Mary Goulding was told she'd never play basketball again. This is how she defied the odds to return to the court (2024)

Mary Goulding is thriving.

Playing for the East Perth Eagles in the NBL1 West competition, she is averaging more than 14 points and 8 rebounds a game, shooting at 44.57 per cent.

But Goulding's stats are only part of her story.

In May 2023, she was involved in a near-fatal car accident.

Goulding suffered multiple serious injuries and was placed in an induced coma for 12 days.

Initial scans showed she had sustained a brain injury, while she required surgery to repair a broken leg.

When she woke from her coma, Goulding was told she might never play basketball again.

Basketball had to take a back seat, as she focused her attention on learning the basics of how to swallow, talk and walk again.

"I was literally starting from pretty much as if I was a kid again," Goulding said.

"I was completely dependent on other people."

From Rangiora to the American college system

Before the accident, Goulding was fast becoming a staple of the New Zealand women's basketball scene.

Hailing from Rangiora, a 20-mintue drive north of Christchurch, she spent four years competing in the American college system (NCAA division one competition), including three years with Fordham University in New York.

Known for her versatility and toughness, the 27-year-old also made an impression in the NBL1 and WNBL competitions in Australia, playing for Rockhampton Cyclones and Bendigo Spirit, before representing New Zealand (or the Tall Ferns) at the FIBA Women's Asia Cup in 2021.

Her career was starting to gain momentum in 2022, when she joined the Mainland Pouākai as a marquee player for the inaugural season of New Zealand's professional women's basketball league (Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa).

Mary Goulding was told she'd never play basketball again. This is how she defied the odds to return to the court (1)

Mid-way through the Tauihi season, however, Goulding suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles tendon.

Then came the accident.

When Goulding started her rehabilitation at a facility in Auckland, her initial focus was returning to the basketball court.

That soon changed.

"I wouldn't be able to do anything if I didn't focus on recovery. So basketball honestly is just a cherry on top," she said.

Instead, Goulding prioritised her overall health and longevity before making any serious commitment to returning to the basketball court.

"It's only a certain part of life that you can actually play. Whereas my recovery, my body, I'm living with for the rest of my life."

Goulding said she became unconditioned after her accident.

"I've never been so skinny in my life. It [muscle mass] wasted away," she said.

She started visiting the gym with a therapist four to five times a week to improve her strength and range of motion, in order to be able to function in everyday life.

By the time she was discharged, she was attending the gym independently six days a week.

'I had to learn how to dribble again'

Everyone in her camp, including Goulding, was stunned by how quickly she was recovering.

Two months after her discharge from hospital, she thought she was ready to start training basketball-specific skills, like dribbling.

She was met with a swift reality check.

Mary Goulding was told she'd never play basketball again. This is how she defied the odds to return to the court (2)

"I didn't have the strength of my arm, I didn't have the control," she said.

"I had injured my pinky [finger] as well which stopped me from being able to control the ball … and then you realise how hard it actually is.

"That's when it sort of hits you, and you're like, 'oh crap' … like I'd never in my life struggled to dribble a basketball, that was just a given. All of a sudden I couldn't even do that and I was like, 'That's the most basic thing you know, maybe this is too big of a mountain to climb?'"

Goulding changed her mindset to focus on what she could do, and put her basketball skills in the "not yet" basket.

"I just went back to the gym and didn't touch or look at a basketball for I think another two months," Goulding said.

At the same time, Goulding returned to her teaching practicum at St Joseph's Primary School in Rangiora, albeit for very limited hours.

She required frequent breaks as she continued to physically and cognitively recover.

Mary Goulding was told she'd never play basketball again. This is how she defied the odds to return to the court (3)

Goulding eventually started to practise shooting at school, and soon was doing drills every day, as well as running.

Despite her brain injury, her decision-making skills also greatly improved.

"It was so exciting … like that glimpse of Mary's back, the [old] Mary's there," she said.

Goulding's goal was always to return to a high level of basketball.

But despite the progress she'd made, she wasn't sure when or if she would be ready to compete again.

Seven months post-accident, Goulding was fielding interest from multiple NBL1 clubs.

But rather than rushing back into elite sport, she took a cautious approach.

"I was talking to teams but I was very honest with them, and I was just like, 'You know I don't know where I'll be at … if you want to go recruit someone else go for it. But I'm working to get back,'" she said.

"I still was in that phase of like, 'I'm not sure [if I can play again].'"

During a family trip to America, Goulding paid a visit to Stephanie Gaitley, her former coach from Fordham University, where she undertook her first full contact session post-accident.

She battled with a current college athlete in the low-post, playing like a power forward rather than in her traditional guard position.

Goulding described the session as a "huge moment".

"That was when I first really started allowing myself to hope that I could get back to NBL1," she said.

Knowing she would need significant social and emotional support, Goulding chose to return to the East Perth Eagles in NBL1 West, where she played in 2021.

She based her decision on her familiarity with the club, the welcoming basketball community and having a hub of friends from New Zealand close by.

She planned to bring her leadership skills to the young team, and hoped her resilience through tough times would bring a different element to the team.

The 'emotional' moment Goulding returned to the court

In March 2024, just 10 months after the accident, Goulding returned to court against the Warwick Senators.

From just 27 minutes of play, she scored 14 points, had 12 rebounds and 4 assists.

"Nothing really prepares you for the day when you actually are back and then when you play," she said.

"It's overwhelming. [I felt] very emotional and in disbelief. [It was] incredible."

Goulding currently leads her team in steals, and is second for points and rebounds.

"I already have surprised myself with my output and it's just a matter of being patient, something I'm still learning and struggling with," she said.

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Goulding still struggles with fatigue and the over-stimulating environment of the basketball court, wearing ear plugs during training and games to help cope with the noise.

"I don't want to already be fatigued before the game even starts," she said.

She still needs to nap and get plenty of sleep, sometimes needing more than 10 hours a night.

But despite the ongoing challenges, Goulding said she is learning to be less critical of herself.

"I'm trying to allow myself a grace period of accepting myself as I am," she said.

"I'm not the player I was yet, and maybe I won't get back there, but accepting where I am now is a really big part of my recovery and mental growth and health."

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Mary Goulding was told she'd never play basketball again. This is how she defied the odds to return to the court (2024)
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