Dylan Wolfe: You Are Not Weak, You Are Human

Dylan Wolfe played D1 soccer at American University until suffering a series of career-ending knee injuries. After retiring from sport, Dylan invested her time and energy into The Grassroot Project, a non-profit based in Washington, DC that seeks to advance health equity for youth through sports with the help of NCAA student-athlete volunteers. After graduating from American University in May 2020, Dylan accepted a full-time communications position with The Grassroot Project. She first shared her mental health story in June 2020 with a local sports stories outlet in her hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. 

Dylan working for The Grassroot Project in Washington, DC.

Generally, I feel like I can’t consider myself an athlete anymore. And as self-deprecating as that sounds, I’m really as “washed up” as they come. I can barely run a 10-minute mile without feeling like my lungs are bleeding. If someone ever brings up soccer, I always talk about how good I was, and how great I could have been. I always catch myself getting a little embarrassed about how bitter I am about it. It’s something I’m working on. Writing this has helped me realize the silver linings of career-ending injuries and how important taking care of your mental health is as an athlete.

The summer going into my senior year of high school, I committed to play soccer at American University in Washington, DC. I was excited to not only be in a new city, but to be able to play soccer at a high level. I was always told to commit to a school that I could see myself at without soccer, and AU just felt right. I felt like the luckiest girl on Earth to know exactly where I was going and what I was doing for college while many of my friends were scrambling over the Common App. I didn’t have to stress about soccer anymore, and I could finally enjoy the beauty of the game without hoping that someone important was watching. I was committed. I was cruising for my senior year. Or so I thought.

It was our Senior Night, a beautiful night in early September where my senior class would be recognized with a ceremony, banners, signs, and a cake for four years of hard work in the women’s soccer program. It was the most anticipated event of my high school soccer career. Everyone I ever loved was in the stands that night, and the contentment I felt in that moment was pure bliss. The whistle blew…

Five, seriously, FIVE minutes into the game, I got bodied off the ball and tore my ACL. Just like that. I don’t remember the pain, but I do remember the silence of the crowd being louder than the sounds of my own screams. I cried the whole night, obviously. I called my coach at American and broke the news.

Before then, the most I had ever injured myself was a broken finger and a sprained ankle, so I was way out of my league here. But everyone tears their ACL in soccer, right? So I figured I would be okay and have no trouble returning to play by the time college preseason hit. 

But, I had no idea what was about to come.

I went in to do the routine ACL surgery, and I was pretty optimistic. I had heard about so many of my peers or professional players coming back from ACL reconstructions. I knew it was going to suck, but it was going to be doable. I went under for the first time in my life, and woke up on the other side in a lot of pain, but nothing that I felt I couldn’t handle. My surgeon wasn’t into prescribing opioids to minors, so I was taking glorified Tylenol for pain management, which I knew was better for me in the long run. Surgery #1.

About a week into recovery, I still hadn’t stopped bleeding and I started to get concerned. Pools of blood were seeping through my bandages and it seemed my swelling was just getting worse. My incisions weren’t healing and I was in a lot of pain, but I had no other pain to compare it to. This was the worst pain I had ever been in, how was I supposed to know if something was extremely wrong?

I went back to my surgeon for my routine post-operation check up. He didn’t like the way it looked either. He thought that I was beginning to get an infection. The tissue surrounding my incisions weren’t healing, so I needed to go under again. Surgery #2.

Another week passed, and my swelling was still horrible. The incisions wouldn’t stop bleeding and all my mom and I could do was keep wrapping more gauze on my knee. I went back to my surgeon, and the infection had gotten worse. I needed another surgical washout of my joint. Surgery #3.

I woke up with a wound VAC on my knee because all of the surrounding tissue on my leg was necrotic (dying). I needed this device to assist the closure of my expanded, deep wound. I seriously don’t know how to describe the science behind a wound VAC, but just imagine a tube hooked up to my leg that was attached to a little portable bag that sucked up all the nastiness and kept my wound sterile. And it made super loud noises all of the time. And it was really uncomfortable.

