This is the third installment of Rachel Breton’s column, “After the Whistle Blows,” in which the Sky Blue FC player explores the issues, emotions and tough decisions that soccer players and all athletes face when they’re forced to retire from the sport that shaped them.
Birds learn how to fly, never knowing where flight will take them. -Mark Nepo
Sinead Farrelly is one of the greatest players women’s soccer has ever seen. When she plays, she reminds us of why we play. With every touch of the ball, she exudes joy and happiness. Farrelly is truly an unsung hero—staying humble, she doesn’t say much, but her feet certainly do the talking.
Yet last December, at the age of 27, due to injuries she sustained from a car crash, Farrelly announced she was giving up the sport that had brought her so much joy.
The accident took place over a year earlier in September 2015. Farrelly was driving when another car came speeding around the corner, skidded into her lane and hit her straight on the driver’s side. The head-on collision deployed both airbags and totaled Farrelly’s car, forcing her to climb through the back of the vehicle to get out.
[More from Excelle Sports: After the Whistle Blows: Learning to love life when you’re forced to say goodbye to your sport]
“The accident was crazy because, at the time, I had no idea of the impact it would have on my future and my life,” Farrelly told me. “At the time of the accident, I declined treatment from the ambulance—I just wanted to go home. In all honesty, I kind of regret not taking help from the paramedics. My instinct has always been to just pretend to be OK. That’s what we learn as athletes and professionals—to push through it. That pain is weakness. I was hurting and I was too proud to admit it.”
When she retired, Farrelly was on Seattle Reign FC’s roster, although she had yet to play with the team. The year before, she had been on the Boston Breakers’ roster but had sat out the 2016 season with neck and back injuries from the crash. Eight months later, she learned she had also suffered a concussion.
“All of a sudden, I just wasn’t the person I had been for 25 years,” she said of the effects of the concussion. “I felt so, so alone. Every moment was masked in this layer of fog that I could not seem to break through. I had no energy. I was depressed. I started distancing myself from everyone who loved me.”
Suddenly, Farrelly, who started playing soccer professionally for the Women’s Professional League in 2011 after a decorated career at University of Virginia, found herself in a dark place.
“My time since the accident has been the most difficult time of my life,” she said. “Aside from losing my health and career, I was forced to face all of my demons. When I tell you that every single thing from my past came crashing down on me, I mean every single thing: family issues, sexual assault, abuse, a long history of an eating disorder … All of it. I felt like I was facing the wreckage without any clue of who I was. I felt like I had absolutely nothing.”
The situation became unbearable and deeply overwhelming, especially immediately after the accident. Farrelly says she couldn’t sleep or read, suffered terrible migraines and was even unable to walk or run. Facing what seemed like insurmountable challenges, she felt beyond hopeless in her own skin.
[More from Excelle Sports: Sinead Farrelly retires from pro soccer, one year after car accident]
“I did not want to live anymore. I would wake up in the morning so panicked because it felt too heavy to have to go through an entire day all over again,” she said.
The accident turned out to also be a catalyst for Farrelly to question her real identity. The sport had been her fulcrum up to that point. She struggled, as many players do, to reconcile who she would be without soccer. Last December, she announced her retirement on Facebook.
“Soccer was my outlet when times were hard,” Farrelly wrote on her page of the decision. “It was a place I felt safe, yet it continued to push me past my comfort zone day after day. Losing soccer for me was losing my identity. And with the loss of that came the loss of everything.”
While Farrelly tried to come back to soccer, she knew she had to listen to her body. She knew she needed to rest, recover from her injuries and from her post-concussion symptoms.
“I had no desire to retire any time soon,” she said. “It still makes me really sad I had to go out the way I did. I never saw my career ending in that way. I was in my prime. I was finally ready to do big things. I know it was the right decision, but it was still against my own will.”
With so much of herself yet to give to her sport, Farrelly says she felt as though her aspirations were cut short midstream.
“I miss that feeling of freedom when I played,” she said. “I only ever played for the fun of it—for the pure joy of the game. I worked my butt off. I loved to run, I loved to cover every blade of grass. I miss that. I miss working so hard for the person next to me. The feeling of being on a team and fighting for one another. Nothing beats that.”
Letting go of the things we love is an ineffable experience—something many of us find difficult to do. Farrelly can attest to an athlete’s sense that her sport is her entire life, which is why it is so undoubtedly hard to give up.
“You lose some of yourself for sure, but I think that’s just a test of how much of ourselves we put into the things that we love,” she said. “If we didn’t lose some of ourselves, I think it would mean we weren’t genuinely giving our all to this game. In our growing league today, we’re not playing for the money. Being a professional athlete is a 24/7 job. It consumes you, whether you want it to or not. You don’t leave something like that without leaving some part of yourself behind. And I’m OK with that. Soccer meant a lot to me. It was a safe place for me. I could show up to practice anxious and leave the field feeling happy. It would be two hours of therapy, nothing but me and the ball. Freedom.”
[More from Excelle Sports: After the Whistle Blows: What happens when athletes are forced to give up the game that shaped them]
Farrelly’s story reminds me of a quote by Alan Watts: “You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.” But we forget this. We, as humans, feel there is a requirement to remain. I used to be skinny. I used to be fun. I used to be a professional soccer player. We continually remind ourselves by anchoring back to an evanescent sense of permanence. We are all guilty of focusing too much on the past, on how we were instead of who we actually are. At times, the sense of a goal denied can obscure the reward that lies more in the trajectory than the destination.
Farrelly’s story also exemplifies what author Mark Nepo writes in “The Book of Awakening,” in which he compares life to the way of a bird:
There is a deep and humbling lesson in the way of birds. Their wings grow and stretch and span patches of air. First tentatively and then with confidence, they lift, they pump, they glide, they land. It seems, for birds, it is the act of flying that is the goal … [but,] [u]nlike birds, we confuse our time on Earth, with obsessions of where we are going–often to the point that we frustrate and stall our human ability to fly. We frequently tame and hush our need to love, to learn, to know the truth of spirit, until we can be assured that our efforts will take us somewhere. All these conditions and hesitations and yes-buts and what-ifs turn the human journey upside down, never letting the heart, wing that it is, truly unfold.
Farrelly is refining her flight. Adversity and deep struggle have forced her into another head-on collision, this time against her toughest opponent: her old self. The new Farrelly has won.
“I used to be so obsessed with getting back to my old self, but I feel more like myself now than I ever did. I don’t want to go back. I want to keep growing,” she said.
Today, she continues to grow by focusing on what she does have—love and gratitude—rather than on what she has lost.
“I just look up to the sky and thank the universe for what I have in this exact moment,” she said. “I know how quickly things can change and I never want to take all of my blessings and gifts for granted again.”
Farrelly is also more at peace with her past and the things in her life right now. She has emerged with a renewed passion for the journey and with advice for other athletes who may also have to face the loss of their sport and identity.
“Be passionate about the game, be passionate about your job, but know that there is so much more to it than that,” she said. In other words, hold on tightly to what you will keep to the end of your days: love, friendship, memories and life-changing conversations.
With a revitalizing new perspective on life, Farrelly shares how she was able to transform and come out of those dark months.
“There were times I didn’t feel like I could make it through another minute, but somehow I just convinced myself to stay. ‘Stay, Sinead. Stay here. All you have to do is stay,’” she said. “And I seriously don’t know how I got through that. But the point is that I did. I had the tiniest little spark of hope somewhere inside of my beating heart, telling me to just stay.”
Thank you, Sinead, for your example of how to love and spread your wings on the field—and now off the field. Also, thank you for staying.