Exclusive interview: How Steffanie Newell overcame a heartbreaking introduction to WWE
When 22-year-old Welsh wunderkind Steffanie Newell arrived at the WWE Performance Center last summer, it must have felt like a dream come true. Not only had the independent wrestling standout — formerly known as Nixon Newell, aka “The Girl with the Shiniest Wizard” — signed with the recognized leader in sports-entertainment, but she was set to do what she loved most: Wrestle in a place designed to foster that passion. On top of that, she was scheduled to be featured in a historic, first-of-its-kind tournament, the Mae Young Classic.
Then, fate cruelly stepped in. With a simple wrong turn of her body during a seemingly innocuous day of training at the WWE PC, Newell tore her ACL. In the blink of an eye, her chance to compete in the inaugural Mae Young Classic — or in any ring at all for the foreseeable future — was gone.
After months of rehabilitation, a lot of heartache and with more than a little help from her friends, Newell returned to action on April 13, making her long-anticipated NXT Live Event debut in Venice, Fla. On the heels of her comeback, Newell spoke with WWE.com about how she coped with such adversity and why, in the end, it made her introduction to the NXT Universe all the more special.
WWE.COM: What was your mindset like before you walked through the curtain the night of your NXT debut in Venice?
STEFFANIE NEWELL: It was just this jumble in my head. The nerves were taking over, but also the excitement. It was a very chaotic experience in my mind, but as soon as the music hit and I went through that curtain, it felt like home. I felt like I was finally where I belonged, out in front of that crowd in the NXT ring.
WWE.COM: How exactly did the injury occur?
NEWELL: It happened during training. It was just a fluke accident. I was running a drill. My foot stayed perfectly forward, but my body turned the other way, and I dislocated my knee and tore my ACL at the same time. Luckily, as soon as I hit the mat, my knee popped back in, so it was one less thing I had to deal with. But it happened literally two or three weeks after I arrived at the WWE PC, so the timing was very inappropriate with the Mae Young Classic being so close as well. As soon as I hit the mat, I knew something was wrong and I knew deep down I was out of the Mae Young Classic. When I got injured, I was crying — not because of the pain, but because I knew I was out of the Mae Young.
WWE.COM: At the same time, you were still settling in to a new home, in a new country. What was that like, without having any family nearby to support you?
NEWELL: Luckily for me I have incredible friends that helped me with everything in my day-to-day life. Dakota Kai and Ruby Riott were over at my house every day, just spending time with me and helping me set up my home because I was on crutches and couldn’t do anything for myself.
WWE.COM: As someone who’s clearly passionate about wrestling, it must have been difficult to be at the WWE PC every day but unable to get in the ring. How did you cope with that?
NEWELL: It was devastating ... very mentally challenging to be around it and see it every single day. But I have such a great support system with my friends, the coaches and the doctors. They were so incredibly supportive. Although I was away from my family, thanks to technology like FaceTime, they were able to help me and give me boosts, reminding me of how hard I have worked and telling me that I just needed to keep my head up and keep working like I have been for the last few years, because I finally am where I deserve to be.
WWE.COM: You’re a very young athlete who’s known for a very high impact style inside the ring. Was this the worst injury you’ve suffered?
NEWELL: Definitely. I broke my collarbone a few years back, but me being the young, ambitious child I was, I came back a lot sooner than I should have. Luckily, touch wood, that hasn’t caused any problems. But the knee is the most serious injury I’ve ever had with any type of sport.
WWE.COM: When were you cleared to begin training in the ring?
NEWELL: I want to say it was about two months ago. I was able to get in the ring with one-on-one sessions, doing cardio, and then eventually I was able to do some wrestling. Honestly, I was just so happy to even be in the ring and do rope running. I used to dislike doing cardio, but being able to do that just helped so much, mentally more than anything. It picked my spirits up knowing that I was in the home stretch. It was a very exciting time for me.
WWE.COM: Were you at all nervous about getting back in the ring?
NEWELL: Not really, no. There are things I used to do which concerned me, but it’s exactly like when I broke my collarbone: I had to go straightaway into trying the moves, or I knew I’d never do them again. I threw myself into the deep end, and now I’m doing everything I used to do, if not more. I’m so much more confident with how strong my knee is, and how good the brace is, that there is no fear or concern anymore.
WWE.COM: You mentioned Dakota Kai as one of the people who helped you the most, and she was your teammate on the night of your return in Venice. How did your friendship with her blossom while you were out of action?
NEWELL: Unfortunately, the injury happened while we were running a drill together, and in a weird way, that kind of strengthened our bond. We started at the PC on the same day. We arrived at the airport at the exact same time and drove from the airport to our apartment in the same car. But I think the injury strengthened the friendship more than anything, because she was there at the time it happened, and she will continue to be there. She has been my rock. She’s become one of my best friends, and I genuinely don’t know what I’d do without her. I’m very excited to see where this friendship and this tag team do go.
WWE.COM: Was there any point during your rehabilitation that you remember feeling particularly down and somebody gave you advice to keep you on track?
NEWELL: The one that sticks out for me ... I can’t even tell you what was wrong, I was just having a really tough day, and coach Robbie Brookside noticed that something was off with me. He kept asking if I was OK. He must have known something was up, because he pulled me aside, and as soon as he did, I just broke down. He gave me words of encouragement, telling me that I worked so hard to be here. He told me that I deserved to be able to show people why I deserved to be there. That was definitely a special moment that I still hold close to me.
WWE.COM: Was there anything that you were especially excited to do upon returning to the ring?
NEWELL: Yes! I was really excited to start hitting some Shining Wizards again. I’ve done that move for so long that it’s become me, almost. I’m known as “The Girl with the Shiniest Wizard,” so to be able to do that move again just made me feel happy. It was the first day I was back in the ring wrestling people. Dakota and I were just messing around, and she said, “Hit me with the Shining Wizard.” I was like, “No, no, I’ve got this big leg brace. I don’t want to do it,” and she’s like, “No, do it!” As soon as I hit it, it was just incredible.
WWE.COM: Is the leg you injured the one that you use to strike people with the Shining Wizard?
NEWELL: It’s the actual knee that I hit people with. It’s now technically the Shiniest Wizard because I’ve got a titanium knee brace on. Figuratively and literally, I have the Shiniest Wizard.
WWE.COM: Your NXT debut garnered a ton of responses from fans and fellow Superstars, including Kairi Sane and Ruby Riott. What was your reaction to the outpouring?
NEWELL: I was surprised with the reception that I had. I didn’t know if anybody knew me, but people started chanting “You deserve it,” which almost brought me to tears in the ring. I looked at Dakota, and she’s like, “Let’s try to keep it together.” (Laughs)
Ruby Riott and Sarah Logan, who are both dear friends of mine, made the trip to be there in person. [To have] the respect of my peers and my colleagues — with how they reacted before, during and after the match — means the world to me. It genuinely makes my heart so happy. It makes me so emotional, but in the best way possible, to know that they feel that way about me. It means the absolute world.
WWE.COM: Looking back over the past 10 months, what do you take away from the whole ordeal?
NEWELL: When this first happened, people were saying that things happen for a reason. And since I’ve had the injury and come back to that response, I believe that more than ever. Things do happen for a reason, and if something’s getting you down, you just have to get back up and keep working hard. Sweat equity really does pay off, and it’s an even better feeling when all your hard work pays off.