The following feature is the result of a lengthy sit-down interview with WKU junior Taryn O'Shea about life dealing with three torn ACLs since she arrived on the WKU campus.
By Robert Sampson, WKU Athletics Marketing/Communications Assistant
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - The journey to return to the athletic field from a major knee injury is regularly measured in a single missed season of competition. The hopes of competing for championships or reaching the next level is usually put on hold for a year. The competitive drive is bottled for a brief period of time, building for a triumphant return after keeping a seat near the end of the bench warm for a season.
But when the journey becomes bumpy and ends up lasting the length of a career, the goals change. For Western Kentucky University redshirt junior soccer player Taryn O'Shea, the goal is now, in part, a five-minute moment.
When that five-minute moment finally arrives in the fall of 2013, it will be the culmination of hundreds of hours of rehabilitation following three torn ACL injuries to O'Shea's right knee.
Her most recent tear occurred March 28, 2012, during Western Kentucky University's spring season.
O'Shea has been on the WKU campus as a student-athlete for four seasons of Lady Topper soccer. She has appeared in just five regular-season games, all during the 2010 season.
"My parents are the most supportive people in the world," said O'Shea. "After I tore my ACL for the second time, we didn't think (playing again) was going to be an option... My dad said to me, 'You did everything you could. We are still so proud of you.'
"When I decided to go (through the process to play again) this third time, my mom was a little scared. She didn't want me to go back before I was ready. My dad was like, 'maybe you will do great and you will keep playing.'
"I said, 'Dad, it is OK if I just play five minutes. I will be extremely happy if I just play five minutes.'
"It is worth it just to practice with my team."
Until she has the chance to practice with the team, she sits on the sidelines during games, encouraging teammates. She attends every team practice, gradually getting the chance to do activities like take walking laps around the field that represent important steps in the rehabilitation process.
"I try to push people and let them know they are doing OK," said O'Shea. "People that I have strong relationships with, I try to push them and let them know I am here. I almost try to vicariously play through them. I can't play, and I want them to do well. If they do well, then I am doing well."
The Midlothian, Va., native came to Western Kentucky University following a distinguished prep career at Clover Hill High School. She was a First-Team All-District player as a senior and played in Denmark and Sweden as part of the Virginia Olympic Development Program. Her club team, FCV Netforce, was ranked among the top 20 in the nation in her age group.
As her fourth year at Western Kentucky University advances, O'Shea has never lived the normal life of a college student or even the not-so-normal life of a student-athlete.
"If you think about a college athlete, you are already in a different spot than a regular college student," said O'Shea. "I am almost in a completely different situation than them. I am in a totally different mindset than my best friends are. They are thinking this is my last this, this is my last that. I am thinking this is my only opportunity for this. We are both grateful for the opportunity, but this is my only shot. Through the process, they have had to worry about things on the field, I have had to worry about my rehab."
Worrying about rehabilitation all the time has been the result of many hours in the Western Kentucky University Athletics training room. In a preseason survey, the Virginian listed the training room as her favorite spot on campus.
"I have spent my entire career in the training room," said O'Shea. "It is crazy. It is like you are always in a dream. It's like a joke. You are literally always in the training room. It is what the path is for me."
The path handed to O'Shea has allowed her to make a positive mark in multiple areas of Western Kentucky University and the Bowling Green community.
"I try to get (the team) involved in the community. I try to do some other random items (in the community) that wouldn't be my main focus if I was playing all the time. I try to represent Western Kentucky University (the right way)."
She was awarded the Outreach Service Award in 2010-2011 at the annual WKU Athletics Banquet. The award is given to a student-athlete who best demonstrates the qualities of character and leadership along with service to the university, community or country.
Her work in the community includes regular visits to the Warren County Humane Society and work with Feel Good, a campus program seeking sustainable ways to end poverty.
Her future career path has also been shaped by her time in the training room.
Following her time as a student-athlete, O'Shea is considering obtaining a master's in social work or counseling and possibly a PhD in psychology. Among her interests- sports counseling.
"I have really been interested in the aspect of injured athletes," said O'Shea. "I feel there is not a lot of research out there on it, and I am really interested in increasing performance and being there for people out of their element. Maybe someone played basketball for their entire career, but then they tore their ACL and they are done. I would love to be someone there for them. Maybe there is someone down the road (in the game of soccer) I can help."
She may have already found her first case study to draw from in her future studies in WKU senior Marcus Vasquez.
The Chula Vista, California native is a senior wide receiver on the 2012 WKU Football team.
Vasquez suffered a season-ending knee injury in week three of the 2011 football season against Indiana State. At the time of the injury, Vasquez was leading the team in receiving yards and was second on the team in receptions.
O'Shea and Vasquez were among those rehabbing in the WKU training room throughout the last year. She even visited him in the hospital after his knee surgery.
Having been through the struggles of making a comeback attempt following a knee injury, O'Shea provided encouraging texts to Vasquez throughout the process.
"It is a mental struggle," said Vasquez. "It takes a big toll on you mentally. If you have someone that knows what you are going through, they can help get you out of the mood you are in. They can pick you up throughout the day. It helps."
Drawing inspiration from other WKU student-athletes is not the only place that O'Shea has seeked inspiration during her rehabilitation time.
"My mom mentioned that you never hear of anyone that tears their ACL three times," said O'Shea. "You don't hear about it happening on the same leg. She knew I was struggling with it. She researched (information about other people who had torn the same knee three times) all the time. She found a bunch of (athletes) that had torn their ACL three times on the same leg."
Among the collegiate and professional athletes that have torn their ACL three times are current Carolina Panther Thomas Davis. Davis is the first player to return to the National Football League after tearing the same knee three times.
"I tweeted at some people that I had read about their story online. One person retweeted me, and I was really excited. I try to tweet motivational things (now myself). If I can stay positive, other people can too."
Art has also been a place of inspiration for O'Shea.
"In high school, I took a crafts class," said O'Shea. "It opened my eyes to different types of arts. My freshman year (at WKU), I took art appreciation. I loved it. Since then, I look up different artists online. I am obsessed with Chuck Close who does portraits of people. He is paralyzed from the chest down. He can move his hands, but he has stilts that help him (with his work). I am amazed by him. He inspires me. My goal is to get him to paint a picture of me."
O'Shea had the chance to see Close's work first hand during a recent visit home to Virginia where the Virginia Fine Arts Museum featured an exhibit on the artist.
It is no shock that O'Shea finds such fascination with an artist that is not in the common knowledge culture.
"I love people," said O'Shea. "I love to get to know people. I love to get to know people's stories. I feel like everyone has a story, and I want to get to know what their story is."
It has helped the student that is 12 hours from home appreciate the Western Kentucky University culture and tradition.
"I have really enjoyed getting to know so many different people (at Western Kentucky University)," said O'Shea. "I am not from here so everyone I have met, I have had a great relationship. I had no idea what (WKU) was. I have really enjoyed learning what it is about. The basketball history, the history of WKU, the tradition... So many people are proud of being WKU alumni."
O'Shea's return to the field to represent Western Kentucky University will likely be at its peak when the Lady Toppers opens preseason practice in 2013.
"Preseason is awful, it's miserable... but I love it," said O'Shea. "I am obsessed with preseason. I would rather be that miserable than deal with real-life problems...
"It was my goal when I was 13 years old to play Division I soccer... My appreciation of soccer is through the roof. I get mad at people that take it for granted. It is a great game. I want to play it so badly."
"I love soccer. It is what I want to do. I would feel terrible if I give up now."
BONUS INTERVIEW SEGMENT: The WKU Soccer team's love of "Friday Night Lights"