When she was in high school, Emily Oliver, a goalkeeper, broke her left hand during action early in the second half of a game against a rival club team. The score was 1-1, and not knowing the extent of the injury, she shook off concerns and stayed on the field. It was, after all, a rivalry, Illinois girls against Michigan girls.
Perhaps playing through the pain wasn’t the sensible thing to do. It wasn’t the rational thing to do. She was sidelined for weeks afterward, her left hand in a cast. But her desire to play speaks to the balance of selflessness and ego inherent in an athlete’s existence. Her teammates needed her to sacrifice for them; she believed she was still their best option.
Two of college soccer’s best players, Emily Oliver of Stanford, left, and Becca Wann of Richmond retired within weeks of each other, the result of multiple concussions over a series of years.
She made the necessary saves that half, including more than one with her injured left hand, and her team won 2-1. It didn’t win a trophy. It didn’t make headlines.
“It was just kind of cool to be able to get that huge win against one of our rivals,” Oliver said. “Even with a broken hand.”
“No pain, no gain” may be a phrase mercifully fading into disrepute, but success sometimes hurts. That remains a part of sports.
What Stanford’s Oliver and Richmond’s Becca Wann, two of the best players in college soccer, accepted this fall is that there is a price that is too steep to pay. In retiring from the sport within weeks of each other, in each case as the result of multiple concussions sustained over a series of years, they chose instead to protect their futures.
Oliver’s broken bones from that early encounter healed soon enough, and she went on to Stanford as one of the top talents in her class. In each of her first three seasons with the Cardinal she was selected to the College Cup all-tournament team, which recognizes the outstanding players in the semifinals and final of the NCAA tournament. Her acrobatic save late in the second half of the 2011 national championship game, at full stretch pushing a Duke shot bound for the top corner over the bar and out of harm’s way, preserved a 1-0 win and the program’s first national title.
While her playing days might be over, Emily Oliver is still part of Stanford’s team as she weighs what comes next.
At 5-foot-7, it wasn’t her height or athleticism that turned heads on the college game’s biggest stage. She was an excellent shot-stopper, but her best qualities were the fearlessness and aggressiveness with which she approached the task. She excelled under pressure. She was exactly the kind of player who would worry about broken bones after a game was over.
Then came a collision early in the second half of a game against Portland on Aug. 31, the third game of Oliver’s senior season. The result was her fourth concussion, the third during her time at Stanford. She came out of the game immediately. On some level, she understood even then she wouldn’t return on that or any other day.
“Looking back on it, I think I knew that that was my last one, that I couldn’t do it anymore,” Oliver said. “I couldn’t put myself at risk and play like that. I think I knew that night.”
Six days earlier, Wann leaped to head a bouncing ball near midfield late in Richmond’s game against Old Dominion. Because the senior relied on her aerial game and because she had a history of concussions — the first sustained when she was just 10 years old and a pogo stick on which she was bouncing in her family’s garage slipped out from under her on the concrete floor — she always wore a protective padded headband on the soccer field. In this instance, the headband slipped out of place as she jumped, and her forehead collided with an opponent’s head.
A multi-sport athlete who didn’t play high-level club soccer and didn’t attract a lot of interest from top college programs out of high school in Virginia, Wann emerged as a legitimate star at Richmond. She dominated the Atlantic 10 and earned a place on the U.S. under-20 national team that won a world championship a year ago in Japan. University of Virginia coach Steve Swanson, also the coach of that U-20 team, called her as good a header of the ball as anyone he had ever seen at her age. He also noted she routinely put herself in harm’s way as a result.
A few days after the collision against Old Dominion, when the headaches and other symptoms wouldn’t go away, Wann sat in a neurologist’s office and was asked what she would do if she couldn’t play soccer again.
“There are definitely moments where I’m standing off the field watching my teammates play, and I want to be out there,” Wann said of her experience since. “There are nights when I go out and I just shoot.
“But I know it’s for the best. Obviously the brain is something you don’t mess with.”
Oliver and Wann are high-profile examples of what is far from an anecdotal issue. According to data published by the American Academy of Neurology, females playing college soccer suffer injury at the rate of 1.8 concussions per 1,000 games. That is greater than the combined rates of females in basketball and softball, the other sports studied. In fact, the rate of concussions for females in college soccer is greater than the rate for males in high school football (1.55). The rate for women in high school soccer was 0.97, second only to football among high school sports studied.
There are definitely moments where I’m standing off the field watching my teammates play, and I want to be out there. There are nights when I go out and I just shoot. But I know it’s for the best. Obviously the brain is something you don’t mess with.
Richmond’s Becca Wann
What we know is, relative to other sports, women’s soccer players are at a higher risk of being diagnosed with a concussion. What we don’t know is just about everything else, from why that’s so to what it means for the sport and for the affected athletes in the long run.
Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher is the director of the University of Michigan’s NeuroSport program, which states as its mission to treat and prevent brain, spinal cord or nerve damage from sports injuries. He is also a consultant on concussion-related issues for the National Hockey League Players Association and National Football League Players Association and the director of the National Basketball Association’s concussion program.
“If you asked myself or other experts on concussion very specific questions about risk factors or outcomes or any aspect of this injury, if they don’t tell you, ‘We don’t know; we don’t have data,’ they’re misrepresenting the case,” Kutcher said. “We clearly don’t have a lot of data for most of the things we talk about in concussion.
“The main reason is concussion is a clinical syndrome that is diagnosed by a physician. It is not a state or an injury that we can verify with an objective test, so therefore all of our clinical studies, all of the data we have is draped in this incredible ambiguity about the very clinical outcome that we’re trying to study.”