By Team Hytro
It’s every athlete’s dream to represent their country. Yet for Exeter Chiefs loose forward Charlie Willett, that dream soon soured when a knee-on-knee collision in just her second cap for Ireland Rugby League resulted in a dislocated femur, torn meniscus, and ruptured ACL. Now on the road to recovery, we caught up with Charlie to hear how her rehab is going – and how BFR is helping her to come back stronger than ever before.
‘I knew it was my ACL straight away,’ she said. ‘I had a sinking feeling in my stomach and the pain was horrific.’ Initial assessments estimated her timeline for recovery at 10-12 months. However, there was a major hurdle to get over first.
‘Rugby League Ireland refused to pay for my surgery. They would for the men’s team, but not the women’s. I then discovered that the ‘full medical cover’ that was in place for the women’s team amounted to a total of €3,000. That figure would only pay for about a quarter of an ACL surgery.’
Though progress has been made, the discrepancy between male and female sport is still large – particularly in rugby. Though Charlie is a full-time athlete in terms of hours, her pay is not enough to live on, meaning she must also spend time working as a sports lawyer and freelance sports journalist.
‘Financial stability is the most glaring gap between men’s and women’s rugby,’ said Charlie. ‘Very few players make enough money for it to be considered a job. Premier15s has helped in terms of resources, though. Playing at Exeter Chiefs has given me access to their training, care and support staff.
‘Aside from financial support, brands can help by providing resource and also a platform. Resource in terms of product or knowledge that can be shared, and a platform to raise awareness and hopefully attract more fans, which will ultimately bring more money into the sport.’
Hytro aims to do just that. We’re delighted that Charlie has been using Hytro BFR Recovery Shorts to aid her comeback from surgery.
‘I heard about BFR from Hytro,’ said Charlie. ‘At first, I was sceptical, but after speaking to a few physios I was prepared to give it a go. My initial impression was that the shorts were comfy, but a little unusual. However, after the first session, I loved the feeling that they gave me. It was like a rush, similar to the feeling you get from a Wattbike flushout. They’ve been incredible for my rehab, allowing me to achieve enhanced results with less mechanical stimulus.’
In the two weeks after Willett’s ACL reconstruction surgery, all she could do was sleep, rest, and attempt basic knee movements. From the third week, she began to strap into her Hytro BFR Recovery Shorts:
‘BFR was a no-brainer. After ACL reconstruction most people struggle with loss of quadriceps muscle. Because of BFR’s ability to maintain muscle size, it made sense to use it. It’s really been successful so far. Now, 12 weeks post-surgery I’m 100% equal leg size right-to-left and 95% of my leg size pre-operation. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by a fantastic rehab team at Exeter Chiefs. They had me using BFR for quad flexion and extension, providing a stimulus while my knee joint was not equipped to bear any external load.’
From that third week, Willett was able to learn to walk again, a process she admits was ‘much harder than I thought it’d be.’ The next step came six weeks after surgery, where she began to integrate weight-based training, such as lunges, leg presses, and step-ups.
‘I’m in the gym four times a week,’ said Charlie. ‘Those sessions include everything: lower body, upper body, cardio. That means they can run for up to four hours at a time. Every Friday, everything I do is occluded. I’m strapped into my Hytro BFR Recovery Shorts for the entire session. Because of the ease of occlusion, my rehab team is happy for me to perform BFR independently. There’s no need for them to monitor me throughout. Between weeks six-to-eight, where I had more mobility but not much power going through my right leg, I spent a lot of time doing occluded bike conditioning. The Hytro BFR Recovery Shorts were great for that because they sit flat to the skin, allowing me to use the equipment easily. Now, I’ve added further occluded exercises such as sled drags, lunges and calf raises. Anything where I can get a good lower body stimulus without adding any mechanical stress.’
The sessions are working. From the initial assessment of 10-12 months, Willett has now been informed that her comprehensive rehab programme has helped reduce her comeback time. She can now expect to return to rugby 6-9 months after injury.
‘I was clear with my rehab team that I wanted to come back from this injury fitter, faster, stronger, and better,’ she said. ‘Everything is targeted at making gains without running around on a rugby field. I believe that what separates great athletes from good athletes is the desire to go above and beyond, to push and have discipline even when there are setbacks.’
Charlie Willett has had to rebuild herself as an athlete. She’s fought for surgery, put the hours in at the gym, and spent plenty of time allowing her body to recover.
‘I’ve learned lots about myself,’ she summarised. ‘I’ve been at some of the lowest points of my life and still proved that I have the discipline to get out of bed and go to the gym. I’ve cried in the gym multiple times, sometimes during sets, but I know that I can keep going, that I can do what it takes to be a great athlete.’
With such an outlook, Willett is determined to make a name for herself. And not just in women’s rugby. With every story told, and every achievement shared, athletes such as Charlie Willett hope to narrow the glaring gap in resource between men’s and women’s rugby, bringing true equality on and off the pitch.