I don’t realize how much I’ve been through or how complicated my journey is until I try to explain it to someone. I get asked all the time, “What’s going on?” “Are you playing?” “Wait, where do you even live?” I get exhausted explaining it sometimes because that’s what its been, an exhausting journey. I don’t look at what’s been done, I only look at what I still need to do. For all those wondering what my unconventional path has been, and what steps I’ve taken, some to a new college others to a new country and the struggles I continue to face, then please keep reading.
I was born into an exciting time for Women’s Soccer in the US. I was 4 years old when the USWNT won the the ’99 World Cup , and 5 when the first Professional Women’s League was founded. From an early age I absolutely fell in love with the beautiful game. It was always my dream to become a professional soccer player. When I was entering high school and the WPS came around I turned this dream into a goal. The little girl with a big dream became a strong young woman with vision. “I want to be a women’s professional soccer player,” turned into “I WILL be a women’s professional soccer player.”
Once I entered high school I was already looking towards the next step of reaching my goal. I had to work backwards. If I wanted to be a professional soccer player, I had to go to and perform well in college first. St. John’s University became my dream school. I changed teams frequently, constantly looking for the next challenge and next coach to improve with to get closer to my goal. I had some injuries during the first few years of high school, but they were all things I could play through. A broken arm I just put some wrap over, dislocated jaws where I played with my jaw wired shut, and concussions in which I began wearing a Full 90 headbrace. But the closer I got to my dreams, the worse my injury was, and the harder I fell.
Junior year began what seems to be the never-ending string of bad luck. Junior year is arguably the most crucial year of a high school athlete’s career, and I was injured for all of it. I missed the recruiting process due to an MCL/Meniscus tear, and ACL sprain. I was crushed. I thought my chance was gone. It took me a long time to realize that I still had the opportunity to do walk on tryouts, so that’s what I strived for. I applied to St. John’s University and received a scholarship for my academic achievements. I was ready to work harder than ever to put on that red and white kit. All those months out injured were fuel to the fire. When I returned to playing with my teammates, it was a hard adjustment. Everyone seemed to be on different pages and didn’t want the same thing. Many girls didn’t want to play in college anymore, and it was difficult to find common ground when we had different mindsets and missions. I love all those girls and the coaches I had, but it was hard for me to be in that environment with the challenge I was faced with. So I took matters into my own hands. I began training by myself, while setting up sessions with some of the top trainers in the country. I was ready to go and give my all. My all in training. My all to the love of my life. My all to achieving my dreams. I was motivated, focused, and unstoppable.
Unstoppable until I got injured again. One day during training with Beast Mode Soccer, my foot started hurting. As scared as I was, I felt optimistic. I don’t know why, but I had such a gut feeling to do surgery. I figured I would get an MRI, the doctor would do surgery on whatever needs to be done, and I’d be back to playing. I had foot surgery a few years before, and I was back on the pitch the next day so I thought this recovery wouldn’t be any different. I was confident going into my doctors appointments, but they weren’t. My podiatrist didn’t know what it was, so he sent me around to other specialists. A vein specialist said there was a little clot and inflammation. When he gave me the diagnosis, I was so happy! Finally we know what is! I then asked him, “So, what’s next? When do we schedule surgery? Because I need to be at my full fitness in a few months. I need this done ASAP.” He laughed at me and said “There’s nothing I can do, you have to wait and hope it get’s better.” One of the flawed characteristics of being an athlete is impatience. When you know what you want, you put in the work, but you’re not going to let someone else tell you when you can have it. So telling an ambitious person to ‘wait and hope’ is possibly one of the worst things you can do. I have no shame in saying that I absolutely threw a fit in his office and begged him to do surgery. “Just cut me open and see what’s wrong!” I begged and pleaded, but no hope. I was desperate for the injury to be resolved. I tried to continue to run on it, in hopes that I would be creating more damage and they could do surgery. I know that sounds insane, but I was on a time pressure. The pain became unbearable, and once again, no hope.
