Playing soccer is tough. The beautiful game moves at a lightning fast speed. Players run an average of seven miles a game, all while figuring out the best way to stifle their opponents. It may be easy to pick up and play, but it takes a lifetime to master.
While most soccer players will experience an injury at some point in their career, Caitlyn Wong’s injury report is somewhat stunning.
Wong, a redshirt senior, is a captain of the Oregon soccer team who came to Eugene in hopes of reinvigorating a losing program with culture issues. Along the way, she’s battled through a nightmarish litany of knee injuries. Yet despite the challenges posed by those injuries, Wong remains undeterred.
She’s gone under the knife four times, and four times she’s battled back. Her career at Oregon has hardly gone according to plan, but she’s OK with that. For the Sunnyvale, California native who refuses to quit, there’s more to her soccer career than minutes played and titles won.
Additionally, she’s a stellar student. As if playing on a Division I soccer team wasn’t enough of a time commitment, Wong has maintained a 4.0 GPA in biochemistry — a major that demands tremendous hours of studying.
The Long Journey
The day a high school athlete signs their letter of intent to play for the college of their choice is usually a happy one. Players are preparing for the next big step in their careers, and they’re celebrating the end of what was likely a successful high school run. For Wong, her signing day was the opposite. On Feb. 6, 2013, she suffered a non-contact injury in a high school match and tore her right ACL, along with part of her meniscus. It was her first major injury.
“I actually tore it so hard that it ripped out of the bone really roughly, and I had a severe bone contusion from that,” Wong said. “I freaked out.”
As a result of the contusion, she couldn’t have surgery until the end of March — almost two months after the injury. At the time, Wong said she was focused on the fact that her club soccer experience was over sooner than she had expected. Eventually though, her future as a Duck rose to the front of her mind.
“I’m supposed to start school and training in four months,” Wong said. “Surgery at the end of March [plus] a six-month recovery puts me at the end of September. There was no way I was going to play, so it was pretty much already set in stone that I was going to redshirt.”
The road to recovery was difficult. Wong was forced to re-learn every component of the game, down to running and kicking.
“It was almost humiliating,” Wong said. “How stripped you are of your identity during something like that.”
Through a grueling nine months of rehab and training, Wong eventually made her way back to playing.
She made her debut for Oregon the following year and began to establish herself as a stout defender. Wong ended the season with a bulging disc in her back, but thanks to careful rest and rehab, she was cleared from the injury report on April 1, 2015. Things were looking up for the defender.
That’s the day she tore her left ACL.
“An April Fools joke? I was hoping,” Wong said. “April fools, you’re still injured.”
As far as knee injuries go, the circumstances for Wong’s second ACL tear were ideal. The tear was clean with minimal swelling, and she was in top physical shape following her season. This time, there would be no two-month wait for surgery. She had surgery 10 days later.
Two torn ACLs might be enough to convince an athlete to hang up their cleats. Not Wong, according to her mother Carolyne .
“She never got down,” Carolyne Wong said. “She was determined to get back as quickly as possible.”
Wong began her rehab four months before the start of the next season. The clock was on, and she was determined to come back faster than she did after her last surgery.
“I just kicked butt for five months non-stop,” Wong said.
Through this recovery, Wong focused on keeping herself in the right headspace. She had been riddled with fear and self-doubt during her last ordeal but was not going to allow the same thing to happen this time.
“Your mindset in an injury is the most import thing in your recovery,” Wong said. “I don’t care what resources you have, or how quick you get surgery.”
Sure enough, Wong battled back in five months. She went on to another solid year of play, and her soccer career seemed to be going well when she started her junior season. Halfway through that season, however, injury struck again.
She suffered a severely torn left meniscus against Cal State Fullerton on Sept. 11, 2016. The injury caused her to lose a month of the season. She underwent a scope surgery that month to clean the injury, and doctors removed 40 percent of her meniscus.
Wong bounced back, and just over a month after her injury went on to earn Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors after shutout wins against Arizona and Arizona State.
But injury troubles weren’t behind her yet.
In May 2017, Wong had a scope surgery to remove a screw from a previous ACL surgery and relieve the strong medial pain an inflamed bursa sac was causing; however, this last surgery proved more difficult to come back from than her previous two.
“I don’t know what happened,” Wong said. “My body just couldn’t do it.”
Wong simply couldn’t move the way she used to. Her mind was still sharp and game ready, but her body could no longer keep up. Sometimes, she even worried that she could have done more to recover before coming to accept the reality of her pain.
As a result, Wong spent most of her senior season on the sideline. While she wishes she could have played more, she knows her role as a captain extends beyond the field. Her biggest goals in coming to Oregon were to change a team culture rife with finger pointing and to take the Ducks to the NCAA Tournament.
“I wanted to leave a legacy,” Wong said.
Despite the best efforts of Wong and her team, the Ducks fell short of the tournament. While the disappointment is there, she also knows that the team culture had changed for the better. In a time that brings both good and bad, Wong knows the importance of perspective.
“When you’re in the midst of it, maybe it doesn’t seem like we’ve made strides,” Wong said. “But you have to look at what’s important, and that’s the team culture. We’re in such a good spot now as a team. Having real relationships with each other, truly caring for each other as people. … That speaks to all the work we’ve done over the years.”
Indeed, after the team’s heartbreaking loss to USC this year, Wong says that there was no finger pointing — a stark difference from her first year with the team. She’s also gracefully ceded her starting spot to sophomore Alyssa Hinojosa. In a toxic culture, Wong says such a thing wouldn’t happen. But true to her goal, she chose to mentor the young defender, rather than harboring spite over her role.
“If she’s on the field kicking ass, we’re gonna win,” Wong said. “She is going to be the next big center back, so it’s about how I can share what I’ve learned.”
For her part, Hinojosa thrives on the support of her mentor.
“She’s a really big role model for me,” Hinojosa said. “I thought the coaches were yelling at me, but it was my teammate, helping me and having my back.”
While she was busy leading her team and rehabbing from injuries, Wong was also earning Pac-12 All-Academic first team honors. She’ll defend her biochemistry dissertation this week.
Wong’s career came to a close on Thursday night in Corvallis, as the Ducks fell to Oregon State 1-0. The team will head into the offseason preparing for life after Wong and her fellow seniors. The impact is felt keenly by Ducks head coach Kat Mertz.
“It’s going to be weird not having Caitlyn on the field and having her leadership,” Mertz said to KWVA after the Ducks’ loss. “I’ve had it for five years now, my whole entire time at Oregon.”
The feeling is mutual, and Wong credits a great deal of her success and growth to Mertz and the rest of the Ducks’ coaching staff.
As she looks back at her time at Oregon, Wong finds herself coming back to her decision to redshirt her true freshman season. Having an extra year on the back end of her career allowed her to follow through on her goals for the team’s culture. Finishing last year would’ve felt incomplete.
Along the way, it was Wong’s unwavering sense of purpose that drove her forward.
“That’s part of the reason, if not the main reason that I’m successful,” Wong said. “It’s really important to me to find purpose. I don’t enjoy putting all of myself into something unless I find purpose in it. So I think I wake up trying to figure that out every day.”
Follow Aaron Alter on Twitter @aaronalter95