By Claudia Marin, 17, Santa Monica HS
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Claudia is looking forward to playing soccer this season. She says there's no pressure, just fun.

I’ve never been the smartest kid in school, but soccer was the one thing I was actually good at and enjoyed. I’ve played since I was 5. The more I played, the better I got, and the better I got the more I liked it. My weekends revolved around soccer games, tournaments, extra practices and watching games on TV with my dad. The dresser in my bedroom was covered with trophies and medals. I played about seven months a year in a recreation league, then joined a more competitive club soccer team when I was 13. I met many of my closest friends through soccer, including my best friend.

I loved it so much, that’s why I played for years even though I was in pain. I was 7 years old when I first felt pain in my lower back. My doctor said that I had a mild case of scoliosis and told me to rest. For about a month and a half I stopped playing soccer and my back felt better. But when I started playing again, the pain came back.

Over the years I saw several doctors about my back including my primary doctor, orthopedic specialists (who specialize in fixing bone and joint problems), a pain management specialist, physical therapists, an acupuncturist and chiropractors. Nothing they prescribed or suggested made me feel better.

At first it hurt only when I played, but when I was about 13, it started hurting off the field too. I’d tell the doctors how much pain I was in, and they’d tell me to rest for a couple of months, ice and heat it, do physical therapy, take anti-inflammatory meds and be patient. But all of those suggestions only brought short-term relief. I thought I’d never get better.

Some days it was excruciating just to walk. But I kept playing through it. When I was 13 an orthopedic doctor told me, “The only way you’re going to feel better is if you don’t play at all.” I’d never considered not playing, but I listened and took a three-week break.

I dreamed of playing in college

After the break I felt well enough to play again and started playing for a club soccer team on a full scholarship. The coach at the high school where we practiced, who often watched our practices, tried to recruit me to go to his high school. It made me feel like I had a real shot at being good enough to play in college. My family was struggling to pay for my brother to go to college. I didn’t want my parents to have to struggle the same way with me. I really wanted soccer to take me to college on a scholarship.

Photo by Jasper Nahid, 16, Hamilton HS

The next fall I tried out for my high school soccer team and was one of two freshmen to make varsity. That season the pain was tolerable. I played harder than ever before; I went after every ball even if it meant getting knocked down as a result. I was proud of myself. I earned a starting spot on the team and we went undefeated in league and made it to the semi-finals of post-season play.

However, a month after the season ended the pain got worse. Some days I’d lie in bed for a half hour before feeling able to sit up and walk around. Many of those mornings I’d lie in the tub to soak in hot water for about 45 minutes before feeling able to go to school, and even then the only way I’d get through the day was with a tight elastic wrap and a heating pad wrapped around my back. I didn’t make it on time to first period English most mornings. I missed so much school I got an “incomplete” for the second semester of English. This meant I’d have to re-take an entire semester of freshman English during my sophomore year. I was really disappointed.

One day in October 2008, a month into my sophomore year, the pain in my back got so bad I couldn’t walk. I froze up, and a sharp excruciating pain shot down my left leg. It was the worst, most intolerable pain I had ever experienced. I cried for two hours. Not even the pain medication my doctor had prescribed made me feel better.

My mom called my doctor and he referred me to an orthopedic spine specialist. The specialist prescribed more medication, which didn’t help.

I was in bed all day for two weeks, in too much pain to even walk. I got so behind on my schoolwork that my teachers and my counselor decided that home instruction was the best option for me. So, I had a teacher assigned to me who came to my home once or twice a week to explain my assignments. I did home instruction for the rest of the year. I had to drop chemistry because I couldn’t go to school to complete the labs. I also dropped algebra 2 because most days I had to learn from the book, which was really overwhelming. I often felt like I didn’t have enough time for my schoolwork because I wasn’t always physically able to sit at a desk or was asleep because of the pain medication I was on.

