Houston Dash defender Lauren Sesselmann is working her way back from ACL surgery with World Cup on the horizon

To the casual observer it looked like nothing more than scrimmages and fitness work at the start of preseason. But to Lauren Sesselmann, last week’s Dash training sessions represented a year of hard work coming to fruition and a chance to continue playing professional soccer that she feared she had lost forever.

The Dash defender was training with the Canadian national team in Cyprus last March when she suffered a knee injury. It proved serious: a torn anterior cruciate ligament requiring surgery. Her hopes of making her Houston debut in the club’s inaugural National Women’s Soccer League season were wrecked, and at the age of 30, at the back of her mind she wondered if the injury might even end her career.

But Sesselmann battled through a long, arduous rehabilitation process that tested her body and mind, and she is moving closer to twin goals that have inspired her to keep going during the tough times: finally making her Dash debut and representing Canada during this summer’s World Cup.

“It’s hard, it’s a mentally challenging injury and you don’t really know how your body’s going to accept it or how it’s going to come back and luckily I’m fortunate enough that I had great staff behind me on both sides, here in Houston and in Canada. And they led me on the right path and here I am now, giving it my all,” she told HoustonDashSoccer.com last week, an ice pack on her left knee a reminder that she still has a little way to go before she regains full fitness.

“I went into a little bit of a lull and it was hard. I really struggled the first few months of this injury. It kind of went in waves. Everyone’s different when they go through an injury of this magnitude and I’m just happy to be back.”

Now 31, it was the first serious injury of her career. A Purdue University graduate and veteran of the U.S. professional soccer scene, she was picked up from FC Kansas City with the third selection of the 2014 Expansion Draft and Dash head coach Randy Waldrum had expected her to form an integral part of the back line. Born in Wisconsin, Sesselmann qualified for Canada through her father and has 39 caps for them and a bronze medal from the 2012 Olympic Games.

“It’s great to see her back on the field,” Waldrum told HoustonDashSoccer.com. “You could hear her already back there organizing players, talking to some of the younger players, and that’s what you want. You’ve got to have those kinds of key players especially in the back line to do that job for you.”

Sesselmann spent most of the past six months rehabbing in Canada and returned there this week to continue her recovery as she focuses on making the roster for the World Cup, which will take place there.

“It’s such an incredible feeling to have the World Cup in Canada, it’s huge for our country and us as individual players representing the country. The atmosphere is insane up there. I’ve been staying in Vancouver where the final is — so amazing. This could be a part of the process, this could be my personal cup — making the team. I’m excited,” she said.

For support, Sesselmann talked with Dash midfielder Brittany Bock, who suffered a similar injury in the opening game last season, and worked with a sports psychologist in Canada. “I would do a lot of mental training. I took a lot of time for myself, I became more of an independent person during this process, you have to,” she said.

“There were times where I didn’t believe I was going to come back and then you have a lot of people saying ‘oh, you’re not going to come through this injury.' So doing the mental training, the visionary stuff, envisioning yourself getting better, other people that have gone through it, hearing their success stories [was important].”

Sesselmann also has her “Fit as a Pro” fitness program brand which was a welcome diversion from the daily monotony of rehabilitation work.

“I love to work and keep busy. I would get my stuff done in the morning, work hard, get my training done, get my rehab done, and then have an outlet to focus on something else because mentally the whole thing’s draining. You’re doing the same thing every single day,” she said.

Waldrum believes that as an experienced player, Sesselmann was well equipped to handle the challenge of a serious injury. “When they get down to when they know they only have a few years left, I think they do have a better appreciation for the time that they do get back on the field,” he said.

“The other thing that you find with those kinds of players is their approach to rehab. Lauren’s been so professional about hers. These guys amaze me with how much they know about their bodies — things that I never knew when I was playing. Things they need to do in rest and recovery to rehab properly. She’s really on top of that.”

Sesselmann credits the encouragement of those around her for boosting her determination. “I’ve had an awesome support system — all the Houston Dash players that I’ve become close to, my Canadian players that I’ve become close to, and the staff and everyone telling me, ‘hey we want you back, we need you back.' Your family pushing you every day and I think the fans too. When you read all the messages online that say, ‘we need you Sess,' it kind of lights a fire under you,” she said.

“And it’s like, I’m not done yet. So I have a lot more to prove in my career and I don’t want to end on an injury like this. I used that every day to push me through when the times got rough.”

Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.