While it may have felt as if the world was falling apart, my health was actually apart. I knew that all the stress was taking a toll on my body, but that’s what I thought it was, just stress. I wasn’t feeling myself, but how could I? The one thing that made me whole and complete, that made me myself, my one true love, was taken away. I knew it was something more when getting out of bed became a struggle, and I was feeling weaker each day. I went to a naturopath who ran various tests of all kinds and found that I had hyperthyroidism and adrenal fatigue. She gave me supplements and a diet plan to follow. It took a while for me to start feeling the benefits and change from my naturopath’s help. In the meantime school was a struggle. The emotional and mental pain was just as bad as the physical. Before class everyday at St. John’s I would go to the field to just sit and cry. Thinking of what could have been. I was forced to be reminded of my crushed dreams. Inside of the classroom I struggled as well. I’ve always been a high achiever in my studies, but due to my health issues I couldn’t focus, had chronic migraines, and was extremely fatigued most of the time. I still did well in my classes, but all of the added stress continued to take a toll on my health. Then in November, my prayers were answered. It was as if the rainy skies cleared and my podiatrist was the shining sun. He found that a cyst had formed in my foot and he would able to do surgery on it. I was nearly crying tears of joy in his office. The turnaround that I needed! Maybe all hope wasn’t gone! If my health continues to get better, I should be good for spring season right?! We scheduled for January 4th, and as soon as I got home I wrote the date down on a post-it and stuck it on my door. Each day it was the last thing I would see. Each day I would leave my room, knowing I was one day closer. One day closer to having my issues resolved. One day closer to being back out on the pitch. One day closer to making my dreams a reality. Little did I know that I wouldn’t reach that milestone. Little did I know that a few days before the 4th of January, I would have a setback that would change my life forever.
My family and I drove down to Florida to visit family for Christmas, and on our way back we stopped at my sister’s place in North Carolina. From there we spent the night, and drove back to NYC the next day. While driving through New Jersey my dad lost control of the car and crashed into the divider. I remember sitting in the back seat, felt a huge jolt, and at one point the car was perpendicular to oncoming traffic on the highway. I looked outside my window and saw a car right next to us. My life flashed before my eyes, we crashed, and I honestly thought I was dead. I think I thought the crash was from the car hitting us and not my dad hitting the divider. The next thing I remember is a few moments in the ambulance. Not to make it seem like “I saw the light,” but I remember in the ambulance not feeling any pain and everything around me seeing and feeling so light. I had no idea what condition I was in, but I just wanted the doctors to take care of my mom. Luckily I got the worst of it. I had a concussion, broken jaw, and laceration on my chin, while my dad had a slightly fractured sternum and my mom sprained her neck and had a leg contusion. On New Year’s Eve I had my reconstruction surgery on my jaw, plates and screws put in, had my jaw wired shut, and stitches on my laceration. I cannot stress enough how blessed I was to be in such phenomenal care at Capital Health in Trenton, NJ. Also, DR. Tuma did an exceptional job on my jaw and scar.
I don’t want this post to turn into ‘all about my car accident’ because I want this to just be about all of the setbacks I faced up until this point, and there are many emotional depths from that time in my life that I want to save for another post. So it was back to New York, but now what? For the first time in my life I had to think of just getting healthy first, and not what’s next for my football. I had my jaw wired shut before, but it was only for 10 days not 4 weeks. Both times I had it wired shut I was able to just put some wax over it and still play. But this time whenever I went to the gym, it was a pathetic attempt. I was so mad at myself. I think I had such a difficult time understanding the trauma my body experienced because I don’t remember it at all. Maybe if I did I could say to myself, “Well okay Emily, you feel this way since you got hit over here.” But I couldn’t, and I would have nightmares of the last few images before the crash. I was forced to drink protein shakes that I was allergic to just to get the calories and nutrition in, but I was becoming so weak. My body was fighting against everything I put into it. And my heart was fighting against my brain. Because while I was physically getting weaker, my desire to be back on the field was growing stronger.
Finally after 4 long weeks I had my jaw unwired, then a few days later my foot surgery. I was looking forward to seeing what my doctor had to say post-op since I had such a strong feeling it was more than just a cyst. When I woke up, his face was the last thing you would want to see your surgeon look like after just performing surgery on you. I honestly thought my foot was gone based off his expression. He just looked at me and said “I have never seen so much scar tissue in my life!” Apparently I experienced so much pain not only due to the amount of scar tissue, but the fact that it was spiralling around a nerve on the side of my foot. Unfortunately unlike last foot surgery, I was not playing the next day, and was on crutches for a month.