My spine was cracked in two places

In January 2009 my doctor sent me to yet another specialist. During the appointment with the new spine specialist he showed me my CT scan on the computer. The CT scan images looked like an x-ray, with white bone on a black background. I saw cracks on both sides of my vertebra. It looked like three separate bones where there should have been one. He said it was spondylosis, a condition that caused fractures in the vertebra, and a pinched nerve, which caused my pain.

I couldn’t believe I had broken my spine. He was surprised that I had been playing soccer because the fracture had been there for at least a few years. He told me that I might not have hurt it so badly if I weren’t an athlete, but it probably would’ve happened eventually, so I didn’t regret playing through the pain for so long. I just wanted to get better.

The doctor said the fracture might heal itself. I’d have to wear a body brace 23 hours a day for three months, to allow the bones to heal. He showed me a picture of the brace—it looked like a cast around my torso connected by a metal rod to a cast around my left thigh that didn’t allow bending at the waist. I started crying. I imagined myself being stuck at home all day, missing school, missing soccer and missing the way things used to be.

I had to quit soccer. It was such a big part of my life—the thing I was best at. I was so used to practicing and playing all the time that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt like a part of me was missing. And I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to play soccer in college and maybe ever again.

In May my three months of being in a brace were over. A new CT scan showed my back hadn’t healed; it was a waste of time. My spine specialist told me my only options were surgery to fuse the cracks and implant metal screws in my vertebra, or live with the pain. My parents and I had a long talk about my options. We had heard about rare cases where complications during surgery have led to paralysis. I was afraid but I wasn’t going to just sit there and do nothing about it. I felt like surgery was my only shot at getting better, so we scheduled it for June.

In September I went back to school though I was nowhere near completely healed. The mornings were the worst. It was hard to get out of bed because my back was really stiff and sore from the walking I had done at school the day before. My brother said I looked like a pregnant lady gripping my back, legs spread out and my feet hardly coming off the ground as I walked. I wore sandals or Uggs because I couldn’t bend over to tie shoelaces. Walking from class to class carrying my backpack was extremely difficult. My mom would pick me up from school because walking 10 blocks home was too much for me. I cried often and told my mom, “It didn’t change anything.”

Claudia practices for her high school soccer team, which she’s playing on for the first time since her freshman year. Photo by Jasper Nahid, 16, Hamilton HS

At a check-up in January my surgeon told me that I could consider playing soccer because my back looked strong enough. I was surprised because I was still in pain. Plus, I hadn’t played soccer in almost two years. Part of me didn’t want to play again. I was frustrated and it was easier to move on than to keep wishing things would get better. I didn’t want to risk hurting my back again, but I didn’t want to look back and think, “Man, I wish I had given it a shot.”

I spoke to the coach. I told him I wanted to play next school year. He told me that he was happy for me and that he’d be glad to have me on the team. He told me that he had no expectations and that he didn’t care whether I could play five minutes or the entire game. I was glad and felt relieved because I wasn’t sure how good I would be anyway.

One day in March my mom picked me up from school and asked, “How’s your back?” I told her, “I haven’t thought about it all day.” I was so surprised. It didn’t hurt, so I started running and biking to get back in shape.

I was a little rusty but glad to be back

My first practice was in June, well before the season started. It wasn’t anything serious. Our first game wouldn’t be until mid-November, but I wanted to start preparing as early as I could. I hadn’t kicked a ball in two years and I was terrible. We were doing a passing drill and every time I kicked the ball it wouldn’t get very far. My partner would laugh and I’d laugh too. I remember her saying, “No, no, no, move your foot this way,” jokingly showing me how to kick the ball. Because my teammates laughed with me and helped me, I knew they were there to support me.

I practiced with the team three days a week over the summer. I’m not at the level I was before, but I feel more confident and I’m not as hard on myself. It feels good to play again, even though sometimes I get frustrated with myself because my body moves differently than before and sometimes I’m still sore.

I know it’s going to take some time. I don’t need to be the best; I just want to be someone my teammates can count on. I’m grateful to be part of my team again. I still love soccer—it’s just not as big a part of my life as it used to be. School and getting into college are my priority, but soccer will always be my passion.