None of the oral antibiotics were fighting my infection fast enough, and I had to start going to the Infectious Disease Center almost daily to get my antibiotics administered by IV. My leg was so swollen and in so much pain from all of the washouts that I resorted to a wheelchair, which was a big blow to my ego.

After two more weeks, I still wasn’t feeling better. We checked in with my surgeon again and he was worried. I was due for another washout, and stronger antibiotics. Surgery #4.

The pain after this washout was indescribable. In the morning, they put a PICC line in my arm –a semi-permanent catheter IV that led straight to my heart. I needed stronger antibiotics. They taught my mom how to administer my antibiotics at home.

My body seemed like it was rejecting everything. I sweat through my blankets twice every night. I cried a lot. I stopped looking like myself. The most I could bear to eat was a piece of toast, and by the beginning of November, I had lost close to 30 pounds. All of the muscle I had gained over my soccer career was gone. 

I went back to school for the first time in over a month, and still was wheelchair bound. By Christmas, the wound VAC finally came out, so I thought I could get back on track for preseason. Throughout all of this, people always said to me “Wow Dylan, good for you, you are so strong, so brave, etc.” 

For the next 8 months, I was a monster. I rehabbed and lifted and ran and did everything I could so that come August 1st, I would be passing my first collegiate fitness test. Muscle-wise, I was beginning to look like an athlete again. Food, to me, was fuel. And that was my only relationship with it. If the food I was eating wasn’t making me stronger or faster, the guilt I would feel was immense. Despite all of it, I got cleared that following June to play soccer again, which was all I had wanted.

I know what you’re thinking. This is going to be some crazy, amazing, emotional comeback story where I tell you how many goals I scored, where I tell you I fought through the pain and had the most rewarding Division 1 experience. This is none of that. 

I arrived at American, and by some crazy twist of fate, I passed the fitness test (by the end of it, I had quite literally pissed my pants from exhaustion). My knee was in incredible pain from two-a day preseason practices. I rehabbed my knee in between sessions. I popped Advil religiously, struggled with stairs, and kept questioning my ability as an athlete. But honestly, I thought this was the pain that I was supposed to feel coming back from an ACL surgery (plus three washout surgeries). I just really had nothing to compare it to.

I played in three collegiate games, but something still felt wrong. I asked for an MRI, and what I feared was true. The ACL was literally dissolved from the infection. The only reason my knee was stable was from the scar tissue holding it together. Internally, my bones were just sliding around and smashing into each other. No wonder it hurt! It was time for my second ACL reconstruction. Bring on surgery #5. I was nearing a mental breakdown.

Within five months of my fifth surgery, I was getting pushed to return to play. Nine months to a year is usually recommended recovery time. Five other girls on my team were ALSO coming back from ACL reconstructions at the same time as me (concerning, no?). If it weren’t for them, I probably would have given up completely. 

We made the most out of our situation, and compensated with horrible, dark humor. My best friend, teammate, and soul sister, Dara and I had our ACL surgeries one month apart. We scheduled our rehab together and our locker room mental breakdowns together. We laughed, cried, and cried some more through our three hour long sessions in that godforsaken training room. Misery really did love company. But, the relationship I built with her is one of the most special things that I gained from the whole experience. Recovering together and knowing someone really knew how I felt, was what made it somewhat bearable.

Despite my horrible mental state, I was getting through it with my teammates and with that sliver of hope of having a redeeming soccer career in the near future. I put my head down and blindly obeyed my trainers and coaches in the recovery process. I let them ignore me when I told them that I was in pain. Four months post-operation, I was integrated into non-contact practice. I felt stronger than ever and was ripping shots into the top corner like it was riding a bike. I was also lifting more than I ever had in my life. Too much it seemed. 

