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Concussions cut short promising career for Oliver

Emily Oliver’s first on-field action for the Stanford women’s soccer team came as a freshman in 2010 when—after entering at halftime—the young goalkeeper held off the Georgia Bulldogs to ensure a 2-1 overtime victory for the Cardinal.

Emily Oliver (#19 - GK)

Goalkeeper Emily Oliver medically retired last month after a record-setting career in three years with the Cardinal. (SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

It didn’t take long for Oliver to establish herself as one of the most dominant female collegiate soccer players in the country. During the 2011 season, Oliver led the nation with a 0.23 goals-against average, earned 12 shutouts and was named the Defensive MVP of the 2011 College Cup, leading Stanford to its first national title since the tournament began in 1982. She was truly at the top of her game and the top of her position.

Less than two years later, on Aug. 31, 2013, Oliver’s soccer career would come to a premature and abrupt end. She suffered her fourth concussion in a regular-season game against Portland and—like an increasing number of collegiate athletes—Oliver chose her health over her sport. On Sept. 20, Oliver announced she was medically retiring from the women’s soccer team.

***

At the start of the 2011 season, it seemed as if Stanford women’s soccer was cursed. Following phenomenal regular seasons and national title game appearances in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the team had lost both championship games by a single goal apiece.

That year, the Cardinal played like a team that had smelled victory and then thirsted for more. The squad started the season with a 4-0 win over Penn State and never slowed down as it went undefeated and ultimately vanquished Duke 1-0 in the national championship game.

The goalkeeper for that 2011 team was Emily Oliver, a young sophomore from Flossmoor, Ill. Oliver’s future looked nothing but promising. Though at 5-foot-7 Oliver was short for a goalkeeper, her play reflected a firm, unshakeable desire to win.

“I think we’ve had a lot of talented goalkeepers, but I don’t know if we’ve had any as competitive as Emily,” said Paul Ratcliffe, the 10-year head coach of Stanford women’s soccer. “She came in here and said, ‘I want to help the team win a national championship.’”

Oliver first started playing goalkeeper as a child because she was one of the only 8-year-old girls who was not afraid of the ball. She would maintain that fearlessness throughout her career, and her aggressive style of play made her a force to be reckoned with on the pitch. However, that same boldness also eventually led to health problems for the talented goalkeeper. After suffering a single concussion in high school, Oliver suffered three more at Stanford—including a particularly nasty one in the spring of 2012.

Concussions vary widely in severity, but a bad one can have life-altering consequences. After her third concussion, Oliver suffered from an acute sensitivity to light and an inability to focus—it was as if she was living her life in a fog.

“For a couple of months, I’d stay inside all day,” Oliver said. “In my room. In a dark room. Listening to music, listening to an audiobook or something, and… that was my day. I didn’t go to class, I didn’t go to practice, I was in there all day, in a dark room, because that was the place where I physically felt the best.”

Oliver had previously identified herself primarily as a student and an athlete, and suddenly those two things had been torn from her life.

“When I got that third one, I couldn’t even go to practice because it was too bright out for me. I didn’t go to class… it isolated me from my friends,” she said. “That was what I was doing to take care of myself at the time, but socially, emotionally, that was very difficult for me to be doing.”

***

Oliver’s decision to medically retire comes at a time when the full damage done by concussions is just beginning to be fully understood, and her decision may become a more common one among student athletes across the nation.

Two Arizona linebackers announced their retirements in early September of this year after doctors advised them to stop playing football following multiple concussions. Football is a sport where the specter of concussions looms large—the NFL recently settled a $765 million dollar lawsuit in late August with thousands of players, money that will go toward concussion-related medical bills and research regarding concussions.

Examples of the consequences of concussions abound here on the Farm too. Star guard Toni Kokenis, a member of two Final Four teams for Stanford women’s basketball, decided this summer to sit out her senior year after suffering from several concussions. Chris Owusu, a former Stanford wide receiver who posted top-five 40-meter dash, vertical jump and long jump numbers at the 2012 NFL combine, went undrafted after concerns about his three concussions left NFL teams worried. Eventually signed and later released by the San Francisco 49ers, Owusu has only recorded a single reception in the NFL.

But all of the precedent and research in the world didn’t make Oliver’s decision to medically retire any easier. While she was lucky that her fourth concussion was not as severe as her third, it was still enough to make her reconsider her future. The goalkeeper that had always played without fear suddenly had something to think twice about.

“It was three weeks of thinking about it after that fourth concussion, in terms of what I wanted to do, did I think I could came back,” Oliver said. “It had always been in the back of the mind after the third one. ‘What happens if I get hit again? Will I have to go through all those months of everything?’”

Oliver worried that if she began to play with hesitation—to shy away from the contact and tone down the aggression that made her the dominant player that she was—she would end up hurting her team. If she couldn’t play her game, she decided, then she shouldn’t play at all.

“It was difficult to say the first time,” Oliver said, choking up while describing telling first her coach, and then her teammates, that she wouldn’t be able to play soccer again. “[Coach Ratcliffe] understood the decision and was extremely supportive. When I told the team and all the girls, they were all the same way. Everybody that I’ve talked to has been very supportive and has helped make the entire situation bearable.”

“I think it shows great maturity that she was able to do that,” Ratcliffe said, praising Oliver for her decision. “I think most people would keep playing and severely damage their future. Emily is a very smart young lady, and she talked to the doctors and decided it was not worth her future health.”

In the 15 years that Ratcliffe has coached women’s soccer, he has seen the game grow progressively more physical. That leads to more severe injuries for players—sometimes eliminating possibilities for future careers at the professional level.

“It’s difficult to hear those words, because I know that chapter is done in her life,” Ratcliffe said. “Emily is one that could quite easily have gone on to play professionally.”

***

Oliver will remain a captain on the women’s soccer team during her senior year, attending home games and playing a limited role in practices.

“I help strike balls during goalkeeper training, and I get to be on the sidelines for games,” she said. “It’s been nice to feel like I’m part of the program and the team and not lose that family support system.”

Without a future in soccer, the question of what comes next looms large for Oliver. I joke that she’s just like any other senior now, worrying about post-graduation life and jobs and struggling with the realization that a chapter of her life will soon end.

The difference is, somewhere inside Emily Oliver, there’s still that fearless 8-year-old girl, standing in the goal, ready for whatever life will kick at her.

Contact Brendan O’Byrne at bobyrne ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Brendan O'Byrne

Brendan is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. Previously he was the executive editor, the deputy editor, a news desk editor and a writer for the news section. He's a history major originally from New Orleans.