Against the Odds
Born to a conservative Irish father, I initially felt like my decision was an act of defiance, rebelling against the norm. I wanted to play soccer but in 1993, there was not a local girls’ team. I did not understand why I could not play so I tried out for the boys’ team. The coach told me that it would be unfair to take a spot away from a boy but if I proved worthy, he would give me a shot. Not only did I make a boy’s team, I made the "A" team and earned a starting position, but not without great expense. I had to constantly explain to my teammates and their parents, and opponents, and anyone else who was offended by the thought of a ponytail on the field why I deserved to be there. However, my biggest critic was my own father. He believed sports should be played within their own gender silos; it was sacrilege for a girl to play among boys. Here I was, his own flesh and blood, disrupting the peace. No matter how bad it got, my mom would still sneak me off to practice and I would continue to rush home after school everyday and train for hours on my own to make sure I maintained my spot on the starting squad. I was determined to be the dark horse. To my five-year-old self, I could not understand why it mattered that I was a girl on a boys’ team, especially if I had the skills to back it up. It made no difference to me so why should it to them? I realized at an early age that nobody – no matter gender, economic or social background – should be prevented from playing sport.
I went on to play collegiate soccer at Carnegie Mellon University (on the women’s team this time) and suffered a terrible concussion in practice at the end of my freshman year, adding another notch to a series of blows to the head. All it took was a carelessly thrown shoulder to my neck for me to lose consciousness and experience years of debilitating pain – physical, mental and emotional. The next thing I knew, I struggled with the simple things that I took for granted: I could not pronounce certain words or string together a sentence; I could not walk in a straight line or step up stairs; I could not sit in a room without being bothered by the subtleties of noise; I could not work on school assignments without falling asleep from mental exhaustion; I could not go for a run without blacking out. That is only part of the list of "No Can Dos." There were so many things my mind and body use to be able to do so effortlessly but could no longer.
The moment I realized how bad my mental function was, was when my neurologist gave me a seemingly easy task: to name as many animals as I could in 60 seconds. Confidently, I started riddling off species. Little did I know that when the clock ran out, I had only four on the final list. To me, what sounded like dozens of animals was just a lack of short-term memory, and I had instead repeated dog, cat, elephant and lion over and over again.
As I was faced with similar obstacles, I viewed each as opportunities – opportunities to improve my agility. I had to adapt and improve my side step. Ultimately, I had two choices: I could wallow in my own sadness and resort to never being “normal” again or I could pull myself up by my bootstraps and keep trying. I chose the latter and continue to claw my way up those walls.
After two years of spending countless weeks at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) rehabilitation center where the Pittsburgh Steelers, Penguins and University of Pittsburgh athletes also frequent, I re-learned to walk and talk, adapted to sensory sensitivity, learned how to multitask and exercise without blacking out and eventually recovered from most of my incapacitating symptoms. It has been an ongoing process for continued growth but one day I am hoping for a total transformation.
During this entire process, I had to hang up my boots. That meant I was stripped of my identity – an identity I had spent the past 20 years shaping. I was absolutely devastated. Who am I without wearing the uniform? It has always been about the name on the front of the jersey but now I had to consider what was next for the one on the back. After 20 years, I may not be an athlete in the conventional sense any more but I refuse to be pulled away from the game that made me.
The concussion(s) forced me to put life into perspective. I grew even more determined to chisel out my new identity and still head towards goal but a different sense of the word. I want to establish myself in other aspects of sport; I want to be more than just an athlete but a champion for equality in sports. I am a spokesperson for Title IX, as I assisted with the ESPN 40th anniversary initiative, coach and mentor young players, advocate for a larger women’s sports presence in mainstream media, and work to sustain a professional women’s soccer league in the United States. Now, instead of tackling players, I tackle challenges and unique projects in the workforce. In a sense, I have not put a different name on the front of my jersey – I am playing for Equality. The team may change, whether it is for Women’s Rights or African American Rights, but the club is the same.
We often define diversity by gender and race, and then potentially expand it into sexuality, but we often overlook disability. I, too, was naïve to my own disability. It is not as salient as others’ – those with visual reminders like prosthetics. To me, it is the invisible piece of my identity puzzle that nobody can ever understand but it is there and it can be crippling. But, enabling others to find their missing puzzle pieces has become something that I have become passionate about as a leader in sports. I had to find a new identity within sports without identifying solely as a former athlete. It was one of the most challenging experiences for me, as someone who had spent the majority of my life identifying with the mentality: I am competitive, highly motivated, hard-working and devoted. But I had to find a way to transfer those qualities into something productive while working with others towards a common goal. I am drawn to the camaraderie, passion and focus, and needed an outlet. I believe that others who have had similar experiences need to have support groups to know that all is not lost. I refuse to let my crucible moment define me but let my reaction to it instead. I can only hope the experience can transition me from that dark horse into a white stallion.
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