Imagine the scene. You’re thousands of miles from home, representing your country at a sport you’ve played for over a decade. In the middle of a game you feel a sharp pain in your back, and suddenly you can barely move a muscle.
That was the beginning of a six-month battle for Telford, Solihull and Great Britain forward Saffron Allen, who only recently has been given clearance to start skating again after suffering a serious back injury at the Olympic Pre-Qualification in Shanghai, China last November.
The 18-year-old from Much Wenlock had enjoyed a fabulous 2012 with a place at the IIHF High Performance Camp in Vierumäki, Finland. Off the ice, Saffron had the honour of carrying the Olympic Torch for a leg around Kidderminster on 24 May before the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
After an injury scare earlier in the season – diagnosed as whiplash and a possible fracture in a neck bone – Saffron continued her year with an appearance for Great Britain’s women’s U18 national team in Dumfries, playing as an assistant captain and notching seven points in five games as Great Britain finished third.
It was the week following Dumfries that Saffron and the GB senior women flew to Shanghai for the Olympic qualification tournament.
Saffron takes up the story: “It was the first shift of our second game. Suddenly I felt an agonising pain in my back and I was unable to move."
“I was taken back to the dressing room and on to hospital – still unable to move my legs. It was scary at the time.”
In hospital, Saffron was diagnosed with two slipped discs at the base of her spine – L4/5 and L5/S1.
Saffron was transferred to an international hospital the following day, which would be the teenager's home for the next nine days.
Great Britain team manager Anna Walters stayed in hospital with Saffron, while the pair tried to make contact with friends and family at home – a task made more difficult because of their location.
“In China things like Facebook and Twitter are not available, and our mobile phones didn’t work so it was very hard to keep in touch with people at home,” said Allen. “It was a tough time being badly injured, miles from home and unable to easily keep in touch, in a country with very different attitudes, cultures and beliefs.”
Anna and Saffron went about turning the room into a home away from home, trying to make the stay in hospital as easy as possible.
“We decorated the room with GB pictures, t-shirts and posters – even after the tournament had finished and team had went home,” added Saffron.
“There were visitors too from the head of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, IIHF representatives and staff from the British Embassy. It was a morale boost to have visitors, as Anna and I were trying to keep spirits up being alone and a long way from home.”
There was a third member of the group, who also stayed in the hospital – Sherwood.
Saffron explains: “If you’ve seen the film ‘Castaway’ with Tom Hanks, you’ll know he had his friend Wilson, who was an volleyball. Anna and I transformed a coconut into our new friend, and named him after my hockey stick, Sherwood. It probably seems silly, but it kept us going at the time.”
After nine days in a hospital bed, and battling with authorities to allow a doctor to fly with Saffron to deliver pain relief on the flight home, the call came that the trip home was finally going to happen.
And what a logistical operation it was going to be!
“I was still unable to walk, so had to be flown home on a stretcher, with a doctor alongside to administer medication as required.
“The trip home was going to take 24 hours and consist of two planes, six ambulances, one doctor and four cherry pickers – to lift the stretcher up to the plane and down again.
“It was a planning and administrative nightmare, but I was delighted to be finally going home.
“And when I got home it felt like I slept for days,” said Saffron.
“I can’t say enough about what Anna did while we were in China. If it wasn’t for her sending emails and messages, being awake basically 24 hours a day and keeping in touch with officials in China and the UK, we may not have got home.
“Her companionship, support and professionalism were a huge part in keeping us going during what was a long, emotional roller coaster.”
Back in Much Wenlock, Saffron began her long road of rehab and recovery.
“I was still not able to walk for a number of weeks after I returned to the UK, so it was a slow start to the rehab, and the process has been extremely long and frustrating. I’ve basically had to learn to walk again, and a lot of the rehab was very boring and time consuming, up to five hours a day."
“I think if I hadn’t followed the medical advice and been strict with myself I wouldn’t be in the position I am now, getting back on the ice and building my strength and fitness back up.”
Going through this story with Saffron, it strikes me how determined and focused she is. Already she has plans to be fully fit for the start of the 2013/2014 domestic hockey season and regain her place with Great Britain for the 2014 Women’s World Championship Division II Group A.
An incident from Saffron’s early hockey playing career sheds light on her inspiration to succeed.
“I was nine years old and trialling for the Midlands u11 Conference team,” she says.
“As the trials went on, I was the last player cut and I experienced this emotion called failure, and I hated it!"
“From then on I had it in my head that I would do anything and everything not to experience that emotion again.”
Looking at her hockey CV it’s fair to say failure does not feature much, if at all: captain of four junior teams, assistant captain of five more. Midlands Conference team for six years, three as assistant captain, with three gold medals and two silvers. Telford women’s team at age of 7, GB U18 and a senior call up at age 16, GB U18 assistant captain for two years, Women’s Premier League winners with Sheffield.
“I want to continue playing women’s hockey for Solihull and also in the NIHL (men) with Telford until I finish college next year, and get back into the GB women’s team,” Saffron says.
“After college I want to study sports therapy and eventually put back into the sport what I’ve had out of it in my career so far. I’ll be looking to play hockey wherever I’m at university and of course – the hockey players dream – if there’s an opportunity to move abroad and play professionally I’d love to have that experience.”
Saffron Allen has managed to fit an awful lot into her 11 years as a hockey player. Just think what the next 11 years could bring.
She is an inspirational, determined young lady – who played for her country six weeks after breaking her neck, and is skating again six months after being unable to move let alone walk.
Saffron has played the boys at their own game and beaten them, played in countries all over the world. She’s carried the Olympic torch in front of family and friends.
If Saffron Allen has anything to do with it, the opportunities are boundless.