by Dave Warner

In a recent interview for the My Little Falls Radio podcast called The Press Box, Gabby Sylstra talked about having a dream and working towards that dream for more than nine years, beginning when she was three years old. The Ohio State and many other prestigious schools were on her radar for an athletic scholarship for her skills on the soccer field.

With COVID, many of the local athletes got more involved in club sports so that they wouldn’t lose their edge, and Gabby was no exception. But for her, a season-ending injury with a torn ACL and meniscus injury has put an end to her senior season, and goals of joining former teammate Nicole Failing as the second Little Falls player to eclipse 100 career goals.

Gabby was playing in a game at the Accelerate Sports Complex in Whitesboro when the injury occurred, but the family feels that the injury was more than an accident, and is yet another example of ‘targeting’. The typical definition of that is that it means that ‘a player takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal block or playing the ball’.

Gabby’s mother Gina said, “We had played that team last year at Accelerate and she left with a bone bruise on her knee that took three months to go away.”

Gabby said, “I had just beaten this girl and I was getting ready to run by her and as I was going by, I had to try and jump over her leg because she had already stepped. I thought I was by her and all of a sudden, she just swung around and just kicked me. You heard this loud pop and the ref blew the whistle because he was all grossed out because he heard it too. He was right next to me.”

Her mother said they didn’t see the girl in the game again, so they’re not sure if she was removed from play or not.

When Gabby first went to the doctor, he felt the injury and told her it was fine and probably just a minor sprain. “We followed that up a week later with an appointment with the primary doctor, and she felt it and said it seemed fine,” stated Gabby.

To be safe, the doctor went ahead and scheduled an MRI. “She said, there’s no way this is torn,” Gabby stated.

However, when the results of the MRI came back, it was a torn ACL, a partially torn meniscus, and a contusion on her fibula. Her mother said, “That’s exactly where she kicked her.” The doctors were also concerned about her knee and bones and ordered x-rays to make sure there were no fractures.

Gabby said, “Our first thought was, this has to be a mis-read. So my Dad and I went to Hamilton Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine and the doctor there said it was definitely torn.”

She’s now had the surgery and is back on the field, but with crutches and doesn’t expect to be playing again until next summer. Her mom said, “The expected recovery time is six to nine months, but a full year for it to heal completely.”

Gina is upset because, for the girl who inflicted the injury, it was five minutes lost from one game. For Gabby though, the price is much higher, a lost senior year, the opportunity to break records, and damage to a potential college career.

Gabby stated that the common ‘code’ that is given is “just go be physical with them. When someone is kicking your ankles, and your knees, it’s obvious what they’re trying to do. Coaches will say ‘go for the ankles’.”

The family stated that this is not the case so much in high school sports, as it is in the club sports leagues where Gabby got injured. Gina said, “This is so taboo to talk about and it seems like we’ve just accepted now that this is a part of playing sports. It was just our biggest fear from the start.”

Her mother said that it is so common, that prior to the injury, they have had to pull Gabby out of games when it was getting too physical to protect her. “There have been times when girls have come up to me and told me they’re sorry for hitting me, but that their coach said to do it,” said Gabby.

She understands that it’s a physical game and that injuries can happen. She said that there was another student that was Gabby’s age that tried to bring attention to the issue in high school basketball, and the parent was bullied to keep quiet for trying to bring attention to the injury her daughter sustained. Gina said, “Nobody’s going to bully me.”

Gina said that is also happening in basketball, and that there are no repercussions. “That’s what I don’t understand,” she stated. “The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”

Her Dad said that at one game, every time Gabby got the ball, the coach was yelling, ‘ankles, ankles,’ in order to make sure his girls took her out. “I had bruises on my ankles from it,” said Gabby. The Dad even brought it to the attention of the referees, and they said, ‘yeah, I hear it’.

After that though, they started called the penalties and the behavior stopped. “The fact that someone just turns around and kicks the crap out of my leg, is just ridiculous,” said Gabby.

Several athletic directors for area high schools have said that they know about the problem, but that it really hasn’t manifested itself to this level at high school games.

Gina feels like there are penalties in high school sports for unsportsmanlike conduct, but that when you look for a handbook in club soccer, you can’t find one. “At what point did we just say, it’s ok for this. You wouldn’t let anyone come off the street and kick your child in the knee. That’s assault, but if you do it on the soccer field, it’s A-OK.”

According to Gina, the girl just didn’t stop Gabby from scoring a goal but has impacted the D1 coaches at the college level who are now going to say that they can’t take a chance that she’ll come back 100%.

Her mother said, “I’m bitter about it. It’s negated every obstacle that she’s already jumped through. Nine years of hard work just because somebody said I’m going to kick her in the knee. In professional sports, this doesn’t happen because there are repercussions.”

She said, “This happens so often, that I’m just trying to bring awareness about the situation. Some people have a lot to lose.”

Gabby was four goals away from the 100 mark and was probably going to break the assist goal this year since she had already tied for it. She has been key to the success of the Little Falls Girls soccer team, with a pair of Section III titles, while winning MVP of the state final game.