Stanford star Andi Sullivan chooses fascination over devastation after knee surgery
A few weeks. Less time than it takes a gallon of milk to go bad. Until this past winter, it was also the longest Andi Sullivan could recall going without a soccer ball at her feet. So it felt significant to her when, close to two months after surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, she was reunited with a ball in a training room at Stanford.
Still far from any wide expanses of grass, a trainer rolled her a ball purposely under-inflated to cushion its impact. Sullivan returned it, her foot less a craftsman's tool than a blunt instrument that redirected the ball's own energy. That test passed, she tried to juggle. She kept the ball up once, but then lost control of it. She tried again with the same result. And again. Then came the fear that something once familiar had become foreign. Fear that it might remain that way.
A body kept in good working order had helped Sullivan become one of the rising stars in women's soccer, even earning time and praise with the U.S. national team. Yet in the weeks and months that followed injury, surgery and rehabilitation, her body's limitations stared her in the face. It happened in the training room trying the simplest of tasks, just as it had happened when she unwrapped the leg and saw a quadriceps muscle withered away by inaction.
"One thing I struggled with a lot was just the image of myself," Sullivan said. "If you think about my identity -- it's not even like, 'Oh, I'm a high-level athlete,' it's like, 'I'm strong and I'm active.' But your quad just atrophies. I felt very confident in the strength in my legs before. And then to be able to physically grab my quad between my hands and shake it like it was Jell-o, because there was no muscle, was very hard.
"I looked up at the mirror in front of me and I saw the difference in my right and left legs and again almost started to cry."
But there was also a spark of something else as she held back her tears. She marveled at how the body shut down to protect itself. She was curious. She tried, in her words, to let the process fascinate her rather than destroy her.
So it was that some weeks later, she first attempted to juggle. She found a corner of the gym after her initial failed attempts and tried again. This time the ball stayed up. As teammates trained nearby, her feet and legs found a familiar rhythm that kept the ball aloft. Fear dissipated.
The skill hadn't vanished permanently, any more than her quadriceps.
Sullivan had started and played the entire game for the United States women's national team against Romania on Nov. 13, 2016. It was her fourth consecutive appearance in one of the most difficult starting lineups to break into in all of sports. Five days later she took the field for No. 1 overall seed Stanford in the NCAA tournament, an All-American midfielder who was the biggest reason to believe the Cardinal would soon play for a national championship in nearby San Jose.
If overshadowed by Mallory Pugh, the phenomenon who didn't need college to earn a place in the U.S. Olympic lineup a year ago, Sullivan was ascendant in a way few her age ever are.
By the next morning, Nov. 19, Stanford's season was over, the top seed stunned in double overtime by rival Santa Clara in the second round. And Sullivan, who landed awkwardly in the first overtime and crumpled to the ground, faced surgery.
When it happened, obviously I was devastated, but there were so many reasons why I felt very lucky.Andi Sullivan
The tick of the clock is unavoidable. Games tick by in minutes, seasons in months and careers in years. Time moves ever forward. Which leaves the presumptive No. 1 pick in the National Women's Soccer League draft a smaller window, unforgivingly smaller, to still be part of the 2019 World Cup. Instead of nearly three years to confirm the first impression she made with the national team last fall, the injury leaves her less than two years to first complete a recovery, gain experience and earn a place. Yet for someone who lived the week she did last November, she sounds more grateful for the perspective gained than trying to make up for the time she lost.
"This sounds kind of weird, but I feel very glad that this happened to me when it did," Sullivan said. "I think if it would have happened to me a few years earlier, really any time earlier, I would have been distraught in that my identity was ruined. And then when I came back, I would have felt desperate to reestablish that. When it happened, obviously I was devastated, but there were so many reasons why I felt very lucky."
Perhaps true to form for someone who captained national youth teams and made it to a school and a soccer program like Stanford, the vulnerability she confronted proved less an excuse to wallow than a chance to study what was around her. Training on her own, even if within sight of teammates, was at times isolating. She felt invisible. But it is an unfortunate reality of women's soccer that there are probably at least as many teams as not that have a player recovering from knee surgery. If she felt isolated in those moments, they also afforded a better understanding of what teammates went through in the past and what others would in the future.
Even the old saying that pride goeth before a fall became almost a literal admonition as she balanced a bag, food and assorted other odds and ends of daily life while on two crutches. Her first instinct, when someone asked if she needed a hand, was always to say she had it under control. The answer was part pride, part not wanting to inconvenience anyone. It was also false. She needed the help.
"People always say 'If there is anything I can do to help, let me know,'" Sullivan said. "You've been that to other people going through hard times. And you always want them to take you up on it, but sometimes people don't. It took me a long time to realize, 'Hey, when people offer to help you, just say yes and take their help.' "
Her teammates and other friends at Stanford carried the brunt of day-to-day support, but it also came from far and wide. She heard from many on the national team after the injury, co-captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn among them, as well as Megan Rapinoe, the veteran who was at the time still working toward top form after the most recent of a history of knee injuries. The national team is as competitive environment as there is in women's sports, but from her debut with that team last October through the game against Romania, Sullivan proved to them that she belonged at that level. At a holding midfield position that has seen a lot of turnover and experimentation in just the past three years, she looked like a potential cornerstone.
"It's her qualities as a player and her profile that makes me say 'Wow, this kid can play.' " U.S. coach Jill Ellis said after Sullivan's national team debut. "Without hardly any training, you wouldn't have known that was her first cap. I think that's her best asset is just her poise on the ball and her decision making."
In the dozens of auditions she gave new faces in the months after last year's Olympic disappointment, Ellis rarely sounded as optimistic about anyone as she did in those weeks about a player who seemed custom built as a holding midfielder, or No. 6, a role that can be alternately described as the conductor, quarterback or glue that binds a lineup together.
"Seeing Andi in the six," Ellis concluded, "Made me pretty excited."
Even after the national team concluded its summer schedule without Sullivan in games against Australia, Brazil and Japan, Ellis again noted her intriguing attributes. The coach included her with Morgan Brian, Julie Ertz and Allie Long as candidates for minutes in that No. 6 role. She also conceded the obvious, that Sullivan's impressive auditions came against Switzerland and Romania, far from the quality of opponent the U.S. has regularly faced this year.
Sullivan is bemused when people assume she can pick up where she left off now that she is back on the field. She came off the bench in Stanford's first two games this season and played only 45 minutes even when she returned to the starting lineup in a loss at Florida. It takes time. Rapinoe made it back from her knee injury in time to play in last year's Olympics, but it wasn't until this summer, 18 months after her injury, that she hit full stride starring for club and country. Getting back on the field, even diving into a tackle as Sullivan did at Florida, is only a step.
"I spent a long time training to be as fit and be as sharp and be as ready as I was," Sullivan said. "That takes time. It takes a lot of time. So I spent these months rebuilding a new ligament and the muscles to make it work, but once that's over, it's not over. I still have to put time and effort in and sharpen the tools in my toolbox on the field. I think it's a lot longer than most people think. Coming through this process, I've understood patience a lot. I'm practicing that now.
"It's a balance between believing in myself and also you've got to wait for the time to come."
She lost time on her way to the world stage. She gained a better understanding of who she will be when she arrives.