week recovery time.
While St-Georges has yet to feature in a game for the Red Stars since the surgery, she says she is ready to play.
"My knee is 100 per cent. I feel healed," said St-Georges. "I had a great rehab. I had great support, not only from Chicago but amazing support from the Canadian team. They were away from me physically but they felt so close to me (in) how they reached out and how supportive they were."
It helps that St-Georges' relationship with Canada coach Bev Priestman covers eight camps or tournaments at the youth level including the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Costa Rica in 2014.
St-Georges is a fan.
"She's funny, she's energetic. She's motivating. She's willing to work just as hard as we are to win the gold medal," she said of the 35-year-old coach.
St-Georges captained Canada at the U-20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea in 2106 under coach Daniel Worthington.
Training in Spain has been intense and hot. Good preparation for Japan, St-Georges says.
St-Georges is one of several players injured around the SheBelieves Cup now back in camp. Striker Adriana Leon and goalkeepers Kailen Sheridan and Erin McLeod are also healthy again, looking to make their case to be part of Priestman's 18-woman Olympic roster.
Priestman says she will announce her squad, plus four alternates, within 10 days of the friendlies.
St-Georges has been savouring time in camp, saying while the sessions are intense, it's a positive, team-oriented group.
"It's been really encouraging to be with the team. They lift me up. If you make a mistake, they're backing you up. No one's mad. It's either constructive criticism or pushing you to be the better version of yourself. So it's really a good team atmosphere."
Drafted in the third round (20th overall) of the 2019 NWSL draft, St-Georges did not play that year because of her first knee surgery. It was a difficult time.
"Being injured for about a year and a half you start to question if you're ever going to come back from that," she said.
"I had to consider the worst because I don't think it was healthy for me to just pretend everything was OK when things were not," she added. "It was really hard. I just had to trust it was going to be OK. That if it was the end of my career, I had to be OK with it. But I didn't have to give up either. I really wanted to come back."
The delay in starting the 2020 season due to the pandemic gave her more time to recover and rehab and she returned in the NWSL Challenge Cup in late June.
St-Georges grew up on a farm, taking up soccer at an early age — always competing with her older brother. At 13, she moved away from home to live with a billet family to be closer to the developmental Rex Centre in Laval, Que.
"My family time decreased so much at a young age. But I feel like that's what helped me be so disciplined and responsible and mature (at a) younger age."
Her extensive experience with the Canadian youth program led to interest from West Virginia, where she played with fellow Canadians Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, Rylee Foster, Amandine Pierre-Louis and Easther Mayi Kith.
As a senior in 2018, St-Georges was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Soccer has taken her around the globe, with St-Georges saying she hopes she can help others understand that anything is possible if you put the time and effort into it.
"Some people are more privileged than others, but it doesn't mean it's impossible," she said. "I hope my story inspires other people to think 'Me too, I can do that. I come from nowhere. I come from a farm or a small village. It's really possible to explore and go to your limits.'"
St-Georges documented her recent injury return on TikTok and has her own YouTube channel. She's charismatic, funny and pretty adept at editing her videos. And thoughtful, as shown in a video called "8 Things This Pandemic (2020) Taught Me."
She offers reading suggestions and thoughts of her own. And she's happy to share, whether it's decluttering her wardrobe or cutting short a video in her car before a doctor's appointment, explaining "I really have to take a poo."
"It's fun," she said. "Now that I don't have school any more, I try to find ways to keep myself working but also be creative. And I think YouTube is a good outlet for me to do that because I can do it on the go and I really get to step out of my comfort zone."
She admits she's not the best when it comes to relaxing. Even when she tries, she may instead end up coming up with a list of five ways to relax.
"It's been a learning process to navigate my role as a professional athlete. I just feel like I have such a privilege to have this platform that I want to make the most out of it."
She says she has just started on her journey.
St-Georges is not done with school, however. An exercise physiology major at West Virginia, she plans to go to medical school when the time is right.
"I hope to study more about mental health and psychiatry … That's such a passion for me. So there's an after-career coming for me."
In the meantime, the farm girl is enjoying life in the Windy City — even if the pandemic means she does not get to see as much of Chicago as she would like.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2021.