Now I was in a position that I’ve never been in before. “What’s next?” I didn’t know what the next step was. Well, I did, but I didn’t know how to do it. I knew I had to get healthy first, but I struggled to do this without knowing what my next step in soccer was. While I was still young, I didn’t know what my options were now. I had to take a medical leave from the 2014 Spring Semester. Since I couldn’t take any of my supplements while my jaw was wired shut it felt as if I took a thousand steps back. In the summer I felt I was starting to get on the right track again. I was able to get touches on the ball again, and get my fitness up. I was in the gym everyday, and one day a Division II college coach spotted me and wanted me to play for his school right on the spot. I went to the ID camp, and felt so confident out there. Of course my touch needed some more improvement, but I knew I still had it in me. I felt like me again. That was the first time in over a year I played competitively. I was honoured that he was that attracted to my work ethic, but I sadly had to decline the offer. My health wasn’t where it should be yet, and I was still struggling with migraines and concentration. I wouldn’t be able to enrol full time in a university, so in the fall I took only a couple of classes that would help me ease into being back at school.
Playing for a college in the US seemed impossible at this this point. I was in a really difficult position because I had no film of myself playing to send out to teams. It seems like common sense to have this, but growing up I didn’t know how important this was. Besides all of the injuries I had, not knowing exactly how to do things beyond the pitch to help me find a team put me at a disadvantage. Some people have coaches and parents that are extremely knowledgeable about the “process”, but I didn’t. I never knew there was so much more to do, because no one ever told me, until it was too late. Once again I was faced with the question, “Now what?” My agent and friend Ryan Wood is someone who always believed in me and did everything possible to help me on my journey. So he decided we look overseas. I was surprised to find out that there are SO many leagues of different divisions in Europe. In the US its pretty much club, high school, college, summer league, and pro. The fact that I wasn’t a full time college student or graduate forbid me from playing in some of these leagues. Overseas I had many more options, all I needed was a visa. We found a few teams in England that were interested in me and we decided that a team in Liverpool was the best fit. So I applied to Uni there and got in. Some may see this as an accomplishment, but I just see it as something that needed to be done to achieve my goals.
The spring of 2015 was a season of more surgeries. I had to get another procedure on my jaw and my foot. Naturally, I was panicking. It was June and I was still on crutches. I was moving to a new country in a few months to take one huge step closer to my dreams, not a limp closer. A step, a stride, a sprint. Anything but a limp. I also started to develop serious back and hip problems that hindered my training. I have to give another shoutout to another amazing doctor, Dr. Rob DeStefano who ultimately saved me from back surgery and helped me get strong again. So I did what every athlete on a mission who is always hard on themselves does. I told myself I was stronger than what my body was trying to tell me and I pushed through. Looking back now, I can say that I wasn’t feeling well, but at the time I wasn’t going to allow myself to feel anything but fierce. I was moving to a new country!! How could I not go into this brave, strong, and confident?! The summer was a bit strange. I wanted to surround myself and learn from the best of trainers, but it was hard to find someone I could trust. I take my training VERY seriously. It’s strictly business within the lines, within the time slot. I’m here to be a better player, to improve multiple aspects of my game, and I’m trusting you to push me further than I can push myself. I met with many trainers who just couldn’t see eye to eye with me. Some would bail last minute, others seemed to like the idea of me promoting them more than actually working with me. Once again I took matters into my own hands and did it all myself.
September came, and I was on my flight to my new home England. I’ve had so many things go wrong in the past, I was almost nervous to be excited for this opportunity. I think I’ve had my hopes crushed so much, that I always accept happiness with fear, knowing that it won’t last. It took me a while to get settled. I was anxious to start with my new team. It seemed too good to be true. And that’s what it was. After a few practices, I was playing in my first game. Of course with my luck I got injured within my first few minutes of coming on. And of course with my stubbornness, I tried to play through it. It got so bad that the ref was advising me to leave the game. I was so frustrated that this was how I would make my first impression on the pitch. It took me a few weeks to fully heal my groin injury before I was back with the team. But every time I went to go train, I felt I was cheating myself. It wasn’t the kind of football I fell in love with. Everyone seemed to be on different pages, with different mentalities, motives and purpose. And there is nothing wrong with that!! It just did not work for me. I would just tell myself that I’m playing and that’s all that matters. But I know when to take myself out of a situation that is causing me more harm than helping me. I am ALL for stepping out of your comfort zone, and becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. But I also know the difference between challenging yourself and knowing when a situation is not right for you. The girls and coaches were all nice, but it wasn’t a good fit and I wish them all the best, and thank them for welcoming me. I was back to doing it all on my own again. I moved to a new country to pursue my dream. You really think I would let one little misstep stop me?
