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When Mallory Swanson ruptured her patella almost exactly a year ago, on April 8 in 2023, she still believed there was a timeline to play in the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup with the U.S. women's national team. Her body had other ideas. After a septic joint scare, and three additional surgeries, the forward slowed down her rehab and focused on getting healthy. Now, she's back on the pitch with her NWSL club Chicago Red Stars, in the USWNT squad for the SheBelieves Cup, and in the mix to make the team for the summer's Paris Olympics

Still, after such a major injury, and such a difficult recovery, Swanson's return comes with new lessons learned and a new perspective on navigating being a professional soccer player, teammate and even wife.  She sat down with CBS Sports ahead of USWNT SheBelieves Cup training camp to discuss what she discovered about herself during rehab, and how she's changed her approach to the game after the long road back

Swanson, who is still only 25 years old, talked about how she is looking forward to reintroducing herself on the international stage and in the locker room, and how she's not just trying to get back into playing for both club and country, but learning from the past year in terms of being a good person and teammate as well.

Swanson's long road back to the USWNT

"I always try and see it as, I was blessed and gifted with the ability to play soccer, and that I need to use that to impact other people around me.

"It's like finding who you are at your core. That's the evolution that I have had...self-personal growth during hard times. It's finding that person [inside] and applying that to the people around me, whether it is teammates or family, friends, whatever it is. So, ultimately, it's something as simple as just being who I am and rocking with that."

Swanson also addressed how, at least in the context of the national team, it wasn't just her injury that made 2023 so tough.

"Life has challenges. I think the best way to go about that is how you respond to it. I think, individually, I can talk about my injury and all of that stuff ...  and it's no secret that last year was tough on the group, and individuals and it just was a really hard year," she reflected.   

Now, as she comes back, her time off the field has given her a slightly different outlook on how she needs to approach her game. It may sound cliche, but she says working with her sports psychologist this year opened up some self-realizations for her. 

"I can't set goals for myself as crazy as that sounds," Swanson joked. "I'm the type of person, if I set a goal and I don't achieve it, I get too fixated on it. Everything else around me just turns black and I'm only, like, laser-focused on that. And then I get away from being my true, authentic self."

That doesn't mean that there isn't plenty she wants to achieve now that she's back and playing. Goals like winning the league and going to the Olympics are still there, but the key, she says, is not to get consumed by those goals. And she already has achievements to build on in 2024, including getting called in as a training camp player with the USWNT ahead of their Concacaf W Gold Cup winning run, and three consecutive starts with the Red Stars playing 80+ minutes in each game, and scoring her first goal, which came against Orlando on March 30. And of course there was the massive contract extension she signed ahead of the season.

"I still feel like I'm still getting my feet underneath me. I think there's little details that take time, and giving myself some grace. That is what I've kind of come to realize.

"Especially over the past couple of weeks. It's like, okay, yes, I'm back playing, I'm back with teammates, having fun, and everything, but just giving myself a little bit of grace with like certain things on the field."

Crucial support of family and friends

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Swanson credits her husband, Dansby Swanson, who plays shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, along with extended family, coaches, teammates, and her medical team in helping her get back into form. Her recovery was something the married duo tackled together.

The week when the injury first happened, the Cubs player removed himself from a game due to physical and emotional stress around the situation. The 29-year-old shortstop said he had been up "since 4 a.m." to be with his wife and her mother for the surgery. With his focus on her recovery, he talked about facing the challenges of not eating or sleeping or drinking enough water in the early days of her initial diagnosis. 

"She's all right," Dansby said at the time. "Everybody knows it's a pretty tough and heartbreaking situation. I'm heartbroken for her, just a lot of tears and sadness. Two things can be true at the same time. We can be sad and upset, but we can also understand God's bigger picture and plans. We'll get through it together." 

When the Red Stars 2024 season opener kicked off in Utah, Dansby was there to support her alongside her parents and sister. He took a flight from Cubs spring training in Arizona to witness her return to the pitch after 343 days.

Swanson's return to the pitch has held meaning not just for her but has been equally impactful for her teammates as well.

"Mal has worked her ass off to get back on this field. I just see Mal as a standard bearer. Like she just holds a standard like no other, day in, day out. She brings us all up," said Red Stars' Ally Schlegel

"She's constantly communicating with us on the field. I think I value her leadership so much on the field, and her communication. Her ability to just direct us, encourage us, push us. I think there's a time for everything and she might be the first one to hold me accountable and she's the first one to tell me when I did a great job. Honestly, as a teammate, that's something that I couldn't be more grateful for."

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What Swanson brings to the USWNT

Her early efforts in 2024 have led to another call-in with the national team for the upcoming SheBelieves Cup. She was the tournament MVP in 2023, and if she plays during the competition, her return will mark a year since her last appearance with the national team. She's earned the call-up alongside forward Catarina Macario, who is also returning from a lengthy injury absence of two years. 

The attacking duo were clear components of former head coach Vlatko Andonovski's scheme for the future of the national team, and both players developed an early chemistry with each other until significant injuries came along. 

"There are no words to describe how good Mal is honestly, she makes us so much better. She's the type of player that you always want to play with," said Macario.

"Though I got injured a little bit before her, I was just absolutely gutted for her, because she was really in the form of her life leading up to the World Cup, and I have no doubt that she'll get there again. We'll hopefully keep slicing and dicing the competition again soon, but I'm just super happy to see her back. She's a great person too. In a way, it's emotional just for us to be both back together after so long."

Swanon's USWNT teammates have often been vocal about her ability as a player and as a teammate. Interim head coach Twila Kilgore said ahead of SheBelieves Cup that the group is excited to welcome Swanson back, not just for her skills, but as a person in the locker room.  Though, there's no denying that her return could mean even more tactical flexibility for the national team if Swanson gets into more consistent form.

Kilgore's time as an assistant under Andovnoski gave her a direct lens on Swanson's ability and sees the long-term vision for a player who has the ability to work into any system. "Mal is a really special kind of player. She can play wide, and she can look to get in behind. She can play between the lines and drop low and play almost like a midfielder. She can invert and play a little bit more like a second nine, which gives a lot of options," Kilgore said.

"Part of what we were layering in all along is the ability to go to different systems and to create different structures or the same structure with different players from different positions. All of which lend to Mal's strengths. I would say that everything that we've layered in so far, which is just the beginning, is a nod to how to get certain players on the ball in areas that they're most comfortable with and Mal would definitely be one of them."

A new knee to go along with a new-look team


As the Red Stars take their first steps with a new ownership group led by Chicago Cubs co-owner and Chicago Sky minority investor Laura Ricketts, Swanson's return comes with some obvious parallels -- getting a fresh start and rebuilding something new, and just maybe something even better. 

The similarities exist among the national team too, as the program continues to move on from a disappointing World Cup, and prepares for the Olympics as they welcome incoming head coach Emma Hayes into the mix and Swanson's return from a year-long injury. 

"You could definitely like say there's like some parallels with just like, how many new players we have within both squads, and obviously new [Red Stars] ownership, and yeah, like, I mean, I have a new knee," she quipped. 

As the USWNT look ahead, Swanson wants to contribute to the progress as well, by bringing all her experiences of the last year, limitless joy, and extra room for growth, into national team camp.

"When I'm out there, and playing, I'm trying to play free. I'm not saying free, like tactically, but free within the way I'm thinking about the game mentally. I think that's when you get like the best version of me, and that's when you see the joy."