Getting Back Up
I can hardly remember a time soccer wasn’t important to me. Some of my very first and most vivid memories are from when I would go to my brother Joe’s soccer practices. We grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland and the soccer season would always begin in the fall, just as the weather began to cool. My dad was the coach and three times a week, he held practice at the local middle school. I used to run around the bumpy grass field, trying to emulate Joe’s dribbling skills. I was just five years old, kicking around a soccer ball, but I felt like I had found what I was meant to do for the rest of my life.
I think my love for soccer stemmed from all of the ways playing made me feel. There were feelings of excitement before a big game, feelings of release from the stress of academics, and feelings of accomplishment when I made my parents and my brother proud. I was happy to play the sport I loved with people that I cared about. As I got older, soccer began to occupy more of my time and energy. My parents had to drive me much farther for games and practices. I couldn’t go on family vacations in the summertime, and I had to leave for a week at a time all throughout high school for national team camps. During my junior year of high school, I missed over 70 days of school and was almost held back. But the sacrifices were all worth it when I received a scholarship to play soccer at Duke University.
Stepping foot on campus, I had accomplished one of my biggest dreams: to play Division I collegiate soccer. I played a lot my freshman year. One of my favorite moments was when I scored my first collegiate goal in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. It was surreal. After the game, while we all celebrated our advancement to the next round of the tournament, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, This is the dream. I was having fun playing and I felt like everything was going my way.
"I felt like the one thing that I was meant to do at this school – and in this world – had been taken from me."
Things changed in the beginning of my sophomore year. After starting the first 4 games of the 2017-2018 season, during our 5th game against Bucknell, I got into a horrible tackle. I was running to the ball and extended my leg while trying to pull the ball back under my feet. I remember the defender pressuring me and then suddenly, she fell into my outstretched leg.
As my knee bent inward, I heard a loud pop and I blacked out as the rest of my body hit the ground. I was carried off the field. My trainer asked me what I had heard, and I told her that I heard a pop. I tried explaining that sometimes my knees crack, but only to reassure myself. After the game, I was taken to the doctor to get an MRI, and the next day the results concluded that I had torn my ACL and my MCL. I wouldn't be able to play for the rest of the season. I had never been seriously injured before and I was heartbroken. I felt like the one thing that I was meant to do at this school – and in this world – had been taken from me.
The next day, when I started rehab and was less emotional, I made the decision to take on the process with a positive mindset. I told myself that even though I'd be out for 9 months, at least I’d be able to return the following year to do what I love. In the first few weeks, I could not do anything more than flexing my quad. Advancing to the next progression of my rehab felt like I had accomplished a small goal. The triumphs of adding weight when squatting or running for a little bit longer on the underwater treadmill reassured me that I was another day closer to being able to play again.
I was cleared in the spring. The joy of being back on the field was something that I will never forget. I was grateful for my health, a smooth recovery, and my support system made up of my family, teammates, coaches, and physical therapists that helped me through the process. Going into my junior year, I was determined to play. I was determined to show my support system that all of our hard work had been for something more.
In our 5th game of the season – exactly one year after injuring my knee – we played against Georgetown which is only 30 minutes from my house. My whole family came to see me play in one of my first games back. In the final minutes of the game, I went up for a header, came down, and instantly fell over. I tried to calm myself down. It’s just a calf cramp, I repeated to myself. But as I was carried off the field once again and put into a boot, I knew that I was hurt, badly.
When the official news came back that I had completely torn my Achilles tendon and would be out another season, I was devastated and overcome with disappointment, sadness, and frustration. I didn't want to think Why me? but at times, I couldn't help it. I felt like I was a failure to both myself and everyone around me.
"I realized, eventually, that I wouldn't make any progress being negative about my situation."
With another 6 months of rehab ahead of me for a new injury, I struggled to see the light at the end of the tunnel like I had before with my knee. My optimism waned and I struggled with new negative feelings towards watching practices and games from the sidelines – things that had brought me so much joy the whole spring and summer before. I realized, eventually, that I wouldn't make any progress being negative about my situation. I decided that I wasn't going to let all of the effort that my support system put into getting me back on the field the previous year go to waste, and I wasn’t going to let a torn Achilles ruin my dreams of playing and competing for a national championship at Duke.
When I finally came back from that injury, I experienced a new degree of appreciation for every moment I wasn’t on crutches or in a boot. I was lucky that my body recovered so well from two major injuries and beyond thankful that I was physically able to play soccer again. I found myself smiling during random drills. I was enjoying every moment on the field because for 15 long months, I had to watch from the sidelines. To make this comeback even more special, it was my senior year and after 2 years, I was finally able to train and play with my class for one last season together.
We began the 2019 season and on the anniversary of my injury, we had a game. I felt no fear or hesitation to play. I thought to myself, there's nothing to worry about, the worst has already happened to me. I made it through that game, and the next, and then five more after that injury free. I was so happy to show those who had helped me through treatment and life during my injuries that our hard work had paid off. I felt like I had achieved the goal that had motivated me for so long: to be back on the field competing for Duke with my best friends, who had become like sisters to me throughout my career.
"I fell to the ground and cried on the field – not because of the physical pain, but because of the sudden flood of emotions."
When it came time to play one of our biggest games of the season against UNC, I was so ready. Having had to watch the greatest rivalry in college sports being played right there in front of me while I was on the bench or in the stands for the past 2 years was disheartening. This year was my chance. I started the game and about 40 minutes into the first half, I turned to go sprint for a ball and heard a loud pop. Instantly, I knew what had happened. I fell to the ground and cried on the field – not because of the physical pain, but because of the sudden flood of emotions. I felt immense frustration, confusion, and weakness all at once. I had torn my other Achilles. After the game, I received messages from people expressing how sorry they were about yet another injury, and I felt sorry for myself, too. I cried all through the night and contemplated how I would handle another 6 months of sitting out.
But that next morning, I came to a realization of how fortunate I had been to have played more than half the season, a feat that I hadn't accomplished since freshman year. I remember the very next day after the game, I went to my coach’s office and I told him that I planned to stay and play the next year.
"It’s in these moments when I’ve felt weak that I have found my strength. "
There has never been a moment in my career that I’ve felt like I would never play soccer again. It was always just a matter of how long – how long do I have until I can play again. At the end of the day, it’s my optimism that has pushed me through these three major injuries. I’ve refused to allow soccer to be taken from me. I am motivated by my love for the game, the competition, and those around me who have stuck by my side, relentlessly. It’s in these moments when I’ve felt weak that I have found my strength.
I am so excited and thankful to have this season, despite the uncertainty surrounding our situation with the pandemic. As my teammates and I tie up our cleats, put on our shin guards, and run through the gates to Koskinen Stadium for warm up, I am filled with immense gratitude and pride that I still have the opportunity to live out my dreams and compete with the Duke name across my chest. And at this point, I couldn't ask for more than that.
- Mia Gyau
(Photo Credits: Reagan Lunn)