I began playing soccer when I was seven years old and instantly fell in love with the sport. I was constantly consumed by soccer, and spent almost every moment of my spare time with a ball at my feet. As I began high school, it became clear to me that I was on route to achieving everything I had dreamed of as a kid. I made a verbal commitment to play soccer at the University of Central Florida and began playing with the Belgian National team at the youth levels. I felt more confident in my game than I ever had.
February 2015, it all changed for me. I was kneed in the groin during a 1v1 drill, and moments later, my left leg began swelling at an alarming rate. I had developed a deep vein thrombosis, compromising the blood flow throughout my left leg. After spending a week in the hospital, I underwent a procedure that would theoretically rid my leg of the clots. Cliché as it is, my first question waking up from the procedure was when I would play soccer again. At the time, I had no idea what a journey it would be. After undergoing two more procedures, it became clear that the clots would persist and permanently scar my veins. I sought out many opinions, and was told time after time that I wouldn’t compete again.
Hearing that I wouldn’t compete again was terrible. To be told it repeatedly was defeating. Soccer had been my everything since the age of seven. It was how I defined myself and what I centered my life around. I felt no sense of closure stepping away from it. It had happened so suddenly and it was such a rare injury. Soccer had just been ripped away from me. I had nobody to base my recovery off of, no specific athlete showing me that it would be possible to come back from this. The pain I was in simply walking was unbearable, and I had no reason to believe that the doctors’ conclusion was untrue.
I called my soon to be college coach to de-commit, but when she didn’t answer, I decided that I wasn’t ready to walk away from the sport.
Soccer was my biggest identity and sense of self, and I genuinely felt lost without it. I knew I needed to do everything I could to get it back. The pain was incredible. It still is. Walking around the block was an impossible task at the time. I couldn’t run more than four steps. It was an incredibly slow, challenging, and a painful progression to make my way back to soccer, but eight months later, I was on the field again.
To this day, soccer is almost always accompanied by fairly intense swelling and sharp pain. At a certain point, I just knew what to expect from it. When the physical symptoms of my chronic injury became the new norm for me, I was forced to address the mental and emotional aspects of it. The pain I’m in from the moment I wake up, to when I’m on the field, to when I’m trying to fall asleep –it’s exhausting. It absolutely drains me some days. I became unsure of my place on the field, immediately thinking that my injury made me less of a player or took away from my talent. I lost my identity within the sport, and sometimes, my enjoyment for it. The confidence I had worked so hard to build throughout the years was completely shattered. I wavered between needing to feel validation through my accomplishments and being terrified of any potential failure in my sport. Playing through a chronic injury weighs heavily on me at times. I want to be sure that what I’m doing is worth the pain, which has made it extremely difficult for me to separate my personal “success” and “failure” in soccer from how I view and value myself.
In the past six years, I’ve played four years of Division 1 soccer, debuted and earned four caps with the Belgian senior national team, and been contracted with multiple NWSL teams.
There are many days where I struggle to find joy playing through the pain. There are just as many, if not more, that I leave the field beaming because I simply love what I do.
I am still working to rebuild my confidence and appreciate all I have been able to do since being told none of it would be possible. Acknowledging and facing the mental and emotional stress that accompanies the chronic pain has been the most important thing as my career has developed. There is a stigma associated with mental health, especially in the sports community. Athletics can be mentally exhausting and taxing in so many ways. I cannot emphasize enough that you are not alone in what you are feeling and there is so much strength in confronting your struggle and seeking help. I wish I had sooner.