Finding Greatness Within: A Sidelined Athlete’s Journey

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.

Connect: iamracheljolley@gmail.com

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Photography & Me: From Then To Now

Photography has always been part of my path. It is safe to say that my affair with the art-form started in middle school. Whenever I would go on a trip, the number one priority on my packing list was disposable cameras (like, eight or nine of them). We’re talking late 90s, so digital was still an emerging and expensive technology; and, film wasn’t something I had been introduced to (yet).

Fate stepped in when I started high school. In order to attend a school outside of my “zoning area,” I had to take a class that was not offered at the school I was zoned for. So, graphic arts class became my fourth period go-to throughout my high school career. The class covered digital design, film photography, and screen-printing. We made t-shirts of our own designs, developed our own film, and made prints in a dark room. Talk about a creative kid’s dream world!

Photography was, of course, my favorite part of the class. We had a photo contest at the end of my junior year, and my entry ended up getting the most votes. That was the moment I really got hooked. I was enamored by the blending of creativity and competition.

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The contest-winning film photo, entitled “The Chair,” that got me hooked in high school.

When I went away to college, I fell back on disposable cameras again. Film wasn’t an option since I didn’t have a “real” camera to play with; that is, until I entered my first photojournalism course. I borrowed a Nikon at the beginning of the class, but with support from my amazing parents, I was able to get my hands on my very own DSLR. I knew photography would be something I pursued inside and outside of the classroom, and I think my parents did, too.

With the help of one of my greatest mentors (Beth Reynolds), I was able to tap into my own, personal brand of photography. I liked staying away from wide-angle shots and composition was a never-ending challenge to be tackled. Capturing the perfect shot will never be achieved, but it’s the times you come close that keep you motivated.

Ultimately, photography was the anchor that gave me weight as a journalist, and kickstarted my professional career with AOL. It showed me that I can tell a pretty good story with my Nikon. The union of writing and photography, plus some videography, helped me discover my current role and newest passion: social media marketing.

These days I utilize photography for work, but I also maintain my own brand on Facebook, with a focus on portraits and live events.

Looking back at how the stars aligned, I guess one could say it was meant to be. For me, photography is love. And love always finds a way. 

Envelope on Apple iOS 9.3 iamracheljolley@gmail.com

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