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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Arizona soccer’s ACL ‘twins’ take on the recovery trail together

Alex McIntyre
Arizona forward Jillienne Aguilera (21) walks off the field at halftime at Murphey Field at Mulcahy Soccer Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. Aguilera, a freshman, is recovering from a torn ACL.

As the Arizona soccer team stormed out of the locker room and onto the field for its home-opener against Utah Valley in late August, Jillienne Aguilera and Tia Painilainen lagged far behind the rest of their teammates.

Each with one leg strapped ankle-to-thigh with a heavy, robotic-like brace, they slowly trudged across the field one awkward step after another, until the two finally reached the rest of their team at the opposite end of the field.

Plodding at the same pace with an identical limp, the two were impossible to overlook.

“Usually when we walk around together, people try to take pictures of us.” Aguilera said. “We walk the same, we’re just always together. When people see us, they’re just like, ‘Oh, they are like twins.’”

And just like any set of twins, Aguilera and Painilainen have plenty in common: Both are freshmen, both are highly-recruited soccer players and both suffered season-ending ACL injuries shortly before Arizona’s season began.

Instead of playing in their first collegiate home game on that warm August night, the two were relegated to watching from the sideline.

“I can’t even put myself in their position,” said freshman teammate Maddie Bennett, who did get to suit up against Utah Valley. “It’s hard to even think about what they’re going through.”

Painilainen and Aguilera can’t believe it either.

“Tia and I both talk about how surprising it is, even now,” Aguilera said after a practice in late September. “Still now, I think, ‘Wow, this actually happened to me’… I’ve seen it happen to other girls, but I never really imagined it happening to me.”

Aguilera even saw it happen to Painilainen. In early August, the Wildcats were just two minutes into their annual Red-Blue scrimmage when Painilainen heard a pop in her knee while clearing the ball down field.

As a defender, Painilainen has cleared dozens of scoring threats before, but this time, the result was different.

“I landed and heard a pop behind my knee and then the next second I was on the ground,” Painilainen recalled. “I didn’t know what happened… I haven’t had any injuries before.”

An ACL tear happened, and Painilainen was instantly ruled out for the season.

“I was very sad,” she said. “It just happened. … There was no contact. You never know that it’s going to happen like that, so I was very frustrated now that I can’t play.”

For Aguilera, it was an added instance where she witnessed a teammate go down with a knee injury, but soon it’d happen to her.

“It happened two days before the [Aug. 12] exhibition match against NAU and it was at practice,” Aguilera said. “[There] was contact, but I’m not really sure how it happened. It just kind of happened and I felt my knee shift.”

The whole thing was a blur, and she received the news later that night that her ACL was torn.

“I cried,” Aguilera said. “[That] was probably my lowest point…I’ve worked so hard to be committed to this school and come to this school and practice and do all the summer training, just for me to get hurt and not be able to play. … It’s difficult.”

A few hours after receiving her diagnosis, however, Aguilera’s outlook changed and she was able to look at the positives of the situation.

The timing, for example, “was not bad,” because she has a full calendar year to recover. And the season hadn’t started yet, so she is able to redshirt and maintain a year of eligibility. And if all the people she’s seen suffer from the same injury can get through it, so can she.

Perhaps more importantly, Aguilera has Painilainen to go through the recovery process alongside her.

“We know that we’re not doing it alone,” Aguilera said. “We’re not the only ones that are sitting on the sideline just waiting to go play. … I feel like that motivates us to get better and get back on the field because we both are in the same shoes.”

Senior forward Paige Crouch, who was in their shoes during her freshman season, can only imagine how invaluable their relationship is.

“I think it’s great that they’re together,” Crouch said. “It’s sad that [it happened], but I [recovered] alone. I didn’t really have anyone and now here they have both of each other and they can push each other.”

And that’s exactly what the “twins” do.

