Helpless, Ineffective And Proud: A Concussion At Worlds

By Gus Macdonald

Aussie mixed rep, Gus Macdonald, details his experience dealing with a concussion injury at the recent U24 World Championships in Perth

It’s the 12th of January and we’re losing to Japan. Past half and trailing by enough for heads to drop and mine to spin, I’m standing on the line for only the second time this game. I don’t feel too flash. The pull is slung towards us, and within the first few steps I know I shouldn’t be here. The game feels heavy and surreal. My heart and mind are still racing from the point I played half an hour ago. I feel so slow and worthless; it’s selfish of me to even be on the field. But I’m playing. I have to. This is Worlds, the culmination of a campaign’s worth of suffering, of exhaustive physical and mental exercise, of money earned and immediately spent on “cheap” flights and tournament fees. I’m standing at the summit of a mountain that has taken a calendar year to climb; I’d rather fall off than be slowly escorted down the slopes by concerned looking physios and my omnipresent mum.


I smother a rolling disc and centre it to a gold shirt – I could not, for the life of me, tell you who was in it. It’s important to make this a quick point; I get the feeling that I’m going to struggle otherwise. I let my legs look after themselves while I run through the rules of a sport I’ve been playing for six years in my head, searching for some forgotten by-law that entitles you to a goal if you really, really want it. I’d do anything to have a tangible influence on the scoreboard. I’d do anything to catch a goal, to help my team and end this heavy, surreal torture of running after plastic. I sprint to the endzone.


I’m legging it, hard and fast, from my annoyingly close defender and from all my other problems. I’m running from the impending failure of yet another concussion test, from disappointing myself, my friends and my coat of arms, from a lack of meaningful contribution to any Perth scoreboard, from my depleted bank account and from the excruciating, wall-punching futility of this whole venture. If I can just catch this goal, every one of these problems will go away. In my mind it’s the fastest I’ve ever run.


But a sad and swollen head is not a good judge of speed.


I can’t shake my defender, nor can I shake the feeling that if the throw goes up I won’t be able to catch it - I’ve forgotten how. I’m too far away from the disc now anyway. So, I do what any handler with dreams of deep-receivership does when hucks are inevitably holstered; I reluctantly turn under. And I guess it was the turn that did me.


You can’t really run away from a concussion. It’s been right behind me all along. It smacks me in the face when I turn and I realise, immediately, terrifyingly, that this is not an injury I can grit through. I can’t overcome it with strapping tape and heart. What was I thinking, playing at all? I need to get off. I begin formulating a plan to scream or wave my arms about to get the sideline’s attention. But I can barely breathe, how am I going to scream or wave my arms about? And what the fuck was I thinking, playing at all?


Suddenly, I have the disc. The 175-gram root cause of all this trauma is nestled, indifferently, in my own shaking hands. I’ll need witnesses to tell me how that happened – a quirk of muscle memory maybe. With relief, I sit. I look up at my defender and see terror in his eyes, or maybe it was guilt. He had shamelessly counted to two before realising I wasn’t getting back up. Cheeky boy.


I’m escorted from the field. Pulses are taken, heads are shaken and vaguely comforting platitudes are thrown at me from short and long range. My brain is ringing. I would prefer fainting to this ringing in my brain. And I would prefer death to both. Lefty, my physio, turns to my mum.


“Well, we tried.”

You know, I’m actually a pretty upbeat dude. Pretty light-hearted, rarely talking about the downsides of head injuries, and generally some combination of sunburnt and stoked. What you just read is not a good indication of my froth/bant levels; it’s a recount of my worst moment at Worlds. I’ll try to keep it chipper from here on.

My name is Gus, I play for Friskee and Colony and the Australian Bluebottles. After a long and incredible campaign, I was concussed on day two of worlds due to a collision with a teammate’s shoulder. Thanks to a number of incredible people, I graced the Perth grass for six and a half more points before it all came crashing down in our semi-final against Japan (see above).


