BEIJING – When you play the game as hard as Brianna Decker does, bumps and bruises come with the territory. But what she experienced in the opening game of the 2022 Olympic tournament was another level of pain.
On only her fifth shift of the game against Finland, Decker was tied up by Finnish defender Ronja Savolainen, with her left leg trapped under her opponent as they fell to the ice.
Her screams could be heard echoing through the Wukesong Sports Centre as she lay face down on the ice. When she tried to put weight on her leg, that’s when she knew that her third Olympic tournament was over almost as soon as it began.
Team USA medical staff raced onto the ice and immediately signaled for a stretcher to wheel her off the ice. Further examination revealed she had suffered a broken left leg and torn ligaments in her ankle.
“Obviously from the noises I made, I knew right away that I broke something because I’ve broken bones before and I just had that feeling,” Decker said before Tuesday’s final preliminary round game against Canada.
She will have surgery shortly after she returns to the States and expects her recovery time to take about eight weeks.
From her vantage point, Decker thought it was an illegal hit that cut short her Olympic experience.
“Honestly, I thought it was a dirty play,” she said. “A slew foot isn’t something you want to go through or want to see. But it’s the game of hockey and there’s always a risk of injury.”
As she waits for the swelling to go down and the throbbing pain to diminish, Decker is finding ways to take her mind off her injury. She’s tapped into her coaching experience and is offering the U.S. staff an extra set of eyes while watching the game from the press box.
“I’ve been willing to give my feedback if they ask for it,” said the two-time assistant coach with the U.S. Women’s Under-18 Team.
“Another eye in the sky doesn’t hurt and it’s definitely going to help in certain situations, especially as we go further down the road in the tournament.”
The support she’s received from her teammates has helped her get through the tough times, like not being able to march in the opening ceremony, and the messages she’s received on social media have lifted her spirits.
“Honestly, the support I’ve had through social media or the people who have reached out through emails or text messages has been incredible and it’s definitely helped me get through this last few days,” she said.
Showing the same grit and determination she displays during every shift on the ice, Decker has not ruled out finishing the Games by marching with her teammates in the closing ceremonies.
With the sting of missing out on these Olympics still fresh, it’s too early to think about where she’ll be in four years when the Games return to Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. For now she’ll focus on being the biggest cheerleader she can be and offering her opinion when asked.
“It’s just a difficult situation. I don’t think anything has really settled in quite yet,” she said.
“The one thing that I’ve been really enjoying is still being able to watch the team, to be here for the team and watch other U.S. athletes compete after they’ve trained their butts off the last four years to get to this moment.”
After all she’s been through, Decker doesn’t think a little upgrade for the long flight home is too much to ask for.
“My foot is probably going to swell up like a balloon, but hopefully I can get a little bit comfortable,” she said. “I definitely think I’ll be asking for a first class seat on the way home.”