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Williams: On retirement, the NWSL and what comes next for women’s soccer players

Written by Colleen Williams

C-will

Colleen Williams is a former All-American and Hermann Trophy watch-lister for Dayton University and was drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 NWSL Draft by the Washington Spirit. A recent injury forced Williams into early retirement. This is her story.

For 19 years I was in love. It was a passionate, beautiful love that I sacrificed everything for. Sadly, the reality of the relationship was that at some point or another, I knew it had to end.

At the age of 23, mine officially has.

I fell in love with soccer at the age of four. My love allowed me to travel to 40 of our 50 states, flew me to Europe twice, paid for 95 percent of my college tuition, and introduced me to the girls I’ll one day call bridesmaids. For 19 years I was in love with soccer. To those who never played a sport, who never lived, sacrificed, and bled for a sport, it may seem awfully pathetic that this devoted love I am referring to is not a “who,” but a “what.”

Lines merely painted on a field with 22 people running around chasing a ball to kick into the back of a net. To those who never caught the fever, it’s nothing more than a leisure activity that one plays for fun or exercise.

Yet to me, it was life. Soccer defined me. The sport molded me into the woman I am today. It taught me life lessons, took me on unforgettable trips, and introduced me to irreplaceable people. It supported me when people did not. It was my therapy, my outlet, my religion. It was my coping mechanism for a failed test, a fight with a boyfriend, or an argument with my sister.

It taught me not to take grief from anybody, to be a strong and confident woman. Discipline, determination, and dedication are values from soccer that have shaped me. I dreamed of becoming a professional women’s soccer player since before it was necessary for me to even wear a sports bra. The dream came to fruition, but it was short-lived.

Rookie season. Torn ACL, MCL, and meniscus. Devastation hit me like a train. Suddenly I had a new vision, a new dream: the best comeback a rookie has ever had. This one thought pushed me every single day to come back.

On further introspection, though, to come back to what, really? The sad truth of women’s professional soccer is that most of us continue to play not for the benefits that one would expect from being a “professional” athlete, but because we’re addicted. There’s no million dollar signing bonus. No showy car, fancy jewelry, or huge mansions as a benefit of becoming a professional. We’re paid pathetically. We live with host families. We take buses on eight-hour trips. We’re equivalent in standards to minor league men’s professional sports.

Yet I couldn’t give it up. To give up would be to turn your back on what you’ve worked an entire lifetime to achieve. Paid in pennies or not, the obsession for the game dominates.  I’ll get a second job. I’ll live in the basement of a random family’s home. I’ll sleep on the bus. I’ll wash my own gear. I’ll sacrifice to play. I will do what it takes because so many others do not get this opportunity.

For ten months I had tunnel vision. No drinking or dessert. A diet of grilled chicken, peanut butter, and vegetables combined with grueling workouts six days a week. The drive to return to the sport was strong, because to walk away felt at least partly like I’d lost, and I’m too competitive to lose.

Less than a year after my first surgery, when I’d finally healed and started to return to contact, I went down again. Twist, turn, buckle, and pop — the same knee: ACL, MCL, and meniscus torn. Heartbreak consumed my body. I knew it was over. I’m 23 years old and I’m moving on. The juice is no longer worth the squeeze.

So now it’s all over. It’s a life left behind. Reality is, it had to end. Your body grows old or, like me, you become crippled with injury. But one way or another, the rose withers, the game ends, and life moves on.

But even knowing the journey would inevitably end, knowing that the day without soccer would arrive, even knowing my teammates are not paid well, or driving BMW’s, or living in their own mansions, it didn’t make it any less painful. Because they’re still playing the game I love. Jealousy consumes me as I scroll through Instagram and see my former teammates play in a variety of different countries. I am overwhelmingly envious when I wander onto Twitter and read tweets that my old teammates are off to swim in the seas surrounding Cyprus, celebrate Oktoberfest in the heart of Germany, or stop for a kangaroo to cross the road on the streets of Australia. All were fortunately brought to these places by the game of soccer.

I tear up when on a Tuesday night I pass a park and witness teenage girls running around playing pick-up under the lights. The young girls that still have years of innocent, pure joy in the game. This love affair had me miss high school proms, college parties, family vacations, days of school, and multiple weddings for the love of the game. Soccer was the number one priority, always. It was my drug.

