When Reachel Beaulieu saw her teammate Diana Perez crumple to the ground under the weight of a tackle during a preseason practice in fall 2013, Beaulieu could already tell something was wrong.
After tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee twice and her meniscus once, Beaulieu has spent more time recovering in a rehabilitation clinic than competing with her West Hall teammates.
“I was the first that told (Perez) that she had tore it,” she said. “I realized, I was asking her the same types of questions that my doctors had been asking me.”
Nine games into the 2015 season, Beaulieu has already started more games than in all of her previous three years as a Spartan combined.
Her injuries have shortened a promising high school career, but ultimately fueled a passion to make things right in her senior year.
Three years after going under the knife for the first time, the senior striker wants to spread the hope that future high school athletes can make an impact after suffering injuries.
She knows all too well the pain of sitting on the sidelines.
“If I’m not playing soccer, I’m doing nothing,” she said. “I love it too much. It’s part of me, I can’t let it go.”
‘Working hard for something’
When young children are bouncing around foster care homes, Beaulieu said, they can either act out or find a reason to enjoy life.
She was the middle child of five siblings when she entered foster care at the tender age of seven. As an older child with four brothers and sisters, she moved around to seven different homes within five years and struggled to find much sense of stability.
Playing sports changed that. Tennis and baseball came and went, but she got to kick a ball for the first time in her third foster home.
There’s a poetic quality to why soccer stuck with Beaulieu. It was a sanctuary that pushed her to keep moving, keep playing, keep thinking.
“A lot of sports have a lot of stopping, but in soccer, you don’t have a break,” she said. “You feel like you’re working hard for something.”
By the time Reachel was 12 years old, she moved into her final home. Cindy and Joe Beaulieu knew they were adopting a daughter with a zest for life and a thirst for competition. The couple adopted all five siblings, including Jessica (21), Trey (19), Angel (16) and Jaren (13).
By the time Reachel had started high school, she got on board with a Gainesville-based travel team, the Lanier Soccer Association. The team typically plays from August through December, and can give athletes a step up as they prepare to enter their high school teams.
Reachel’s natural position was at forward, where the action was.
“She told me that there’s not enough action when she’s playing goalie,” Joe Beaulieu said. “There would be long stretches where there wasn’t anything going on in her end of the field. She’s the consummate team player, so she’s not afraid to get physical.”
Fighting through therapy
Hard-nosed play comes with its fair share of risk. Beaulieu is a forward on the roster, but regularly drops back into midfield to link up with her defenders and spread the ball throughout the field.
Her ability to play a full 80 minutes comes with the increased possibility that she’ll pick up nicks and bruises from day-to-day practices and games.
“The fact that she’s up front, trying to score, defenders do what they do, and sometimes they’ll cut her down,” Joe said. “They know she’s the one. They scout her, so they know if they can put the best defender on her, that’ll take a big chunk out of West Hall’s offensive punch.”
Reachel still remembers the day when she was first forced to the sideline. She was dribbling with the ball on Oct. 13, 2011, during a game with the LSA Sharks when she cut to her right, got tackled and couldn’t get back up.
It took Beaulieu more than nine months to rehab her right ACL and get back into shape, by which time she had missed her freshman season.
Her return didn’t last long. She was involved in an on-the-ball tackle during an LSA practice in November 2012, which took her out for the next 11 months with a similar ACL injury on the same right knee.
Throughout her high school career, Beaulieu racked up “hundreds” of physical therapy appointments with Dr. Jennifer Wiley, a former specialist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
Many athletes would see ACL injuries as career-threatening, said Wiley, who now works at the University of North Georgia-Dahlonega. Wiley and Beaulieu met two to three times a week for 30-45 minutes each session.
Often, Wiley would have Beaulieu bend and flex her knee to make sure her muscles didn’t atrophy.
Each session, according to Wiley, Beaulieu was always optimistic about returning to soccer.