Before I continue, I should assure you that it wasn’t all doom and gloom. For the most part, I was a combination of sunburnt and stoked during my Worlds campaign, I just didn’t think you’d want to read an article about that. While some of these moments were painful and intense they don’t define me or my week in Perth. Don’t worry about me, I had a blast.

It happened in our pool play game against Japan, I was making a scrambling fill cut on the same line as the dump was moving up field. The disc swilled in between us and I didn’t see the incoming shoulder, if you’ll pardon the rank cliche, until it was too late. The knock itself wasn’t too bad, it was getting back up that was the problem. I was taken to hospital for an assessment, told to take it easy by a host of concerned voices, and spent a lot of time lying down. On the spectrum of head injuries I was very lucky; I had a mild concussion. I felt pretty whacked and sorry for myself, but I didn’t have any nausea or memory loss. I was pretty optimistic about playing the next day to be honest. I was a little confused as to why no one else was.


The next morning was tough. After a shocking sleep and groggy start, everything I did became difficult and distant – getting breakfast, holding a conversation, sidelining the Canada game, playing Mario Kart. There was an agonisingly gradual improvement in my symptoms over the next two days, according to the countless concussion tests administered by the interminably kind (and concerned looking) Stoddard’s. Things were looking up for the rest of the tournament.


I was cleared to play in a reduced capacity for our quarter final against Great Britain. I cleated up and put my self-proclaimed “iconic” leisure hat away. I felt like a little kid at Christmas during that warm up. Bounding about bright eyed and taking regular, solemn deep breaths to keep from imploding. Every time I threw a nice pass or snagged an errant disc in our flow drill, Deller yelled, “He’s back! Gussy’s back!”. I grinned like an idiot every time. I’m grinning like an idiot right now.


I was limited to five points, spaced out throughout the game, and spent my time on the sideline sitting under a shade tent. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was. It was one of those feelings we don’t really have a word for. To say getting back on the field was “special” doesn’t really do it justice. It doesn’t pay enough respect to the tireless work of my physio and his wife, it doesn’t summarise the sense of the gratitude and excitement and opportunity that I experienced, and it doesn’t come close to explaining what it felt like to be there, on the field, when we scored. 


We won. That was another feeling that the word “special” doesn’t do justice. Anson punched Dennis in the face he was so excited. Maybe that does the feeling justice.

As time passed, as we moved away from the game and the adrenaline slowly abandoned me, the concussion crept back. I began to feel outstandingly terrible. The headache, fatigue and fogginess came back violently, spitefully. Things became distant again. As I felt worse and worse physically, the implications for the rest of my tournament became more and more apparent. I chugged litres of water to no avail. An early night was no help. A hearty breakfast and two panadol didn’t do shit. The warm up made things worse. All of a sudden the semi final was starting and it was too late for me to recover, it seemed unlikely that the tournament would pause for two weeks while I recuperated.


I have never felt slower than in my first point against Japan. We got a quick block, we worked it up, I overthrew an inside and then my dude burned me about ten times to run their offence. I sat breathless on the sideline for five, then ten, then fifteen minutes. I felt so helpless, so ineffective and so proud all at the same time. My team was getting it. They were fighting in a semi final against the best in the world and I wanted desperately to be a part of it. So, when I was asked if I wanted to play the next point, and the scoreboard wasn’t looking too flash, and it felt like my last chance to do something, and tears were building in my eyes at the thought of how I’d spent my week, and I refused to accept that a year’s worth of training was for nothing, and the only words that mattered were grit, heart and integrity, and all I wanted to do was contribute, and all I could think about was how fucking much I wanted to help, to score, to translate the deep reservoir of love and belief I held for my team into the disc in my hands in the endzone, I immediately and sincerely said, “Yes”.  


And now we’ve come full circle. And I’ll end at the beginning.

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Thanks to NKolakovic and Pat Thorpe Ultimate Photography for the images in this article.