I’d be willing to do almost anything to be able to go back to an NCAA tournament match under the lights with hundreds of fans and the pressure on my back. Or to be that 13-year-old girl again wearing the “If there’s no soccer in heaven, I’m not going” T-shirt to practice with her hair tied up in a ponytail, dripping with sweat, without any other cares in the world.

But now we move on. We sit in offices. We twiddle our thumbs. We count the clock until the day’s work is over. We are caged animals running on a wheel, locked up in a zoo, daydreaming of our days running wild on the field. But we’re lucky to have had those days. We’re lucky we were fortunate and healthy enough to have played such a beautiful sport.

But I wasn’t ready to be spinning on the hamster wheel, running in the rat race, sitting in the corporate office. My mind still yearned for the field. I couldn’t bear to watch all of my teammates head to new adventures, new countries, new everything, while I came back home from my meaningless 9-5 and cried myself to sleep.

I resolved not feel sorry for myself any longer. The truth in this quote resonates deeply: “You may not see it today or tomorrow, but you will look back in a few years and be absolutely perplexed and awed by how every little thing added up and brought you somewhere wonderful – or where you always wanted to be. You will be grateful that things didn’t work out the way you once wanted them to.”

So I made a new adventure. I started a new path. I officially hung up my cleats, saved all my cash, and bought a one-way ticket to Honolulu, Hawaii. Homeless, friendless, and jobless, I began my new adventure. It’s been over a month now and I fell in love with this island. Four weeks here I now have my home, my friends, and my job. My college coach refers to this new adventure as “geographical recovery.” He thinks I moved because I needed time and space to heal from soccer being out of my life. I haven’t told him he’s right.

Now, my knee gives out on me at random occasions. I’m too timid to play beach volleyball just yet. Too scared to surf for a few more months. Sore after a run of just a few miles. But I’m so fortunate. I didn’t lose my legs in war like friends of my brother in the Marines. I wasn’t paralyzed for life. I’ll be able to walk my children around the neighborhood in a stroller. I don’t regret playing for as long as I did. I loved it. I loved absolutely every second of it. I miss it still.

So I’d like to say thank you to soccer. Thank you to sports. Thank you for giving me nineteen years of pure organic joy. For showing me that passion exists. That addiction is powerful. That I am powerful. Thank you for giving me confidence, joy, and love.

Thank you soccer.

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11 Comments
  • StarCityFan

    Was so looking forward to seeing what you could do for the Spirit. Sorry that will never happen, but it’s good to hear that you’re happy with your present circumstances and prospects.

  • Ron Bishop

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    Means a lot to me, as I coach my daughter’s U13 Girls team and am taking on a new assistant coach who had to stop playing soccer in high school due to a heart condition.

    They all have a love of the game.

    Good luck!

  • Net

    I would love to see you as a winning team coach. That way you can still be around and a part of the sport that is loved by millions the world over!!

  • NovaFlyer

    I watched this kid for three years at the University of Dayton, and what an experience. Yup, she will make a great coach, and teh players will enjoy the experience of a lifetime.

  • melissaOrtiz

    What a great article and story. Sums it up about women’s soccer and the love for the game.

  • s

    My dad sent this to me because I tore my ACL as well and made the same resolve to return to my sport. It is heartbreaking to make that recovery and then have it dashed away a second time. This made me tear up and I only know a quarter of what it must have felt like for you. Very inspiring.

  • Breakers fan

    What a great essay. I can totally relate. I have a lump in my throat even, now. Thank you, Colleen. So very well-written and expressed. Best to you!

  • MAJ

    Great article! Thanks! Definitely sharing this with my sons who are also soccer-freaks (lol)… the feelings and truths in this article transcend any differences among players of the beautiful game.

  • Pat

    Great essay! I wish a boycott of MLS, it’s sponsors and broadcasters could be started, until they agree to share a small % of revenue with Women’s soccer. With only 10% of MLS revenue, NWSL could expand to16 or more teams and pay them better. This would give many more women a chance to keep playing the game they love! Soccer Dad

  • Find a Club in Hawaii. With passion like this, give back to another 8 yr old.

  • Kim Siris

    Beautifully written Colleen! Sorry to hear about your injury, but your new adventure sounds amazing. I’m happy to hear that you are still as passionate as ever. Best of luck!

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