While the rest of the team practices on the field, Aguilera and Painilainen can be spotted on the sidelines, working together through the lengthy and tedious rehabilitation process.

“Right now, we’re doing stairs and walking—being sure that we straighten our legs fully,” Aguilera said. “It’s kind of like our own practice.”

The two have become extremely close friends off the field, creating an important relationship for Painilainen, whose hometown of Espoo, Finland is over 5,000 miles away from Tucson.

“It’s kind of cool,” midfielder Jaden DeGracie-Bailey said. “I always see them walking together and they’re always laughing or doing their own recovery on the side. They’re rehabbing together and … Tia is from a whole different country and so it’s just nice to have someone else.”

Arizona head coach Tony Amato admitted he was a little worried about Painilainen’s transition from Finland to Tucson, but it’s seemed to have been rather seamless.

Painilainen is enjoying the atmosphere surrounding the program, and even though she’s living away from her parents for the first time, she said she receives plenty of support from her teammates, coaches and the training staff, making it easier to cope with the injury.

“I really like it,” Painilainen said. “I like how here it’s different in that we can study and play at the same place. It’s totally different [from Finland], so I really like that.”

The only thing that presumably eats at Painilainen is that she’s unable to contribute to her new team this year—at least on the field.

Being stuck on the sideline, Painilainen and Aguilera can’t influence the game directly, but they try to make an impact in other ways.

“Tony [Amato] always says, ‘Even though you might not be playing on the field, you got to participate in a way the best that you can,’” Aguilera said.

Their form of participation? Positivity.

“Their attitude is unbelievable,” DeGracie-Bailey said. “They are always happy, smiling, saying, ‘Hey how’s your day going?’ even though they’re limping around. On the sidelines, they cheer for everybody and do what they can.”

The duo’s presence around the team can certainly be felt or, more accurately, heard around the field.

“On the bench, they’re probably loudest, saying things like, ‘Keep going, you got it,’” Bennett said. “They definitely have a huge impact on our team.”

That said, the impact the “twins” have from the bench doesn’t compare to what they would’ve been able to contribute if they were healthy.

It only took one week of training for Amato to see that Painilainen and Aguilera would have played significant minutes as freshmen, if not for their ill-timed injuries.

Aguilera, a forward who scored 39 goals in her senior season at Woodside High School near Redwood City, California, demonstrated blazing speed and athleticism while Painilainen, a member of the Finnish National Team, is just “a really good soccer player.”

“They would have had a little bit of a learning curve because they hadn’t played in college yet. But they’re good players that would’ve been on the field,” Amato said about the two players’ absence. “Both of them would’ve played out wide. … Jill on the left, Tia on the right. They would’ve given us good minutes.”

There’s no question the two would have helped Arizona this season. Aguilera would have added an extra dimension to the offense, while Painilainen would have solidified Arizona’s backline. 

The Wildcats currently sit with a 6-6-1 overall record and a 1-4 Pac-12 record, and it’s easy to assume they’d be in a better position if Painilainen and Aguilera were in the rotation.

But rather than dwelling on what-ifs, the two—now roughly a month and a half through their recoveries and recently freed from their full-leg braces—are focused on returning to the field next season.

Come next August, the excruciating year-long recovery process will be behind them and they’ll finally have the opportunity to play for the Wildcats under the lights in front of a sold-out crowd at Mulcahy Stadium. 

Just thinking about that moment produces mixed emotions.

“I know—based on my other friends that have torn their ACLs—it’s going to be scary in the beginning,” Aguilera said. “But once you get back on the field, [they told me] it’s going to be a relief and you’re going to feel so great.”

Painilainen described a similar feeling.

“I feel like [I’ll be] nervous and excited at the same time [though]. Of course it’s a little scary,” she said.

It’ll be the final challenge in a long road of recovery, yet it’s just another obstacle the “twins” will overcome together.

“I just can’t wait for that day,” Painilainen said. “And I like that there’s a person who I can do this with.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter.

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