2021 was going to be Riley Christgoergl’s year; she felt fitter than ever, more prepared than ever and was rewarded by being named as captain of the Western Bulldogs VFLW team.
Then, in round five against Geelong, she was caught in a tackle and it all came to a grinding halt.
After trying to get up she felt her knees buckle underneath her and knew something wasn’t right.
“I felt really rocky and not quite right, but coming off the ground I was yelling from the sidelines wanting to go back on,” she recalls.
“Ten minutes later I felt so ill, it felt like the world was closing in around me, I felt nauseous, it all of sudden hit me like a tonne of bricks.”
Before that hit against Geelong, Christgoergl had her sights firmly on playing football at the highest level. The goal seemed within reach when she was named in the Bulldogs’ best players in the first four games of the season.
Christgoergl could feel herself getting better with every game.
“After my first VFLW season in 2019 I realised how far behind I was, and I was stoked with my improvement, it felt like it had been in leaps and bounds.”
“I was learning at a faster rate and my skills were developing, my fitness wasn’t holding me back anymore, it was really rewarding.”
After a concussion test was done in the rooms in round five Christgoergl realised she was feeling the effects of concussion to a high degree. After being sent to hospital to check for any brain bleeding and getting the all clear, Christgoergl says she wasn’t prepared for what was to come.
“Fortunately, there weren’t any brain bleeds, so I thought I might just feel a bit weird for a couple of days, that I had the compulsory twelve days off and then I’d be back in two weeks,” she said.
“Like a classic footballer all I could think about was when I would be back on the field. I went home and had no trouble sleeping, but for the next five days I was in a very bad way.”
Experts believe that women are more susceptible to concussion and those concussions are more severe, something Riley experienced herself in the days following the initial knock.
In those five days Christgoergl remembers not being able to stand up straight for long periods of time, being unable to eat, exhaustion that had her sleeping 16 hours a day and any light or noise completely wiping her out.
Christgoergl was ignorant to a lot of the effects concussion can have on players like her, and the experience prompted her to try and learn more.
“Unless it happens to you, you’re not going out there to research the impact it has, so I’ve done a bit, there’s very-limited-to-no research on female concussion. We know it lasts longer, we know it’s more severe, but I still feel like it’s not being talked about.”
Following those five days, medication helped the headaches and nausea subside, but the recovery wasn’t straight forward.
“I did 20 minutes on the bike at a moderate pace, I woke up the next morning with no symptoms. Everyone was really excited so I went to the next step, 20 minutes of a consistent jog and again felt like I didn’t have symptoms.”
“Then the third effort was doing a moderate run and that didn’t end well, I had pretty bad symptoms after that”
Christgoergl took another week off and continued to work at her job as a chef, but it wasn’t until she started seeing a neuro physiotherapist that she started to see an improvement.
“I didn’t even know that you could do concussion rehab. I thought I did all the right things and I still wasn’t getting better, so it was interesting seeing the neuro physio and the people at Neurological Rehabilitation Group,” Christgoergl said.
“They did some tests, and helped me understand my weaknesses. I’ve been doing rehab every day and in my re-tests I did a lot better, so I’ve just been cleared for minimal contact training and slow running.”
It’s a big step forward for Christgoergl who is still feeling the effects of post-concussive symptoms twelve weeks on from that game against Geelong.
Despite this she says she will “100% play football again,” her love of the game too strong to step away but the experience has been eye-opening for Christgoergl. She hopes she can raise awareness about how concussion can affect female athletes.
“Instead of people asking ‘when will you be back or when are you playing again’, I think people need to start asking ‘how are you going? How are you feeling today?’
“Just take it day by day. I think not having an expectation on anyone’s concussion, because every single brain is different and every single knock will be different and every person’s recovery time will be different.”
For now, Christgoergl will support her teammates and be a captain from the sidelines as they try and make finals in 2021.
“At training I still feel like the captain but, more importantly, I feel like a valued player and part of the club. I’ve been lucky.
“It’s tricky being on the sidelines, but my main focus has always been to support every single player and make sure they’re feeling good, and the most important thing to me is to make sure they are loving their footy.”