I was training on my own again. In a new country with no friends, except for my loved ones in London (you know you you are!! <3), I got used to doing things on my own. Went out to eat on my own, to the cinema alone. I didn’t mind. I came here to play and do well in school. Nothing else mattered to me. “Uni life” did not appeal to me. In a time of extreme despair, Chelsea and Chelsea Family was the only thing to make me smile. That made me feel like me again. That made me feel at home. I was here on a mission. The next goal became to trial with teams in the spring. I had a few in mind that I really wanted to play for, but I never got that opportunity. Although I didn’t want to admit it, I was getting worse each day. Then I realised my body never adjusted to the new time zone. Apparently there’s a bigger problem at hand when your jet lag does not go away after 3 months. Some nights I would not sleep at all, and I was constantly getting sick. The fatigue and pain I felt all over my body was unbearable. I felt like I was going insane. I would call my mom almost everyday screaming and crying begging her to fix me. I had to fly home every few weeks for blood tests, IVs, brain scans, and sleep tests. Moving to England started off as a new path to reach my dreams and I was going to push my limits, but turned into doing my best just to get through finishing the year. I felt my depression coming back, and coming back strong. Some people think it’s bad to talk about, but I don’t think I should be ashamed by it. People seemed to be offended by how my mood changed from September to February, but how could it not? My only reason for moving to England was to play. I thought I would be reunited with my one true love, and start our life together forever. But as soon as we met, our love was torn apart once again.
After all of the results from the tests the doctors ran came back, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic Migraines, and sleep disorder. There were some other problems that came up in the blood that they did not know how to address. I was seeing endocrinologists, haematologists, neurologists, naturopaths, and rheumatologists. People would see that I was constantly flying back and forth and think it was for fun, but in reality I spent all of my time back home in doctors offices as if I was there guinea pig. Many doctors would look at me and see a young girl who shouldn’t have any health problems. I even had one doctor tell me that if I would get married and have kids then everything will be solved. Safe to say, I never went back to her. I was given all different kinds of medication, but I would have an instant adverse reaction. I didn’t know how I would get through my exams feeling this way, but luckily I finished off the year with good grades.
So, I ask myself the question again, and the question that many people have been asking me lately. What now? I am back home in Queens for the summer, and my body has won the battle I’ve been fighting against it for many years. I tried to put my dreams first before my health, but I learned the hard way it doesn’t work out that way. It seems like common sense, but I have finally fully accepted and embraced the fact that in order to play and be my best, I have to be healthy. That’s what I’m doing now, getting healthy. It’s an extremely difficult journey because many doctors are not helpful and you have to do a lot of the research yourself. I schedule phone appointments with some of the best fibromyalgia specialists in the country, and I am starting to see a biochemist who I feel will help me get on the right path. As much as it pains me to say, but I have to listen to my body and go at the pace that my body allows me. If I rush back and cheat myself, I’m going to keep ending up back at square one.
The fire in my soul, my love for the game, and deep desire to play professionally is never going to leave me. Never. You may think that soccer may not be for me. But I have had such large gaps away from the game, and each day I add fuel to the fire. I tried to force myself to think of a life without the game, to move on, but I couldn’t. It’s just impossible. It’s not out of fear of the unknown, it’s total belief and love for the thing I do know and that’s that I am meant to be playing the beautiful game. It’s like when you have that one person in your life, where no matter how far apart you guys wander or the heartbreak you faced, when you come back together, even if for a few short moments, you know it’s meant to be. You know it’s real. When I was battling through concussions in high school my teachers would bring me aside and in a caring way try to help me revaluate my situation. “Well Emily, what if you get more concussions and you die.” I told them that taking the game away from me, the one thing I love would be the most painful death and dying on the pitch would be an honour. I believe that everything I go through is to show someone that you can reach your dreams no matter what adversity you face. There is more than one way to the top of the mountain.