Roughly a decade ago, an injury changed my life—took the things I loved from it—right at the moment where I had all the hope and potential in the world. I was a soccer player my entire life, quite literally as long as I can remember since I was thrown into the deep end at age three. I’ve loved it just as long. Yes, there were hours of daily training and far too many bruises and broken bones than you’d care to imagine but it was the best part of my day. Giving up my weekends EVERY weekend to spend my days on the field meant no Friday/Saturday night social life in high school for most of the year. I missed Homecoming to play in a tournament eight states away and was late to Prom (makeup in the car and hair in a braid) because I rushed home from a game that was cruelly scheduled for 4pm on prom night.
It wasn’t just about the time it took, it was who I was. All of my various nicknames came from my vicious playing style and I had the wounds to prove it. The first time any of my friends saw me wear a skirt voluntarily was because I had spent a weekend making slide tackles on a rocky pitch and my legs were so bloodied and swollen they wouldn’t fit in a pair of pants. And man, did I have the attitude to go with it. Soccer taught me to be an animal, to take what I needed to succeed, and to fight through fatigue, injury, goal deficits and anything else that came my way. I applied that to everything in my life, and while it served me well in soccer and in school, I wasn’t surprised when friends told me they were terrified to get to know me when we first met. I took no prisoners and I was damn proud of it.
I was lucky enough to go to the college I had always dreamed of attending. It was my dream school, but a rising program. They usually qualified for the NCAA tournament, but had yet to make it very far. I dreamed of helping build a reputation for this school that I was madly in love with, making friends and contributing my first year, and eventually leading the team as a senior. Then, the unthinkable happened. In our first preseason scrimmage, there was a collision; a lunge; a crazy ripping pain.
It’s a blur how it actually happened but I fell to the ground as my team pushed forward toward the goal. I knew instantly that it was bad, and I crawled toward the sideline, giving no thought to waiting for the referee to blow the whistle. I sat and stared at my leg as the trainer came to look me over, watching it swell before my eyes. It turned angry reddish purple and started to strain my shorts with its rapid increase in size. The hospital confirmed my fears—a torn quadriceps muscle—but it was worse than I had imagined, I had torn it in such a way that my options were surgery (with a roughly 60% chance of making any kind of improvement in eventual recovery) or leave it alone and hope something works out. I was told at least 8 months of recovery for that kind of injury, and the scar tissue would be significant. It was likely I’d never be able to play again without opting for the surgery, and even then, it wasn’t even close to guaranteed. It hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. I shared a suite-style dorm with several roommates and we had furnished it with a couch, which I retired to immediately after coming home from the hospital and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore.
I stayed on that couch for weeks. I attempted to go out a time or two but I couldn’t get across campus, couldn’t handle stairs, etc. Crutches and massive college campuses aren’t compatible. A few times older friends with cars came to pick me up and take me to the movies but that was about the extent of my social life. The truth was, I didn’t know who I was without soccer and I just didn’t feel like pretending to be social when 75% of me was missing. The worst part was, no one understood. My boyfriend literally said “it’s just fucking soccer, get over it,” ONE DAY after my injury. It should have been a blazing sign to let go of that relationship but I was a little too preoccupied at the time. New college friends had similar sentiments, no one knew me before so they just couldn’t understand that I had no idea how to be anything but that soccer player girl.
Looking back, it’s hard to remember exactly what it felt like to be in that position and why I let it get me down as much as it did. At first I was positive that after my recovery, I’d be able to play despite the doctors’ warnings. Well, it didn’t happen. I went on a few slow jogs as part of the end stage of recovery and everything was fine so I joined the girls for a kickaround 8 months after the tear. I couldn’t kick AT ALL. The docs said it was because of how I tore my muscle, some motions would feel fine, others like kicking would probably never feel right. My team had some success that year without me, but I had barely pulled out C’s in my classes because I went only on test days since I hated crutching my way across campus. That place was (and still is) my favorite place in the world but I just didn’t know how to be there anymore when reality had ruined all the plans I had in store for myself there.
I transferred to a school in my home state, which remains to this day my biggest life regret. I still can’t kick a stupid soccer ball. I have tried a thousand times and while it’s a bit better, anything more than 30% effort and I feel like my leg is ripping in half. Actually, it took more than two years for my leg not to randomly swell or cause pain doing the simplest tasks (I once fell over in pain tying my shoes 14 months post-injury!).
The funny thing is, I heard from people all the time that year that soccer really wasn’t that big of a piece of my identity, I’d adjust and be the same old me in no time. Well, I can tell you that for me, at least, that was bullshit. Maybe for the first year or two, my personality roughly stayed the same but I lost a lot of the edge to my personality that being so competitive had given me. I wasn’t as intense, was (probably much to the delight of my friends) no longer the girl who ceased speaking to you if you got lucky and beat me in a board game.
I’m not saying these are negative changes, just what I notice looking back. Competing day in and day out for fifteen years made me into a certain kind of person, and losing that changed things. I eventually found a way to channel my innate competitiveness into another sport (running—a post for another day!) more than four years after my injury and my love for it borders on the obsessive… it’s been the second best thing to come out of this experience, the first being meeting my husband. When I transferred to a new university because I couldn’t handle the shadows of my former self at my old one? I met my husband five months later.
So yeah, I can look back and remember for the most part how I felt I had lost myself, but a decade on, it’s hard to regret anything when I have a passion for a new sport (one that I can make a viable part of my life for many years longer than I could have with soccer) and a husband and dogs to come home to after every run. It’s mostly all now a distant memory, one I can fondly look back on without getting upset at what I’ve lost. I still watch EPL games every single weekend and follow the European cups with fervor, but rarely am I nostalgic for a life that is no longer mine.