“When she saw the progress she was making, it was like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Wiley said. “She has a different kind of drive. It reminds me of collegiate athletes. When you have major surgeries, it can be pretty disheartening, but she had the drive, and the outcomes were surprising to her, and to me.”
The two are still fast friends. Since starting physical therapy with Wiley four years ago, Beaulieu has watched her physical therapist get married, have a baby and start a new job.
“They’ve even talked about (Reachel) babysitting for her,” Joe joked.
Senior year has been stressful for Beaulieu and her loved ones. Her parents and high school coach worry that she’ll once again get injured or strain her pesky right knee.
Because it took so long for Reachel to break into the starting lineup, they know she’ll fight tooth and nail to stay there.
“I don’t know how she did (rehab),” Joe said. “She was like a caged tiger on the sideline, just chomping at the bit to get back in there. She doesn’t do anything halfway, and if you tell her to take it easy for a half, she can’t. She does everything at 100 percent. At 110 percent.”
Beaulieu tried to ease her way back onto the field after the ACL tears, but it take long in her junior year before she went down with another right knee ailment. That time, she tore her meniscus in last year’s Mountain Cup. It was just her second varsity start.
“I thought I had dislocated my kneecap,” Beaulieu said. “It was almost worse than tearing my ACL. When I kicked the ball, it was like someone was stabbing me in the knee.”
Where others would find frustration, Beaulieu sought education. She asked Wiley wide-ranging questions on how her knee works, what it takes for it to heal and what typical recovery times were.
Entering her senior year, Beaulieu had already joined a school club, the Health Occupations Students of America, in order to delve deeper into the world of physical therapy. The club recently traveled to Athens to take part in oral and written tests to display knowledge of health care careers and options.
Beaulieu has shown interest in going to the University of North Georgia to study physical therapy, as well as take part in the school’s Army ROTC program.
“She’s shown a lot of interest in the field,” said Wiley. “She challenges me to keep up with new ways to get her back on the field.”
Beaulieu never shies away from a challenge. This past fall, she joined the West Hall softball team without knowing much beyond the basic rules of the game.
She started as a centerfielder and earned a varsity letter.
“She doesn’t throw like a girl, that’s for sure,” said Joe.
West Hall coach Adam Johnson finally knows what all the fuss was about. After years of hearing from other players how good Reachel Beaulieu could be, he can finally see it unfold on the pitch.
His senior striker has scored eight goals in eight games, and recorded an assist in her first varsity start in 2015. The Spartans (3-4-1, 2-1 region) remain contenders for the Region 7-AAA title heading into a long road stretch.
“Her reputation came with her,” said Johnson. “It was very clear that she was a great player, and I’m just glad that this is a season that she can play. Otherwise, I would have had to take everybody’s word for it.”
That won’t stop Cindy Beaulieu from worrying about her daughter, who will often go hunting for the ball to turn the pace from defense to offense.
“Every time she falls, my heart stops,” she said. “She fell a couple times against Lakeview, and it took her a second to get back up. I was ready to leap off of the bleachers.”
Beaulieu’s goal is to finish her senior year without an injury, but her hope is to lead the Lady Spartans to as many wins as possible. Staying healthy will be a challenge, but she’s got a friend in recovery.
Perez and Beaulieu call each other “twins,” due to their respective ACL injuries. Perez was injured in her junior year, but decided to come back for her last season. Her efforts on defense have led West Hall to three shutouts so far.
Just like Beaulieu, Perez has learned not to let her injury define her.
“Everyone asks, ‘Are you going to be more hesitant or scared?’” Beaulieu said. “I don’t feel that at all. I might come in a little more sensitive, but other than that, I just play soccer.”
That’s what it’s always been about for Beaulieu. And if her recovery from injuries can inspire other high school athletes to rebound from a bleak situation, the fight will have been worth it.
“Getting her through the season means a lot to the team,” said Johnson. “Players will look at that example and say ‘I may be looking at XYZ, but she’s faced foster care, faced three surgeries, and here she is in her senior year, still competing on a high level. Whatever I’m facing, I can also face, and get through.’”