Saturday, July 13, 2013

"Riptide": A Stanford Soccer Story.

This article originally appeared in the college edition of Our Game Magazine in July 2013. 

[Sidelines] “I have failed over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” – MJ 

The tide does turn. It has before, but the feeling is somehow different this time. I watch with an eerie indifference as the clock winds down. Tic- toc – tic- toc. A calm washes over me like the final wave. The thought, “This cannot be happening, not again...” is interrupted by the piercing cry of the final whistle. 

What day is it? What year? If someone had told me it was December 2009 I would have believed him. But it’s not 2009, it’s 2010. And this time we aren’t drowning in the Tarheel baby blue under-toe. Instead, the shrill screams of victory are emanating from a sea of Notre Dame deep navy. The fear of this fate—back to back undefeated seasons, only to lose in the National Championship final—made me sick to my stomach for months. But in the fruition of this reoccurring nightmare, I am numb. I must be numb for I feel nothing, not the stiffness in my back nor the fatigue in my legs. 

Just one day earlier we had been deemed the heir apparent to the NCAA National Championship crown, yet today the Stanford University women’s soccer team—my team, my family for the last 4 years, my identity—now lies on the icy hard field in College Station Texas. The cries of the broken aren’t shrill at all. They are low and breathy and haunting.

Once upon a time, my fear of losing made me hate the game. My fear lost me games. I lost the game to hate. And while simultaneously fearing and hating the game, I lost myself.

The college soccer system is an excellent proponent of women’s football. The lure of scholarships gets a lot of girls playing, increasing the competition. Title-9 guarantees opportunities to play at a higher level. And the college environment brings top-notch resources (unmatched by any women’s professional environment I’ve seen), fans, and the competitive culture of deep-rooted rivalries. Yes, it was a fantastic experience; and also not a wonder why it felt like winning and losing were life and death. 

Overtime, I’ve learned that the stories that aren't often told are the ones most worth telling. The stories that begin when the cameras shut off and the reporters walk away, leaving the athletes on the field, some to pick up the equipment, and all to pick up the pieces. The stories that appear to be about losing something, well, they are really stories about finding something… finding oneself. Because, when the bright lights go off, another light comes on. While you’ve read the story about me falling down, I lived a different story about getting back up.

For as long as I can remember, I have overlooked the ocean. It is home. I watched it appear from the thick gray fog in the morning and disappear in a warm orange glow at dusk. In the winter I can observe its dramatic ebb and flow from my parent’s balcony, and in the summer, though calmer, I know that it rolls in and out in a natural rhythm. 

Like me, the ocean is always moving and always changing as a result of its surrounding elements. But more specifically, I connect with the waves because they are the way I want to be: resilient. Storm after storm, they crash and break against the cliff rocks but are not diminished. The ocean does not hate or fear the wind and the moon. It thrives on these elements. After the waves have been pulled and strained and sucked down by the tides, they form again. I have observed the waves of the Pacific breaking and rebuilding for years from the cliffs by my house, but I never realized I was watching the soul of a great athlete. 

I can remember so clearly how I felt on that cold, winter night at College Station. I wipe my face and look upward. I am still alive. I know because my heart beats hard and I choke on every breath. Losing has taken a chunk out of me, but somehow left me more whole. I stand with my team in a circle that lies somewhere between despair and hope. And with our arms linked we transcend the pain of loss. Somewhere under all the hurt, we can feel that we are on the brink of beautiful. There is something magical about being so close to teammates... it gives us a reason to carry on…to keep striving. 

So much is made available to the young player because of college athletics. While learning and honing the game, we learn and hone important life skills. Over the course of our college careers, the physical, technical, and tactical improvements, which the outside world judges and rates, sometimes overshadow the subtler yet more valuable changes in our maturity and character. The former list will surely garner the accolades, but the latter will carry you through life.  Losing is a part of life. But it’s up to you how big a role you give it, and  your choice will set your life’s stage.

“It took me a long time to realize that there ain't much difference between winnin' and losin', except for how the outside world treats you. But inside you, it's about all the same. It really is. Fact of the matter is, I believe that our only curses are the ones that are self-imposed. You know what I'm sayin'? We, all of us, dig our own holes.” – Friday Night Lights