This time last year Alex Danson-Bennett was convinced she would never be able to play hockey again, writes Ella Jerman.
The former Great Britain captain lost the ability to read, walk or speak after sustaining a concussion when she hit the back of her head on a wall while on holiday in Kenya 18 months ago.
Having captained England at a home World Cup shortly before the trip, the seemingly insignificant moment turned her life upside down in an instant – but she immediately vowed to come back.
Those aspirations felt unimaginable not too long ago but Danson-Bennett has finally breathed her first sigh of relief having completed her first week back at Bisham Abbey in the GB Hockey set-up – a position the Olympic champion will never take for granted again.
“I’m a different human to the human I was a year ago,” said Danson-Bennett. “I’ll be really honest, there were just so many dark times over the last 16 months when I just wondered whether I’d get well or if something had been misdiagnosed.
“Just seeing the team, picking up my stick and being welcomed back in the first meeting was a day I didn’t know would come, so it was pretty special.
“This has been my home for many years, but I hadn’t been here for a year and it feels like an age.
“It’s been a big step but it’s just so good to be able to do so much more. It’s certainly better than the front room of my bedroom, that’s for sure.”
It’s been a tumultuous two years for Danson-Bennett, whose own sister, Claire, became paralysed at the end of August in a triathlon accident.
Both thankfully and remarkably, the siblings are now both back in action, Claire completing her first solo 5km wheelchair event at the weekend just four and a half months after her accident – but they’re both aware that making a full recovery is far from simple.
“I’ve managed to tolerate full days, be in the gym, do running and bike sessions – but not without symptoms,” added Alex. “Headaches are my primary problem. If they went, I feel like I could just crack on as before.
“I’m just grateful to be in an environment where I can tolerate lots of things going on. Everybody here knows me and knows my character and that if I could be on that pitch, I’d be there.
“We’re an incredibly close family. The past year has given me the most enormous perspective. I was too unwell to make contact with anybody. I wasn’t well enough to place any phone calls, read any messages or do anything for myself at that stage.
“I’m in complete awe of what Claire is going through. We’ve had our own challenges but we’ve had lots of good things along the way.
“Coming back to Bisham Abbey has helped enormously. I feel well supported, but not everybody is that fortunate which is why it’s important to highlight just how debilitating head injuries can be.”
Danson-Bennett is not the only member of Britain’s hockey squad to have recently suffered a head injury.
Two-time Olympic medallist Nicola White was similarly forced to leave the GB Hockey programme in December, suffering a freak concussion in a friendly against Ireland in March 2018 and not playing since following 20 months of recovery.
Suffering yourself is one thing but for Danson-Bennett, seeing a close companion suffer in silence is equally as traumatic. Now, she’s more determined than ever before to fight for the cause.
“At the moment, if you have been diagnosed with a concussion or a mild traumatic injury, your rehab is to go home and rest, but I believe that there’s so much more that can be done in that phase,” she added. “But the thing is, it’s invisible. It’s very difficult.
“Even now, I’m so delighted to be back, but no one can tell if I have a headache. I’d be the same because if someone else told me they had a headache, I’d be like ‘well, just get on with it’.
“I’m very lucky as I have no long-term motor control issues or cognitive issues, but there’s nothing mild about the symptoms that come with head injuries.
“Thousands and thousands of people suffer with this all over the country so if I’ve had any opportunity to just raise awareness for that person that has been forced to go back to work and is telling people they’re struggling, I do.”