There’s a short story I think about a lot. I can’t remember where I heard it or who I heard it from and it has been played and replayed so many times over in my mind that I can’t say with 100% certainty whether my version even follows the original plot. But, I’ll give you the gist –
Basically, there is a man that spends his entire life peering out of his big kitchen window up at this beautiful, shining house that sits atop a mountain. He speculates for years that it must be made of crystals or diamonds and yearns for such a home. How lucky that guy must be, he thinks to himself. It isn’t until he is old and gray that he finally makes his way up to see this most extraordinary house that he has envied for decades. To his dismay, he is met not with a diamond mansion, but with a little house just like his own. It too has a big kitchen window- one that catches the sun’s rays just right and emanates a bright, beautiful glare. He spends some time mourning this gem that never was. He reflects on all of the days he had spent imagining every detail of every corner of every room. How could it all be a dream? he laments. It is not until he wipes his tears and looks back down the mountain that he sees that same, familiar, beautiful, shiny house that he had stared at on so many occasions. He realizes that it is none other than his own home- the big kitchen window catching the sun’s rays just right.
In summary, he wastes his entire life coveting something that he doesn’t have and failing to appreciate, or even notice, the beauty of what he does have. It is not until he stands atop the mountain that he can see how fortunate he was in the first place.
I was 11 when I had my first orthopedic surgery. I fractured my distal femur in the 6th grade during a soccer game. Twelve months later I had a second surgery to correct a residual issue from the original injury. Roughly 3 years after that, I suffered my first ACL tear, resulting in reconstructive surgery and about 7 months of rehabilitation. I committed to UVA shortly after returning to play, but just months after, I tore my ACL on the contralateral side. And the year after that, I tore the same one during a soccer ID clinic for UVA. I entered college having undergone five orthopedic surgeries and having only played about 1.5 years of competitive soccer throughout high school.
To say that I was massively unprepared would be the understatement of the century.
But, I battled through the first couple of years. And I was, if I do say so myself, a royal pain in my own (and Steve Swanson’s) ass.
To be clear, I will never (ever) apologize for being competitive. There is no quality more central to my personality and to my story. I will admit, however, that for those first few years it brought out the absolute worst in me. I was so consumed by the constant concerns about playing time and performance and proving myself that I completely neglected to realize where I was and what I was doing:
Playing for a university that I had dreamt about my entire life.
In the spring before my true senior year, following a series of terrible sprains, I underwent an ankle reconstructive surgery to resolve chronic instability. I had no hopes at all for the season to come, and had made peace with the idea that my career would likely be nearing its end. To my surprise, however, that expectation could not have been further from reality. Everything seemed to fall into place. I was starting, playing, competing. The team spent most of the year ranked #1 in the nation. I graduated college with all of my best friends.
I know 15-year-old me was gawking out the big kitchen window. How lucky she must be. Even still, I continued to crave more. I was in a much better place and had begun to enjoy what I was doing. But nevertheless, coveting.
Fast forward to 12 months ago. There I was, hiking up the mountain. The previous surgeries, the playing time, the years of effort and grind- all just stepping stones along the trek.
February 25th, 2021: Routine practice, routine fake, routine step. A fourth, and final, ACL tear on the same knee that had been reconstructed twice before. A seventh orthopedic surgery before I had even turned 23.
I won’t even pretend that I had this sudden epiphany about what a happy and blessed journey my soccer career had been. It was, certifiably, the biggest load of bullshit.
All of those years working and overcoming so that I could be there, hip-deep in an immobilizer...again?
Before I present the closure to this analogy that I know you are probably so anxiously awaiting, there is an important tangential point to make.
Grief over the loss of sport is a very real thing. Saying goodbye to something that you have dedicated your entire life to cultivating and perfecting is next to impossible.
It goes so far beyond the hours spent at practice or lift or games. It’s the 8 hours you have to sleep every night so that you can perform. It’s the dietary sacrifices you have to make so that you can compete for 90 minutes. It’s the hours of workouts in the summer heat so that you can kick everyone’s ass on the beep test (humble brag). All of the tiny, meticulous, deliberate decisions made on an everyday basis to maximize athletic output. Three weeks, three months, three years, forever. It does not matter. Having that taken away, even temporarily, is devastating. Check-in on someone you know that may be going through it. Okay, stepping down from my soapbox and back up onto my mountaintop.
Fast forward to the present day. It’s been a while. I’m far enough removed from my premature retirement and the hip-to-ankle immobilizer that I can see my little house, glistening down in that valley. Plus, it looks extra shiny through my rose-tinted glasses.
God, she is lucky.
No offense to everyone else, but I might be the luckiest girl, like ever.
In my five years at Virginia, I met some of the most incredible people that walk this earth, and even got to share matching jerseys with some of them. I competed at the absolute highest level in collegiate soccer. I saw some cool places, rode on WAY too many Abbott buses, drank WAY too much beetroot juice.
I got to do what I loved for a lot longer than most people get to, and about 5 years longer than I ever thought I would get to. I would not trade one second of it for the world.
If you were wondering, I’m back down in my little valley home and I am appreciating every second of it (just like you’re probably appreciating the death of this terrible analogy). Of all of the things I can reflect on now and be thankful for, two stand out among the rest:
First, I have the most perfect family, friends, and support system. There are not enough thank you’s or I love you’s that can be said. You know who you are.
And second, despite it being the most challenging part of my (very lucky) life thus far, I am so grateful for the path that my injuries have put me on. Medicine is something that I have always been passionate about and have wanted to pursue. Shortly after my career-ending injury I accepted a position as a clinical research coordinator in the department of orthopaedic surgery at UVA. I plan to apply to medical school this summer and have hopes of building a career in orthopedics. I can think of no better lifelong goal than to utilize my own personal experience to serve others with stories similar to mine.
There is only one thing better than a bad analogy and it’s a bad cliche. So here goes nothing:
One door closes...
Photo Credits: Matt Riley (UVA Athletics) and Anna Sumpter