By Shannon Anfuso
To freshman year Shannon,
Currently, It is September 19th, 2019; senior season. The one you’ve been dreaming of since you were three years old. The women’s soccer team is 4-2-1. We’ve already scored 15 goals. We’ve just tied the defending national champions. We’re headed by an immensely talented and intelligent coaching and athletic training staff. “In a lot of ways, this is the best team I have ever had,” Coach Gibson will recite early on. You will be beaming with pride. You are so thankful to be here, you know this is a privilege. But I need to warn you. I need to let you know that at this moment in time, you haven’t touched a ball in over a month. You haven’t dressed for a game. You haven’t played a single minute. This isn’t the final ride you painted with a magic brush. Are you scared yet? Don’t be. Take my hand. Hold on to my words. I’ll walk you through.
Firstly, I want to tell you that our journey is not necessarily one of athletic glory. It is not one of personal records, game winning plays, or postseason accolades. It is a story of passion, heartbreak, relentlessness, self discovery, and healing.
Our journey will one day make you happy, but first, it will make you strong.
So, how are you? Are you sick of Gulick yet? I bet you haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in weeks. I know your first college preseason hit you like a ton of bricks and you’ve been tired ever since. Humbling, in a sense, but you’re still wide eyed with excitement of the potential opportunities to come. You think you have nothing but time. Four more years probably seem like an eternity. Trust me, it’s not.
You still can’t believe you are here. You’re pinching yourself, afraid to wake up from this dream that you’ve pictured since you were three. Despite the excitement, the eagerness to learn and improve, there is something slowing you down. Something physical; medical, and it’s hindering your ability to play.
You haven’t told many people, mom and dad might not even know yet, but I know. You’re scared, confused, you’re doubting yourself. I know right now, in this moment, you’re struggling to breathe every time you so much as jog. Every practice is near torturous as the excruciating burn in your throat and lungs seems to grow with each passing day. You want to ask for help but you are afraid of the answers you may receive.
You feel like you’re looking at life through a one way mirror; everyone else breezing by as you bang on the glass waiting for someone to notice you, but they won’t. You need to advocate for yourself. Soon, you’ll demand answers. You’ll see doctor after doctor across several states. They’ll examine your charts in bewilderment and struggle to understand how your oxygen intake could consistently drop so low, even from just walking on a treadmill for 5 minutes. They’ll wonder how you made it this far as an athlete, and why you even want to continue. They may even try to convince you to stop. You will be at your wit’s end, but stopping is no option. Eventually, someone will finally figure it out, and the result will bring both relief and worry.
A local doctor in New Jersey will finally diagnose you with Vocal Cord Dysfunction. There’s no cure, no successful long-term treatment; essentially something you’re just going to have to live with, should you continue on with soccer. Your reaction to this news, however, is one that you will remain proud of for the following years to come. You take this diagnosis and all the frustration and resentment associated with it, and you’ll use it as fuel to forge ahead. You’ll spend the spring semester running countless laps up and down Alden Street; several miles every single day. You’ll ask for extra time in the weight room and push yourself through every lift, ignoring the raging fire burning beneath your chest. You’ll pray for the pain to go away, though you know it never will. You will be left with a choice; hurdle this obstacle and continue to play the game you love, or hang up the cleats for good and breathe comfortably. But we both know you never lived your life in a comfort zone, where’s the fun in that?
You’ll decide to stay. You won’t give up. Hardship is not foreign to you. You’ve been here before. You will survive this.
The summer before your sophomore year will be a pivotal one. You are anxious to prove to coach, to your team, and to yourself that you are an asset. Your hard work pays off and you get to make appearances in several games early on. Soon on an uncharacteristically hot Saturday in October, the real test will begin. We’ll be on the road for a conference game with several of our most dependable players sidelined with injuries. The game is a must win, and Coach will call on you to step up and start in a position that is foreign to you. You accept the role offered to you as you always have, and pray to a higher power that you won’t totally screw things up.
