APIA Leichhardt's Isabella Coco-Di Sipio: Resilience, drive, and opening your own doors
Experiencing long-term injuries not just once or twice but three times at a crucial development stage would be enough for some footballers to step away from the game. However, for 20-year-old striker Isabella Coco-Di Sipio, it has only made her desire stronger.
Injury setbacks can have a two-fold impact. One needs to overcome and work through the physical toll on the body to return to peak physical performance. But often understated is the mental impact on a player as they work towards freely performing the same movements again, without fear of re-injury.
Coco-Di Sipio plays for APIA Leichhardt in the NSW NPL Women's competition and is enjoying a breakout season, with five goals and four assists across the first 11 games. While still only in the early stages of her career, she has already experienced significant setbacks.
Coco-Di Sipio began her junior football career at Enfield Rovers, playing in boys' teams before moving on to Inter Lions' U12 teams when she was nine.
Over the next few years, she would represent NWS Koalas and Sydney University and play for two well-known sports schools in New South Wales, Endeavour Sports High School and Westfields Sports High School. Soon after, a break in her fifth metatarsal started three years of injury issues.
“That injury took me about ten months on the sidelines,” Coco-Di Sipio told Front Page Football recently.
“It wasn’t advised to get surgery, and I wanted to let it heal naturally, so the process was [that] I had to stay in a boot and crutches for five months. I lost muscle in my lower leg, but it just wouldn’t heal.
“I did about eight x-rays, five more than what’s recommended, and after 14 weeks, it was starting to heal, and ten months after [the injury occurred], I was back on the field.”
A young Coco-Di Sipio representing Endeavour Sports High School. (Facebook: Endeavour Sports High School)
Coco-Di Sipio’s second season at Sydney University was successful, as they won the U17 NPL title. But she played whilst ignoring the pain in the same foot for a large part of the season, which turned out to be another break, almost cutting her career short.
“I ended up breaking a bone in my foot into four; it completely shattered. But I neglected the pain, and that injury took me out of the game for the next 13 months,” Coco-Di Sipio explained.
Having already had a long spell out of football due to injury, Coco-Di Sipio ignored the pain and pushed through to avoid another stint on the sidelines. But the pain eventually caught up to her, and the situation proved even more severe than her first injury.
“I saw one of my orthopaedic surgeons, and he said to me that this isn’t a common injury; we’re going to have to do surgery. But the risk with surgery is your toe can pop up [permanently], and if that happens, you’re not going to be able to run. You’re not going to be able to play football,” Coco-Di Sipio said.
“I bawled my eyes out; I wished when I felt the initial pain that I had stopped.”
Fortunately, surgery was not required after a second opinion, and the bone could heal naturally. But it meant spending more than a year in rehabilitation.
While avoiding surgery helped prevent long-term complications, the road to recovery still had challenges. Minor setbacks still occurred during this time and only extended Coco-Di Sipio's time off the pitch.
“I was three months [into] no weight bearing, so back on the crutches and in the boot, I did another x-ray to see the progress. The bone that was broken there was a medial and lateral one; I had broken the medial. However, this x-ray showed the lateral also had a stress fracture,” Coco-Di Sipio explained.
“So, I was told to see an endocrinologist to see why the bones in my foot kept breaking even with no weight bearing. All the tests they ran came back clear, so to this day, I still don’t know why this occurred."
Two freak injuries would have the best athletes questioning their future in their sport. At the time of the second injury, the mental impact began to take its toll on Coco-Di Sipio, particularly as she had just signed a first-grade contract at Bankstown City Lions.
While the first injury alone didn’t significantly affect her, the second meant she had spent the equivalent of almost two years on the sidelines at a crucial age when her peers were beginning to step up into Young Matildas and A-League Women programs.
“The second injury really took a big toll on me, and I started to question whether I should be playing football," Coco-Di Sipio said.
“I just came off a winning season with Sydney University, and now I’m injured. I just signed first grade [with Bankstown City Lions], and now I’m injured.”
The injuries held Coco-Di Sipio back from more significant opportunities at a crucial stage of a footballer's development, mainly because of when they occurred. It left her questioning whether she could still have that opportunity in her career.
“I think the timing was shocking. I think that it happened at such a crucial age at 16-17; those are the crucial moments, it’s pretty much now or never, and I think that’s the boat I missed,” Coco-Di Sipio said.
It’s a period that affects her today, as she described how the mental aspects of the injury still play on her mind.
“Still to this day, I’m very cautious of the ball of my foot, where I’m told to be on the ball of my foot, and there’s always that thing in the back of my mind saying, 'If I do that, I’m gonna break my bone again,” she said.
The broken foot kept Coco-Di Sipio out during her first season at Bankstown City. She returned to the field in her second season at the club. She scored her debut goal against Manly United in what proved to be an otherwise difficult season results-wise.
Coco-Di Sipio would spend one more season at Bankstown. However, this season was interrupted by a third major blow: she tore three ligaments in her ankle during school training the day before her 18th birthday.
“I don’t even know how it happened, the ball was coming down, and I went to meet it, but I heard this massive crack in my ankle,” Coco-Di Sipio explained.
