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The Moment: Shelley Watts

Ginger Gorman

Olympian Shelley Watts shares the moment that changed her life.

The road to the Olympics isn’t always one that’s paved with triumph. In fact, for elite sportswoman Shelley Watts, 28, it was exactly the opposite.

Back in 2008 Shelley heard a loud, sickening “snapping” sound emanating from her knee during a semi finals soccer game in Lismore. Shortly afterwards, the pain set in.

Listen to Shelley tell Ginger Gorman about the moment that changed her life by listening to our podcast, or scroll down to keep reading.

“I can vividly remember feeling the pain I experienced as I screamed, and dropped to the pitch,” Shelley recalls, “I knew straight away it was serious and that I wouldn’t be able to keep playing.”

Seconds earlier, an opposition player had grabbed Shelley midplay.

“I’ve gotten the ball, and I’ve gone to take a step, and at the same time, she’s ripped my jersey and pushed. She pulled my body one way, when my body was going the other.

“And the result was…a sound that was just like a ruler snapping,” Shelley says.

This was an important game for Shelley. She’d just be awarded the gong of “best female player” by Football Far North Coast and was determined to prove her mettle.

According to Shelley, her teammates were angry because they believed the injury was a direct result of “cheap” and “pretty dirty” tactics.

“I stood up and I walked over to the girl that tackled me like that, and I shook her hand and I just said to her, ‘No hard feelings.’

“And it was a way that I could get the girls to settle down and focus because they still had a job to do,” Shelley says, “we still had to win that semi-final to make it into the final.”

When Shelley got to the doctor and had an MRI on her knee, the news wasn’t good.

“The results ended up showing that the ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] in my right knee was torn to within two millimetres of snapping,” she explains.

This stroke of bad luck led straight to another one. After keyhole surgery, Shelley was told to stay on crutches for three months “before slowly getting back into strength training and then running.”

“I’m not really good at following instructions sometimes, when I feel like I’m better but I’m not.

“Stupidly I thought that I knew more than doctors, which obviously you never do,” Shelley says with a rueful smile.

After a month, Shelley decided to go back to playing touch football in her home town of Laurieton, NSW. Her first game went well. Her second game did not. The “snap” she heard this time was much, much worse. From metres away, Shelley’s teammates heard the incredible noise as once more, Shelley dropped onto the ground.

“It was probably five times louder than the first initial snap that I heard playing soccer.

“I just remember screaming a lot of obscenities. So I was just swearing, screaming and…I knew straightaway that one month [of being on crutches] was not long enough, and my ACL had snapped in half,” she says.

In June 2009 Shelley had a knee reconstruction and was convinced she’d never play sport again.

“I was put into a straight full leg brace, rather than a flexible, bending brace.

“As a result, I couldn’t dress myself because I couldn’t reach down to my toes after the operation to put my undies and pants on.

“I’d gone from being someone who was at university studying a law degree [and] playing sport at pretty high levels, to not even being able to dress myself,” Shelley says, recalling that her Mum had to help her get clothes on after a shower.

While Shelley found her situation “pretty hard to have to deal with,” she now reflects that: “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom for you to realise that the only way is up.”

About 12 months into her rehabilitation in 2010, something miraculous happened.  A friend who was starting to box suggested Shelley should also give it a go.

“She said to me, ‘Maybe you should just grab yourself some gloves and just practice getting fit just with your arms, your upper body.’”

Straight away, Shelley was hooked.

“All boxers, if you speak to them they say it’s not a sport, it becomes a lifestyle,” she says.

Just four year later, Shelley made history when she took out gold in the 60-kilogram “lightweight” female boxing division at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Now, she has her sights on an even bigger prize. Last month Shelley was named in Australian Olympic team.

“I’ll only be the second female in history to go to an Olympic Games for boxing [representing Australia]. And I think that’s really, really special.”

“My mind is set on that gold medal because I want to be the first Australian boxer, male or female, to bring back a gold…[and] any chance that I can get to push us females, the better,” she says with a laugh.

Looking back to 2008, Shelley says she’s “super happy that I was tackled that way on the soccer field because it brought me to where I am today. It brought me boxing and I couldn’t imagine my life without it.”

To hear Shelley telling the nail-biting story of the moment that changed her life, listen to our podcast.


You can subscribe to The Moment, our new fortnightly podcast here or on iTunes.

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Image courtesy of the Australian Institute of Sport.


Ginger Gorman

Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist. She has an innate ability to connect and communicate with some of the most interesting and marginalised people in our community. Ginger works hard to translate those untold stories into powerful and insightful journalism. She regularly writes stories, makes radio and TV for media outlets such as:, Fairfax online, The Guardian, The Big Smoke, HerCanberra and the ABC. You can follow Ginger on Twitter @GingerGorman. More about the Author