‘A bad break’: Traumatic injury can’t keep Academy cadet off rugby pitch
(Jessica Beyer (bottom row, second from left). (U.S. Air Force Academy photo)
Story by Jennifer Spradlin, May 16, 2018
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Jessica Beyer is a competitor.
She’s a no-nonsense girl from Dunlap, Illinois, a town where cows outnumber people. At six, she fell in love with flying while watching the Air Force Thunderbirds perform and set her sights on the Air Force.
Beyer, a cadet third class, found rugby during her freshman year at the Air Force Academy, and by her sophomore year, she was one of the team captains. Her goal was to win the national championship alongside her teammates — girls she said were her sisters.
“It was October 6th, cold, a bit rainy, and we were playing the Naval Academy team for the first time that season,” Beyer said. “It was the first three minutes of the game, and I called my teammate to ask for the ball, I said, ‘I’m going to score on this try, promise,’ and she tossed me the ball. I started to make a cut, and my left leg was planted, and I got tackled from behind.”
The next thing she remembers is hearing her leg break, a sound she compares to a tree branch snapping. Her tibia and fibula were broken and would require surgery, but despite the pain, her first thought was whether she could walk it off and finish the game with her team.
“She was taking it like a champ, so resilient in the moment given how traumatic the injury was,” said Cadet 1st Class Sara Cook, her friend and teammate.
Cook held her while an Academy alum and doctor they met during a rugby reunion appeared on the field and reset her leg while Beyer waited for the ambulance. Her coach was also nearby.
“I looked at her and asked, ‘coach, am I going to be back for nationals?’ and without hesitation, she said, ‘yeah, you’re going to be back for nationals,” Beyer said.
“Looking back, I was a little confused because there was no way I would be back in a few weeks for nationals, but she said, ‘I told you that you’d play at nationals, but I didn’t tell you which one.”
Getting back to the sport she loved involved a months-long rehabilitation regime with physical therapy and solo gym sessions on top of her academic and military training requirements.
“The biggest milestone was learning how to walk again,” she said. “The first steps I took I was all alone in my room, and I just wanted to go brush my teeth [without getting my crutches]. Those first few steps were probably the most painful in my life but were important to conquering that fear of walking again.”
Beyer also dealt with the highs and lows of seeing her team advance to the national championships and win while she was sidelined.
“I know it was a difficult thing for her to watch her friends out there and be physically unable to help out,” Cook said. “But her dedication to the team was one hundred percent. Every practice and game that she could be at, she was, no matter if she was in a wheel chair or crutches.”
Months after her surgery, she suffered a setback when her doctor informed her that her bones were not fusing properly. He told her she might require an additional surgery or have to abandon the sport altogether unless there was marked improvement at her follow-up appointment in two months.
“One my teammates said, ‘Jess, there’s no way you’re gonna be back for the spring season,’ and that kinda added a little fuel to my fire. I didn’t want to take no for an answer,” Beyer said.
And she proved them wrong. Two months later, her doctor shared the news that her bone growth had greatly improved, and she was cleared to return to practice and play.
“I remember riding back to the Academy after that appointment; I was sobbing because I was so happy. Getting to lace up those boots again: best feeling in the world,” she said.
She returned to the field with her team April 27 and helped lead them to victory in a series of matches that determined their eligibility for the spring season national championships.
“She missed most of last season, but she used that time to learn more about the game, and it’s only made her a stronger leader on the team,” Cook said.
Throughout the process, Beyer said she learned two things: trust and patience.
“The first few weeks, I tried to do everything on my own, but I learned being able to depend on others, recognizing others are there for you, it’s a huge game changer,” she said.