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Thursday, December 03, 2020

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Spider Stories: Alyssa Walker

<p>Alyssa Walker on the field during her tenure on the UR Women's soccer team. <em>Courtesy of Walker</em></p>

Alyssa Walker on the field during her tenure on the UR Women's soccer team. Courtesy of Walker

Editor's note: Spider Stories is a sports series that is designed as a platform to give student-athletes a voice through the sharing of first-person stories. 

My junior year was the worst year of my life – my injury year. In the spring of my sophomore year, my legs started aching whenever I would play soccer. At first, I just thought it was because my team had started lifting more and I was just sore. I pushed through it and continued playing. 

As the spring season continued, the pain got increasingly worse. I started getting calf cramps at practice and I would have to sit out and stretch them. I did not understand why I was in so much pain. I made sure I was hydrated, I stretched more, and I went to treatment for stem and massages, but nothing helped. I knew there was something wrong, but I did not understand what. 

Soon, my feet started to go numb and my toes would be purple after practice. I had been working with my trainer the whole spring semester trying to figure out why I was in so much pain. Toward the end of the spring season,  I couldn’t even make it through a practice without pain. I even started to struggle walking up stairs or hills without my legs aching. All I wanted to do was find out what was wrong with me and play at the same level of intensity again. 

I spent my whole summer visiting different doctors trying to find the root of the problem. Finally, on July 23, 2018, I was diagnosed with Popliteal Artery Entrapment Syndrome. My calf muscles were blocking off my popliteal artery during exercise, cutting off the blood flow to my legs below my knees. 

I was relieved to find out what was wrong but devastated and terrified because I had to have surgery and forfeit my junior year soccer season. Surgery success is never 100% guaranteed. I was terrified at the idea that my soccer career could be over. 

The fall semester of my junior year took a huge toll on my mental health. I lost the one constant I had in my life since Kindergarten, soccer. It was stripped away from me. It was extremely difficult for me to sit out and watch my team play. Win or lose, I wanted to be in the game. I wanted to contribute. But I couldn’t. 

My mental health became increasingly worse as the year went on. I felt separated from my teammates. I felt alone. I felt like no one cared that I was injured. I would go to every practice and every game, but I did not feel like I was really part of the team anymore. I told myself that everything would be okay and return to normal once I could start playing again. I never told anyone how I felt that fall and how I was ignoring my mental health. I distracted myself by socializing with my friends outside of soccer and focused on my recovery. 

After winter break, I got cleared to play again. Getting back into playing again was also extremely difficult. I was terrified that the pain would come back and that the surgery had not worked. I was behind the rest of the team; I wasn’t as strong; I was slower; I wasn’t as fit. I wasn’t the same player that I was before my injury, and I started to question my status as a soccer player.

I continued to ignore my mental health, and I found myself falling into depression. I didn’t sleep very well, I started falling behind in school, and I started isolating myself from my friends and family. I was at the lowest point in my life. I felt worthless and sad all the time. 

One day, I decided that I wasn’t a quitter and that I wasn’t going to give up, so I reached out for help. I reached out to my academic adviser and told him I was struggling to keep up with schoolwork. I reached out to my coach and told him I was having a hard time managing my schedule. I also reached out to my family and told them I was struggling. I still didn’t want to share my feelings, but I knew that I couldn’t continue living the way I was. 

I found comfort in just admitting that I was struggling. At first, it was a little bit of a rollercoaster. I was trying to understand my own mental health and so were my parents. My parents didn’t know exactly how to help since they were far away, but they did the best they could. Reaching out to others helped me develop my support crew, and they made me feel important, loved and cared for. I wanted to love the game again like I did before. I wanted to be happy again. 

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Looking back, I wish I reached out earlier because I made it so much harder for myself to get back to the game. I almost failed out that semester, and I would have lost my academic eligibility to play the next fall. Thankfully, with lots of support, I made it through the spring semester and the summer before my senior year. 

That summer, I played for the Richmond U23 WPSL team, and I was able to relax and just enjoy playing again, without the additional pressures of schoolwork. I came back strong my senior year and had the best performance of my college career so far. I’m currently in my fifth and last year of eligibility and I can’t wait to see what this year has in store for me. 

Reflecting on my experience, I’m proud of myself. I’m proud of myself for reaching out, I’m proud of myself for not giving up, and I'm extremely thankful for my support crew. I learned a lot about myself through this experience, and although it turned my world upside down, I’m stronger because of it. 

Contact contributor Alyssa Walker at alyssa.walker@richmond.edu.

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