Your moment has come. You have waited for this. You have trained for this. You are more than prepared. You’ll play your heart out, a performance that will earn you player of the game honors, and despite our lack of experience on the field, we’ll defeat Wellesley and remain a top contender in the conference. But don’t get ahead of yourself, kid. I wish I could tell you it was a perfect 90 minutes, but you won’t even make it that far. Around the 80th minute or so, you’ll go in on a tackle with a Wellsley player twice your size, and your knee will pop with a pain that radiates through your leg and up the entire right side in your body; echoing deep in your stomach. You don’t need an AT, an MRI, or a Yale educated doctor to tell you what you already know. You will feel it in your heart; your season is done.
In the weeks to follow you’ll spend time, too much of it, feeling sorry for yourself. It’ll feel like you just finally got your foot in the door only for it to be slammed on you. You’ll crutch to and from practice everyday and watch in resentment. “Why me?” you’ll ask mom and dad, your teammates, your friends, anyone with ears, really. You’ll receive texts and calls from loving friends back home trying to lend you support, but you’ll blow them off on more than one occasion, too consumed in the pity party you’re hosting for yourself to appreciate their efforts. “I’ll get to it eventually”, you’ll promise yourself. You think you have nothing but time. I can not stress enough how much you will soon regret this. This injury is not the end of the world, Shannon. It never was, but you won’t know it yet. Not until, in a twisted form of sick irony, life will put things in perspective for you once again; and in dramatic fashion.
At 7:58 pm on a cold Wednesday in November, over a month since the dreaded injury, you will receive a phone call from Mom and Dad. As you sit alone at your inty dorm desk, they’ll tell you that your best friend has passed away. Your selfless, gifted, beautifully-created friend. “The girl who laughed too hard at senseless jokes and talked too loudly in public spaces”, who ordered Sumatra black coffee every morning before school, who loved her Greek heritage, referred to you as her “soul sista”, and was deemed the human embodiment of Agapē love. The girl you looked up to, even though you were older than her. Yes, that best friend. She had just started receiving her college acceptance letters; she had the world at her fingertips and yet she will suddenly be gone. That burning sensation in your chest that you once longed to escape from every time you practiced will seem like a blessing compared to what you are feeling in this moment, despair. Remember those texts and calls you forgot to return? You thought you had nothing but time, you promised you would get to them. But you never will, and the only redeeming quality of the matter that will stop the guilt from completely destroying you are several, unreturned voicemails from her you have saved in your phone that you will replay over and over for years to come to ensure that you don’t forget the sound of her voice. How important does that injury seem now?
Aleka Vassilia Damiano, wherever you are, my heart aches for you everyday. I miss you, I love you.
As spring season comes and goes sophomore year begins to wind down, your knee will be healed but your heart will not. Physically, you feel ready to attack the summer and come into preseason with your best foot forward. Mentally, this is about the lowest you have ever felt. You’ll be at a crossroads once again; stuck back behind that one-way mirror, banging on the glass begging to be noticed.
Nevertheless, you will persist. You won’t give up now. You can’t. You’ve been here before. You will survive this.
After a summer of working yourself into the ground, perhaps to distract yourself from the absence of your best friend, you will come into your junior season in the best physical shape of your life. You won’t step into the starting outside back role as you may have hoped you would. A talented transfer from UMass Lowell will waste no time proving herself and earning her starting spot in your position, but do not fret. Chrissy Conley will quickly become one of the kindest, most genuine friends you’ve ever known. Watching her dominate the field will make you so proud; even if that means taking on a more backseat role. Remember to thank her, along with all of your teammates. You will lean on them, confide in them, and cry on their shoulders on more than one occasion. You’ll make appearances in many games and will do your best to capitalize on every opportunity presented to you. The season will come and go in the blink of an eye, and you’ll feel like you’ve just gone through the motions. The confidence you once found the previous season was lost the moment your MCL snapped in two over a year ago. You will feel unfulfilled, longing to be the person that you once were. You won’t quite know how to get her back, but the opportunity to do so will present itself in a way you never imagined.