At five months post-operation, I was instructed to max out my back squat in an off-season lift. I went down with a heavy bar on my back, but couldn’t get back up. In a panic, I shot back up, hyperextended my knee to the side with all of the weight under me. Pop. ACL torn again.

It was at this moment that my life began to hit a turning point. I was wondering if my body could really take this anymore. That summer, I consulted with multiple doctors, all saying that the damage to my knee from my past five surgeries would be too much to play collegiate soccer. I had no cartilage left in my knee, and was suffering from osteoarthritis at the age of 19. It was at that moment that I realized I had to hang up my boots for good.

With the loss of the love of my life, soccer, I also lost a part of myself, which started to take physical form. I didn’t know how to have a relationship with my body anymore. I began to battle an eating disorder that consumed my life. I began to distance myself from a lot of teammates and friends. I was in a never-ending cycle of weight gain and weight loss. I was depressed and found unhealthy ways to cope. I was able to stay on the team as a manager, but struggled deeply with the daily reminder that I could never reach the potential that I thought I could. Throughout the rest of my career at American, I was able to put on a happy face, and cheer on my team from the sideline or film booth. 

The one thing I needed most, however, was therapy. And it took me four years to admit that to myself. As athletes, we often have the mindset that everything we face must be faced without weakness. When it came down to dealing with my eating disorder, I was so ashamed of myself that I couldn’t talk about it with anyone else –not my friends, not my family, not my coaches.

It wasn’t until I talked to Carly Perry, an AU Women’s Soccer Alum pursuing a PhD in Sports Psychology, that I realized I wasn’t alone. For me, this “food for fuel” mindset is what I struggled with the most as an athlete. After I retired, I had nothing to fuel for, and I deemed my body worthless because I could no longer perform for my program.

What we really lack as athletes (and overall in the United States), is the proper access to reliable mental health resources. At American University these resources were lacking in both the Athletic Department and the school as a whole. It took me a whole year after my final ACL tear to muster up the courage to go to the university counseling center. I was afraid someone I knew would see me, or worse, ask me what I was doing there. It took every ounce of me to go to that appointment, to only be referred to a “specialist” far outside of my realm of transportation, and outside of my insurance network. I gave up on myself.

College athletes are perfection seekers. I would hear tidbits echoing through the locker room of my own teammates struggling with eating disorders, depression, body dysmorphia, and crippling anxiety. For a lot of collegiate athletes, whether male or female, there’s a feeling of expendability — that we are merely assets that can be thrown aside if we don’t perform to a certain expectation. Showing any sign of weakness might mean that you could lose that starting spot. 

Getting the flu, mono, and strep, are all excusable illnesses when it comes to taking a day off (or more) to rest. However, there’s no leeway for an illness that can’t be seen on the exterior. There’s no leeway when you are so anxious that you can’t focus on your next step, let alone ground yourself long enough to make a play on the field. There’s no leeway when you’re so depressed that it takes every ounce of your strength to get up and get to the locker room on time. There’s no leeway when your addictions prevent you from showing up to practice at all.

But the main thing I want to say is this: everyone has mental health. There is still HUGE amounts of stigma surrounding mental illness. We will all face stressors in our life outside of our control that will impact our mental health, athlete or not. Ask your teammates how they are –and then how they really are, just so they know that you see them and are willing to listen.

My story isn’t one of triumph, it’s one of clarity. Even though soccer has been rooted in my identity for my whole life, I wish I had realized earlier that I, Dylan Wolfe, have value without soccer too. I am more than my athletic ability. My sport made me wiser, gave me mental toughness, inspired my drive, made me a better leader, and a better friend. After realizing this I have been able to accept my injuries, make peace with the loss of soccer, appreciate the game from afar, and promote my own mental health along the way.

I hope one athlete, or one aspiring athlete, can read this, and know that they are not alone. Lean on your support team, know that your feelings are valid, and seek help if you need it. You don’t have to be perfect. You are not weak, you are human.