Raia James had so much going her way late in her junior season with the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake girls’ soccer team.
She had scored the game-winning overtime goal to send the Spartans into the Section II Class A championship game, and with that tally, added just one more piece to her player profile that already had Syracuse University coaches looking on with interest.
“I was at the highest point of my soccer career,” James said.
That euphoria didn’t last.
The Spartans lost in the title game that late October of 2018, and a day later, the speedy James was sprawled out on a University at Albany field with a broken left leg she sustained in an ID camp collision with a goalkeeper.
“Bad things happen. Unexpected things happen. That’s part of life,” the 18-year-old said. “You have to be able to come back. Always keep your goals. Make sure you are keeping the faith.”
James did that after a time of contemplation, and when she graduated Friday, it was as a recovered student-athlete with plans to attend Syracuse and play for the Orange. Her recovery from a broken tibia (shin bone) and fibula (calf bone) came with pain and complications, and entailed three surgeries after her initial one when a long rod was inserted in her leg and remains there.
“When it first happened and I realized the severity of it, I was angry and frustrated,” James said. “I had so much planned.”
That included a senior soccer season, which she was able to play after her inspiring and faster-than-expected comeback.
“It was everything and more I could have pictured after my injury. It was positive. I played well,” said James, who focused on defense and transition play rather than on attacking up front, which she is known to do. “I tried to get mentally back to a state of being aggressive, and by the end of the season, I was back. That was my goal.”
James collected two goals and three assists last fall, and followed up that soccer season up with a successful indoor track campaign. At the Section II Division 2 championships, she placed third in the 55 dash and helped her 4×400 relay team take second.
James recently was the recipient of Burnt Hills’ Outstanding Senior Female Athlete Award.
“It’s a story of a miracle,” Raia’s mom, Faith James, said. “There were moments when she felt it was the end of the world. She had to battle. She leaned on God.”
After her first surgery, Raia James was discovered to have compartment syndrome, or an insufficient blood supply going to injured leg, and there was concern that she might lose the leg. That led to more surgeries to alleviate the problem, and later on, she overcame a severe case of drop foot.
“It was my muscles. It was like I was paralyzed from the ankle down,” James explained. “I went from not being able to move it at all to slowly coming back. Physical therapy was the No. 1 thing.”
Eight months after her injury, in June of 2019, James was back working out with her New York Elite club team. In July, she was in Syracuse for a two-day ID camp, intent on impressing first-year women’s soccer coach Nicky Adams, who had replaced Phil Wheddon.
“It was a new slate,” James said. “I had been to Syracuse camps previously, but not with Nicky, and I knew I had to absolutely bring it. My thought was, ‘This is my one shot. This is what has driven me to get back so soon.’ I wanted to show them I could do it and that I wanted to be a part of it.”
A series of exchanges between James and Adams followed that camp, an invite eventually came, and in August, the teen made a verbal commitment to Syracuse. In November, she signed her official letter of intent. In May, she was listed among Adams’ incoming soccer recruits on the Syracuse athletic website.
“I fell in love with Syracuse the first time I went there,” said James, who drew interest from several colleges. “They have my major for school [elementary education], and they are part of the ACC which is the best conference for women’s soccer.”
James said soon after her injury, she thought there was no way she would be able to play soccer again, but that changed after “trusting God with the whole situation,” and she began to believe.
“I would say it was the most powerful journey I’ve been through,” James said. “I used faith. I stayed positive. I stayed encouraged.”