She was going to grind it out and compete through pain, while wearing a knee brace. The alternative — not playing — hurt more.
Melnek loves the game. Next to family, soccer has been the one consistent presence in her life since she was a kid. Giving it up, even for a year, was the hardest thing she ever had to do, but she did it.
She was on a nine-month waiting list to receive a consultation about her knee. Not good enough or fast enough. Her family called surgeons all over Ontario until they found one who would perform the operation in time for Melnek to make it back for her fourth and final year at Laurentian.
She had surgery last October and followed up with an intensive rehabilitation process, which ended in the summer of this year.
Now, Melnek is back for her final season with the team. She missed a whole year of playing, practising and development. Try and find a more motivated athlete in Greater Sudbury right now than Melnek.
This is a woman driven to return not just to form, but be better than she ever was before.
“I viewed my experience as a test of character, and I wanted to prove to everyone, especially myself, I could recover from this,” the 21-year-old said. “We have a lot of younger girls and I hope I can lead by example to show them, no matter what obstacle is thrown into your path, you can conquer it if you have passion.”
The injury that felled her happened in June 2012. She was playing for the Sudbury Canadians club team when an opponent followed through on a kick as Melnek went into a slide tackle. The opponent missed the ball and landed on Melnek’s left leg, snapping her ACL.
Like anything she had done before in her life, Melnek was relentless in rehab mode. She was at the gym every day working the muscles required to give her strength back. She attended fitness sessions with teammates to keep the strong bond she had with the team.
Being on the sidelines was tough, but it wasn’t the most difficult part of the experience. That was when she was ready to step back on a field and practice all-out. Melnek is a defender who makes life miserable for opposing attackers and she wondered if her body could take the punishment.
She got her answer in her first real game, an exhibition contest against Mercyhurst, a college from the United States.
“The hardest part was returning to play with confidence,” she said. “The first time I practiced, there was initial fear about re-injuring myself.
“Before the game, I put on my brace and knew this would be the ultimate test. During the game, my knee did not once cross my mind. I can officially say I have conquered the biggest challenge of all, my mind.”
Playing wing and midfield this season, she challenges foes head-on and doesn’t shy away from physical contact.
“I have had many players not come back after suffering a knee injury,“ Laurentian women’s soccer head coach Rob Gallo said. “Ashley is one of those people when she is down she will do whatever it takes to get back up. She did a good job of getting up.”
Melnek will graduate next spring from communications with a minor in English. She is planning on studying human resources at Cambrian College next year and will play soccer again.
Try and stop her.
Scott Haddow has been writing about sports in Greater Sudbury for the past 10 years.