Just as the school year begins to wind down, the lovely Chrissy Conley will convince you to sign up for Outdoor Pursuits, also known as OP. OP is an 8-day excursion to east campus where you will live in a tent and take classes outside. Timid at first, you will jump in with both feet, and you will be happy you did. I won’t spoil the adventure and tell you all the wonderful details; I want you to experience OP in all of its beauty for yourself. I will tell you that this experience will breathe new life into you. It will save you. It will remind you that there is still beauty to life; you will see everything through a colorful new lense. No more going through the motions, you will want to live with intention again. It will make you you again. No longer are you banging on the one way mirror, begging for someone to notice you. The girl you knew and missed for so long will come back to you, and you will be ready to just be unapologetically and authentically you. To be alive is a privilege. A wonderful, brief, fragile privilege; and you will be grateful for all the trying experiences that came to fruition to help you finally understand that your very existence is a gift that is not to be wasted. Finally, you won’t let the fear of losing stop you from loving and living with your entire being. You will understand that you have lost because you have loved, and to love at all is a blessing. The hole in your heart may never be filled, but the comfort that comes from counting your blessings will be enough to initiate healing. This renewed appreciation for life will translate into your relationship with soccer. Feeling the most alive that you have since before the freshman year diagnosis, you are ready to attack the summer with a vengeance.
You’re almost there. Finish strong. You’ve been here before. You will survive this.
Checking into Springfield College for your last and final preseason will come with a slew of emotions. You have so much to prove and so much to gain; you will be ready to lay it all out on the field. One last season to be proud of, that is all you can ask for. But before you’ll get that chance, you will be humbled once again. This time, however, you have experience.
By day 4 of preseason, the exhausting effects of double sessions have already taken their toll. Legs and eyes heavy; bruises begin appearing. You’re already yearning for a break, and your wish is about to come true, but in that sick, ironic way that life always seems to offer. Practice 7 on day 4 will start off just like any other. Passing patterns and possession games followed by defense vs. offense drills. You’ll hop into the rotation and defend your goal, but not for long. On just the second rep, a speedy forward with a foot like no other will take a hard shot, your 5’0 stature being the only thing between the ball and the goal. The next thing you know, you’re on the ground; ears ringing, eyesight fuzzy, sheer pounding in your head. The following bit of time is spotty, but you’ll remember hearing that dreaded word the first time it is spoken aloud: concussion. It’s deflating. It’s crushing. You’ll be angry all over again. You’ll be so mad, you’ll want to ask that rhetorical question once again, “why me?” but DON’T. Do NOT let history repeat itself. No more feeling sorry for yourself. It’s not “why me?” it’s “try me”. You can weather this storm graciously, better than you have in the past, and you will. Coach will be generous enough to let you remain a member of the team despite your injured status, and you will not waste this opportunity. You will be at every practice, scrimmage, or game, and you will support every member of your team, a smile on your face as you do so. You will do this time and time again until you are ready to return to the field, not a second sooner. This time, there will be no complaints. There will be no self pity. None. You are still here because you are lucky enough to be. You are still here because you fell in love with a sport 18 years ago, and because a three year old little girl would be heartbroken to know you made it all this way just to throw in the towel with your final season on the line. We’re not stopping now. I don’t know what the future holds but what happens next is up to both of us. There’s no time like right now. Be where your feet are. Take in every moment. Remember the sights, sounds, and smells of the daily routine with your team. Cherish the little things; in the end it’s probably what you’ll remember most. I do know we will finish this journey strong. Where we are right now is nothing we can’t handle. We won’t give up now. Why would we? We’ve been here before. Just like everything else, we will survive this too. Of course we will.
Here’s to one last season of playing the beautiful game.
Hang in there, kid. You are stronger than you know!
P.S. Don’t forget to call Mom and Dad and tell them thank you. When’s the last time you did that?
Photo courtesy of Springfield College Athletics