Sitting in Stanford Hospital in November 2017, Michelle Xiao and Jordan Dibiasi made a pact. If Dibiasi scored in the College Cup, she would dedicate the goal to Xiao.
The agreement began when Dibiasi told Xiao how much she missed having her on the field. Rather than lamenting her own situation, Xiao instead responded by motivating Dibiasi. “No, you’re going to do so well. Score a goal for me,” Dibiasi recalls Xiao saying.
This is typical of Xiao, now a senior forward for the Stanford women’s soccer team. Rather than being sad about being out for the season and stuck in the hospital while her team traveled to Orlando for the final four of the NCAA tournament, she continued to encourage her teammates.
Xiao proved to be an effective motivator. In the next game, the national semifinals against South Carolina, Dibiasi made good on her promise to Xiao, scoring two goals. Heading the ball off of Tegan McGrady’s free kick, Dibiasi watched her first goal travel through the uprights. As she ran to celebrate with her teammates, she shot her hand in the air, displaying five fingers – a signal to Xiao who wears jersey number five.
Watching on TV from her hospital bed, Xiao celebrated as her team advanced to the national championship game.
Twelve days earlier, Xiao waved to the crowd as she was announced as a starter for Stanford’s match against Florida State in the third round of the NCAA tournament. She was one of the Cardinal’s most consistent scorers during the season with 22 points (eight goals and six assists).
In the first minute of the game against the Seminoles, she jumped to try and control a ball sailing through the air.
“I remember going up for a header and landing on my arm. And then I heard something. I thought it was a shin guard crunching something, but I looked down at my arm and it was very not okay,” remembers Xiao.
A shock went through the stadium as everyone saw Xiao’s arm. The Florida State players ran away in disbelief. The trainer’s rushed onto the field. The moment is still ingrained in redshirt junior midfielder Jaye Boisserie’s memory.
“I don’t think anyone had seen something that brutal in person. Her arm literally looked like when Professor Lockhart tried to fix Harry Potter in the Quidditch match. That’s what her arm looked like. [The bone] was hanging midway through her forearm.”
Xiao had a compound fracture in both bones in her arm and was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery. This would be her first of six surgeries over the next twelve days, as she developed complications.
The day after the surgery and Stanford advanced to the elite eight of the tournament, Xiao developed Compartment Syndrome, a condition where pressure builds up due to excessive swelling. The medical staff worked to release the pressure from the faccia, but were unable to close the wound because of the extensive swelling on her arm. Leaving the wound open, the doctors monitored Xiao throughout the week, waiting to be able to stitch her up. To make matters worse, Xiao developed an infection after the surgery.
Because of the complications, Xiao stayed in the hospital for 12 days, missing the chance to travel to the College Cup she had dreamed of playing in since the inception of her college career. She watched as her team defeated UCLA to win the program’s second national title.
Her teammates did everything they could to make her feel included. In addition to Dibiasi dedicating her goals to Xiao, the team printed a large fat-head of Xiao’s face and brought it everywhere with them – even placing it in her usual seat on the bus next to Dibiasi. During the pregame speeches in the locker room, the team FaceTimed Xiao. They even video chatted with Xiao at the NCAA banquet, where Xiao was honored with the Elite 90 award, an honor given to the student-athlete with the highest GPA among the remaining teams in the tournament. Xiao was incredibly thankful for her teammates.
“My teammates showed so much support throughout the whole injury. It just goes to show how much this team means to me and how much I care about my teammates.”
Still, watching her team win the national championship on TV was not the same as being there in person.
“I was so excited when we won the National Championship, but I was also sad that I was not there to experience the feeling of winning on that field,” explains Xiao.
As the team resumed training in the offseason, Xiao dreamed of returning to the field and having her chance to play at the College Cup.
However, once she was cleared to play she faced an unexpected mental hurdle. Xiao was unable to fully enjoy playing soccer because she feared suffering another gruesome injury. She worried that her arm would not hold if she fell. She remembers being nervous during her first several practices, but eventually she began to feel comfortable again with the help of her teammates and friends.
“I have so many friends and teammates that have been so supportive throughout my whole injury. Just talking with them, hearing their experiences with their previous injuries, and being able to rely on them as my support really helped me overcome my mental hurdles.”
Just when she was gaining momentum and feeling like herself, she suffered another complication. In April, she began feeling pain in her arm again. Due to the infection and Compartment Syndrome she faced back in November, her arm had not healed correctly. Specifically, two of the screws that attached to the plate the doctors inserted in her arm came loose. On May 17, she went in for another surgery to clean and replace these loose screws. Finally healed, Xiao could finally begin preparing for the 2018 season.
With the first game scheduled exactly three months later, Xiao did not have any time to relax.
Dibiasi explains that, “This summer [Michelle worked] so hard to get back and ready for preseason. To look how well she’s played this season is so cool and speaks so highly of her character. She is just going to persevere and she’s so determined.”
In her return to competition, Xiao scored the team’s first goal of the season, a rocket past a UC Davis defender to the upper right corner of the net. The goal was the start of a productive season for Xiao, who has played in 15 games, starting nine of them, including the last six.
Though she is past her injury, the lessons it provided Xiao have persisted. Xiao, a biomechanical engineer who hopes to be an orthopedic surgeon some day, has learned how she wants to approach life.
“I’ve learned the importance of persevering through things. Even when something is not necessarily going your way, if you just keep working hard you can overcome anything.”
For Dibiasi, it has been a joy playing with Xiao again. “A lot of people don’t understand the significance of what she went through because she always is there for other people. She always puts on this optimistic front. That strength, character, and positivity is second to none.”
One year after watching her team play in the semifinals from Stanford Hospital, Xiao will likely be in the starting lineup tonight on the biggest stage in college soccer. As Xiao finally gets to play in the College Cup against the same Florida State team that she suffered her devastating injury to last year, Dibiasi and Xiao have made a new pact.
Dibiasi explains: “I told her it’s destiny. You need to score against them. It’s going to be full circle.”
Contact Jake Stuebner at jstuebs ‘at’ stanford.edu.