“Okay, when the whistle blows, I want you to fly down the sidelines. You’re way faster than their midfielder. We’ll send it to you from the middle, then send it back across the goal.”
I was standing on the sidelines during one of our final high school soccer games for the season, and my coach was walking me through plays before putting me back in. As I listened, I felt a sense of pride. Not a pride that comes with self-importance, but a pride that comes with being a part of something bigger. It wasn’t all up to me, but I was an important piece in the 11-person tapestry that represented our school on the field.
Having started playing at age 5, I always considered soccer one of my favorite activities—despite the fact that it was probably the one that I was worst at (and I had a lot of extracurricular activities). Regardless of my mediocre skill, I couldn’t let it go from my life—even after graduating the world of mandatory physical activity.
After college, I continued to find ways to keep soccer in my life, often begging coworkers to play pickup with me after work, and eventually joining a Sunday morning rec league that became a defining part of my identity (or well, my Saturday-night-I-can’t-drink-I-have-soccer-tomorrow identity). I felt a sense of responsibility to my team. Despite whatever stressors or lows were in my personal or professional life, the Sunday soccer field was always there to give me perspective beyond the bounds of my life.
When I tore my ACL during an unforgettable game last spring, I was concerned about how drastically my day-to-day would change, and how difficult the journey ahead was going to be. Not being able to play soccer for at least eighteen months was an obvious consideration, but at that point it was only because a significant part of my routine would be stripped.
For the first ten months after Surgery 1 of 2, my journey was long but unlonely. Family kept me alive immediately after; friends showered me with love soon after, and physical therapists motivated me to build strength for many months that followed. But after that, once I was visibly fine and mostly strong, there were no more check-ins with family, friends, or physical therapists on the matter. All that was left was the cold monotony of a leg press machine at the gym.
Running has always been my solo sanity. My nerves and mind run wild while my body does. So at Month-3 after Surgery 1 of 2, I was elated to start running again. And with my sidelines full of cheerleaders, I felt well-supported.
Two months ago, seven months after Surgery 2 of 2, I started to feel light again—life was back to “normal.”
As I went through my day-to-day, slowly embracing the pieces of my routine that had been cast away during recovery, I was happier. But still, something felt off. And it wasn’t just the occasional knee pain. It was a deeper, empty pain.
The most common advice I received on ACL surgery was to keep up with physical therapy. And I had done that. But none of the advice had mentioned this darker pain.
On a Sunday morning at the end of October, I went for a run. I passed by a group playing pickup basketball and some people clad in similarly-colored athletic gear. That was the moment it hit me—I was a part that was missing its whole. I needed a team again.
After in-depth internet research, I found and joined a running group. Our first run was the following Tuesday along the Embarcadero. We were told the route, and everyone started at the same time. One veteran of the group took me under her wing and ran with me for the entire time. Somewhere down the line, I was surprised at how much I was enjoying the company during my historically solitary activity.
When we got back to the starting line, we stretched and waited for the rest of the group. When everyone had made it back, we went inside to drink water and eat strawberries. It took me back to the post-soccer-game celebrations with orange wedges and Capri Suns. I mingled for a bit before going home.
One month later I saw a familiar face standing behind me in line to board a plane from Toronto to San Francisco. “Did I meet you in a running club?” I asked with uncertain certainty. It was him, and we bonded over the small-worldness.
We talked as we boarded the plane. As I wrapped my knee before takeoff, I felt something I hadn’t since before my injury. Finally, I felt like I was part of a pack again.
I always knew there was no “I” in “team” but through my injury and recovery, I’ve learned that unexpectedly, there is also no I without a team.