“That night, I went to RPA (Royal Prince Alfred) Hospital. I spent my 18th at an MRI place getting my ankle checked and at physiotherapy thinking, ‘Why me again."
The latest setback would sideline Coco-Di Sipio for a further six months.
While returning to the pitch after a long time out, she explained how making the mental adjustment needed to play again is challenging.
APIA Leichhardt celebrate a goal in the NSW NPL Women's competition this season. (Football NSW)
Particularly after her second stint out, Coco-Di Sipio spoke about the time it takes to gain confidence again when returning to full training, as the fear of re-injury is heightened.
“I was very hesitant going into tackles. When I first started training, it was no contact, which was fine, but when you get the clearance to do contact training, you kind of go into a cocoon,” Coco-Di Sipio said.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m susceptible to injuries’, so that year [her second season with Bankstown], it was just about getting that confidence back up for me."
While the injuries kept her out for a significant period, Coco-Di Sipio believes she was correct in not undertaking surgery and letting the bones heal naturally.
“If I had gotten surgery the first time, I would’ve had complications, and I definitely think if I got surgery the second time, I wouldn’t be playing football,” Coco-Di Sipio said.
“I’m glad I listened to my mum, who always said not to get surgery. I let it heal naturally and don’t have nuts and bolts holding my foot together.”
Despite the struggles of being in the gym “five days a week for 13 months, focusing solely on rehab”, Coco-Di Sipio said she never felt abandoned by her teammates and peers at Westfields.
Her cohort was one featuring the likes of Jamilla Rankin (Brisbane Roar), Isabel Gomez (Wellington Phoenix), and Darcey Malone (Melbourne City).
Coco-Di Sipio explained how having girls in her cohort, alongside friends at a club level, support her through these periods, particularly in her second stint out, meant she did not feel alone. She even explained how some would do their recovery sessions alongside her in the gym while Coco-Di Sipio focused on her rehab.
However, once she returned from her third injury stint, Coco-Di Sipio was soon dropped into the reserve grade team at Bankstown. New high-profile signings saw the then-18-year-old pushed down the pecking order.
“It was a shock to me and felt like a knife in my back; I was coming back from injury and doing well, and then I get dropped,” Coco-Di Sipio said.
Between injuries and the position she was in at the time, with the players signed ahead of her all having more significant levels of experience, Coco-Di Sipio had doubts about her future in the game.
“Once I got dropped to reserve grade, and because the players I was getting dropped for all had A-League next to their name while I didn’t, I thought maybe this is it for me, maybe I should focus on work, studies, or something else,” she said.
But at this stage, things began to turn around for Coco-Di Sipio.
APIA Leichhardt, currently top of the NSW NPL Women's competition, approached her to join the club ahead of the 2022 season. As an Italian-Australian, she was honoured by the interest, which also came as a shock, considering the quality within the side.
“It meant the world for them to come and approach me; they’re a big club. My uncle used to play for them when he was younger, too,” Coco-Di Sipio said.
“It was a no-brainer [to move to APIA]. It’s a historic club and a chance to be at an Italian club.”
The move saw Coco-Di Sipio signed to the first-grade squad. However, she primarily featured for the reserve grade team. She scored 19 goals in the regular season, the second-highest in the league, and added another to her tally in the finals series.
Her form saw Coco-Di Sipio slowly break into the first team, becoming a regular on the bench and making ten appearances, scoring her maiden goal for the first-grade side.
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APIA has a track record of providing a platform for young footballers to launch an A-League Women’s career, with Wellington Phoenix fullback Claudia Cicco making her name at the club. It’s a step Coco-Di Sipio also hopes to make.
“I think everyone’s got different pathways; I think if I do have a breakout season, people might start getting my name out there,” Coco-Di Sipio said.
“My goal this year is to get [in the] top three goal scorers, score as many goals as possible, and help the team win, and really get my name out there, so hopefully that opens a door to the A-League.”
A chance to play in Europe is also one of Coco-Di Sipio's goals.
“I would love to take my game to Europe. I think I play a little bit more of a European style, so I could fit in there,” Coco-Di Sipio said.
“You see it in players like Vesna [Milivojevic] who couldn’t make it here, went to Europe, did well, and then got signed by Canberra, so that could be the pathway for me too.”
Coco-Di Sipio's journey proves that hard work and persistence can help anyone overcome even a myriad of setbacks. It highlights how a footballer's journey isn’t always straightforward, whether it be injuries or being dropped to the reserves. Additionally, overcoming these obstacles can help you grow on and off the pitch.
“I’m a big believer that when one door shuts, another one opens; maybe the one at Westfields was shut for me, and I’ll have to open a new door,” Coco-Di Sipio said.
“I know I’m a very resilient person from it, and I believe that if I can come back from three injuries, I can make it [to an A-League Women's level]. I just need that one opportunity because if I get it, it’s going to be good.”
Coco-Di Sipio and APIA will be looking to continue their strong start to the NPL season, with the club currently ten points clear of second place and set to face Blacktown Spartans in the next round of the Sapphire Cup.
Should Coco-Di Sipio continue her early season form and play a role in any significant success APIA achieve this season, she will undoubtedly be in the shop window for A-League Women's clubs ahead of the 2023/24 season. She’s starting to knock on doors this season. Only one question remains: who will answer?
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