Senior Erica Wheeler-Dubin put down her crutches last week. The women’s soccer captain is slowly recovering from the foot injury she sustained this past July.
She played through her injury for the first part of the season, under the impression that the pain in her left foot was just a minor injury.
“I would just avoid kicking with [my left foot],” she said.
However, during a game against the University of Puget Sound, she was forced to clear a ball using her left foot, causing further impact injury to the ligaments in her foot. After Wheeler-Dubin sought medical attention she had to wear a cast for six weeks. She faced a recovery period of almost one year. She not only struggled with the physical effects of her injury but also with the consequences of putting her athletic career on hold.
“When I first arrived at school as a second-year captain, I had a mindset of being on the field and leading the team,” she said. “I had to switch my mentality from being supportive on-field to being supportive off-field.”
Wheeler-Dubin chose not to quit the team. Instead she kept her role as captain and continues to lead the team from the sidelines.
Although she went to almost every game, Wheeler-Dubin still found it difficult to be a part of the team with her injury.
“I had to let go of being in control, not scoring goals, to have trust in my team,” she said. “I had to emotionally let go.”
Men’s rugby team captain senior Michael Richtik has also been forced to overcome a serious injury. This will be his first season playing since recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) his second year.
Like Wheeler-Dubin, he maintained a leadership role from the sidelines during his rehabilitation period.
“Even though I was injured I went to practice and I went to all the games,” he said. “I promised to be captain senior year and promised to prove it to [my team].”
Richtik tore his ACL in a preseason game against San Francisco State when an opposing player smashed into him, twisting his knee to the side. At that time he did not know the severity of the injury, and he continued to play for the rest of the season.
“I would play in the games, but after, my knee would be swollen, so I wouldn’t be able to practice during the week,” he said.
After his injuries, Richtik struggled to obtain respect from the teammates he could not play with. He suffered a drop in self-esteem during his recovery.
“I always felt invincible playing rugby, but to feel so vulnerable and fragile is scary,” he said.
Despite these feelings and the swelling in his knee, Richtik decided to continue playing in games.
“It was up to me,” he said. “The coaches have a lot of respect for me, the final decision [to play] came down to me.”
Tim Baldwin, one of the three athletic trainers employed by the UCSC athletic department for the Division III teams, understands the challenges an injured athlete faces.
“It’s never easy to tell an athlete they can’t play, but it’s all about what is best [for the athlete],” he said.
Baldwin has spent two years at UCSC and has worked with many student athletes who find it difficult to take time off from sports due to injury.
“I have to evaluate them individually and explain the consequences of continuing [to compete],” he said. “I also tell the coach. It’s very cooperative here at Santa Cruz. The coaches want what is best for the athletes too.”
For Wheeler-Dubin, the desire to play in the future is what kept her off the field. With nearly 14 years of competitive soccer on her record, this injury will not be the end of her athletic career.
She wants to begin running in three months and, after finishing her credits for graduation in Costa Rica, her plans are to play abroad.
“My dream is to play in Italy,” she said.
Wheeler-Dubin went through an extensive and painful rehabilitation. She began the recovery process with a cast and crutches, then slowly transitioned to an air cast.
She is now able to participate in low-impact activities like biking and swimming.
Unlike Wheeler-Dubin, who missed her whole season and is still recovering, Richtik has finished rehabilitation and will play again for UCSC. Richtik has missed his senior year pre-season, but is now rejoining the team as a starter.
“When you miss that much time recovering, it’s nerve-wracking to return,” he said. “But all those butterflies go away after the first game.”