Finding Greatness Within: A Sidelined Athlete’s Journey

By: Rachel Jolley

Life as an athlete is one of many highs, many lows, and practically every emotion in the book. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, and other times, you don’t really know where you are at all. But, today  is [most likely] game day, so you had best focus on that.

As an athlete, you hit droughts of progress, leaving you with doubts about your abilities; but then, you work so hard that there comes an inevitable splash of success which keeps you striving for more. Sometimes you feel starved for that moment of magic, whether it’s a goal, or a swift tactical play, that results in nothing but knowing, “damn, that was pretty.” At the same time, your hunger for that magic is what fuels your drive. Because one moment of that magic transcends months of torturous training sessions and years soaked in sweat, blood, and tears.

Growing up in Florida, the weather was always perfect for being outdoors, and especially, for playing sports. A tomboy from the get-go, I always excelled athletically. I was about three years old when my older brother started playing soccer. I loved watching the games, so the next year, when I was old enough to play, my Mom asked me, “Rach, do you want me to sign you up?” I think I squealed at the idea, which was an obvious “YES, PLEASE!”

My first years as a player were spent with all boys teams. I joined my first club squad when I was 9. I never wanted to be on an all girls team, but then I saw how rad their Adidas uniforms were, and I was all in. From there, soccer grew bigger than a game for me. It was my identity. Through my teens, I was playing with the best teams, being trained by the best coaches. I was part of the Florida ODP team, and started receiving college recruiting letters and scholarship offers early on in high school. My dreams were taking shape.

To make a long story, short (and trust me, my injury story-line is anything but short), I endured my first “real” injury when I was 13 years old; I tore my hip flexor. I played through it for months, limp and all, which eventually made it worse. That led me to months of crutches, and rehab. I had to re-learn how to walk, then run, and ultimately get back out on the pitch.

These days I joke about that injury, calling it “the gateway.” Because from that point on, I didn’t go another calendar year without injury, for the rest of my playing career. I played until I was 20. Torn ankle tendons, an MCL sprain, a Jones fracture that wouldn’t heal, two ACL tears, complete with meniscus, LCL, and PCL damage; these injuries would eventually lead me home. Literally, home (and away from the pitch) to St. Pete.

When I was at the height of my ability, and at my fastest/strongest, BANG! Another injury; and at practice nonetheless. I decided to leave the University of South Alabama (where I was attending via a soccer scholarship), and return to Florida to finish college, with an academic focus. I was tired, and I felt defeated.

I’ve replayed a million times the different routes I could have taken. I could have stayed in Alabama, red-shirted, and continued my soccer career. Maybe I would have gotten stronger and the injuries would have stopped. I could have come home, and played at USF. I could have kept playing, and who knows where I would have ended up. Germany? NWSL? Soccer could be my career right now, no doubt.

But, I didn’t take any of those paths. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in recent years is accepting the fact that, that’s okay. There was a time when “regret” would have been a good word to describe the emotion I felt. But now, I see it more as a missed opportunity, and a life lesson. Beating regret also included taking a long, hard look at where I did end up. And, I wouldn’t want a single thing in my life to be different.

By chance, I started coaching kids when I was 20 (after coming back from Alabama). What a ride that has been! And, what a blessing. I’ve always loved kids, and coaching them helped bring me back to the game I am so enamored by.

The biggest takeaway from my soccer career, other than the fact that it makes up 95% of who I am as a human, is that I didn’t have to be a Mia Hamm or a Michelle Akers to be my own brand of greatness. I always dreamt of being the type of role model those women were to me. No, I don’t have countless fans chanting my name, or asking me for an autograph. No, I don’t have endorsements from Nike or Adidas. But…I do get to watch kids grow their craft. I do help them realize that their dreams are valid, and tangible. I do get to see them improve, and I have a hand in their “ah-ha!” moment when they perfect a new juke they’ve been working on. And I do get to help the game that I love so much, grow.

For me, finding greatness within meant that instead of giving a piece of myself as a player, I am here to give a piece of myself as a coach.

Envelope on Apple iOS 9.3 iamracheljolley@gmail.com

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