Celebrating Stanford’s Scholar-Athlete Heritage

Riptide banner

Riptide

  • Christen Press '11 by Christen Press '11 Communication and Psychology Stanford Women's Soccer

December 7, 2010

The tide does turn. It has before, but the feeling is somehow different this time. I watch with an eerie indifference as the clock winds down. Amid the shrill screams emanating from a sea of deep navy blue, a calm washes over me like the final wave. The thought, “This cannot be happening, not again…” is interrupted by the piercing cry of the final whistle.

What day is it? What year? If someone had told me it was December 2009, I would have believed him forever. The fear of this fate made me sick to my stomach for months—12 months exactly—but in its fruition, I am numb. I must be numb for I feel nothing, not the stiffness in my back nor the fatigue in my legs. I watch apathetically as Notre Dame is crowned the 2010 Women’s Soccer NCAA National Champions. I am not here, nor is the disappointment, frustration, and hurt.

Just one day earlier deemed the heir apparent to the National Championship crown, my team now lies on the icy hard field. The cries of the broken aren’t shrill at all. They are low and breathy and haunting.

I feel a weight on my shoulders and its slowly growing. Then I glance up toward the stands and there they are. Thousands of eyes looking down on me… just like before, but not like before. They seem apologetic, tired, full of pity. I keep moving…looking away from one to another. Then I hone my sight on a familiar pair. I have looked into these eyes for years, for my entire life. Yet, their recognition breaks the shield protecting me and here comes the hurt. Abrupt pain swells up from my gut: a lump in my throat, burn in my eyes. Suddenly, I’m struggling to breathe. I can no longer tread the ocean of emotion, and so I’m drowning.

Without realizing what I am doing, I stumble away from the scene. Salty tears tingling as they drip down my cheeks, I muster up the strength to climb the fence enclosing the field and embrace my mom. The warmth of my mom’s arms surround me, like a life preserver pulling me back to the lost 8-year-old little girl…

~

First waves.

When I was young my older sister, Tyler, and I could be found at the local tennis club swinging racquets wildly. As we chased errant balls on one side of the court, my father hovered near the net on the other side feeding us a seemingly endless supply of balls delivered with a finite supply of patience. Despite the clownish Reebok sneakers, the long, thick ponytail, and the disproportionately large racquet that made me look like a caricature, I was good. But my ability to retrieve set me apart. So far apart, that is, that I steamrolled my way to four youth satellite championships without dropping a set. After winning my third consecutive tournament the following summer, I was told I had to play up an age-group. A quick nod and thumbs up from my mom assured me that this was no problem. And it proved to be no problem as I cruised into the finals, my perfect set record unblemished. “Enfuego!” my mother called me. And on that fateful August afternoon, it was very hot indeed.

After the semifinals, my mom, who had seen my final opponent taking some pre-warm up ground strokes, came thundering over to tell me, “Do not let that girl cheat you out of a thorough warm-up!” I guess she didn’t notice the sweat dripping off my brightly flushed brown face. So after quite possibly the longest warm up in junior satellite tournament history, the match began.

Steam rose visibly from the scorching court. I was en route to clenching the first set when my signature drop shot led me astray. To this day, I can see the ball bounce twice before she sent it back over. Halting play, I asked her to call the double bounce. She denied it. I looked over to my mother whose look confirmed my suspicions, and I asked her once more to admit it. She refused. And just like that I was the unnerved opponent. I played on, or tried. But I could see my mother’s fury through the medal webbing of the fence that separated us. Of course, she was giving the girl’s mother an earful.

I dropped the game, then the set. My first set loss. During the break, my mother followed me to the restroom insisting that I douse myself with cool water, then get back out there and “destroy the little cheater.” But it was too hot…and it was too late. I was hyperventilating…hysterical in fact. I wanted to quit. I begged to quit. The pro popped in and asked if I was ready, and before I could think, the words escaped, “I can’t breathe. I can’t play.” With the nod of his head, I never played competitive tennis again.

For several years, I was haunted by the memory of quitting. My dad’s daunting words echoed in my head: “I didn’t raise a quitter,” he’d say. “Losing is part of life, quitting is unacceptable.”

~

When I look up from my mom’s soaked shoulder on that cold December day, I see my dad. My foreboding father, the man who has terrified my boyfriends and referees with the same cavalier joy, is weeping. As he puts his arms around me, I can feel his body heaving, shaking me to the core. Although broken by sobs, I recognize his famous words, “You’re the greatest player to ever lace up the boots…” My dad is telling me that he is proud, but I can only hear pity in his tone. Pity because I failed, again. We lost, again. And there was nothing my dad could do to make me feel better. As I look at the tear-filled eyes of those who love me most, it becomes clear to me that I am hurting because of their grief. I know they wanted me to win for myself, but I wanted to win for them. The sight of the one last person in the group will be the biggest blow of all. Seeing my baby sister, Channing, upset, breaks my heart; it always has. I dare to look into her big, round, blue eyes, now looking bloodshot and droopy, and the flood gates open…so once again I ride…

~

Once upon a time, the tide did turn for me.

My high school soccer team won back-to-back California state championships (CIF) and we were clearly the favorite to win the whole thing again. It was my senior year and the first time I had ever played on the same team as Channing, yet, in the quarterfinals of CIF, I had watched from afar as the ball trickled twice into the back of our net.

A look of shock was plastered on my teammates’ faces as we rolled into the locker room at halftime. It is possible that my coach gave a Hollywood-worthy half time speech, but her words didn’t matter to me because I didn’t even hear them. I had floated away from this debacle of a half. As if in an out-of-body experience, I examined the room. Observing each of my teammates sad faces, I felt sorry for them, as if I was not part of the team. Then, I glanced at Channing and her hopeless expression immediately brought me back to life. When our eyes met, her expression transformed to a look of sadness, and at that same moment we both realized that this was probably Channing’s only opportunity to win a championship.

I washed back onto the field, riding high on a wave invigorated by resolve. The home crowd roared with delight as I responded with a pair of goals that sparked renewed hope. We were even in regulation and would win it in over time! Channing and I would be bathing in the warm waters of the championship shortly. It is strange how close things appear when you want them so much, but in reality they are often a world away. Two whistles brought an abrupt end to my senior season of high school soccer. One whistle for a foul that led to a goal against, and thirty seconds later…game over.

Once upon a time, the tide almost turned for me.

~

For as long as I can remember, I have overlooked the ocean. It is home. I watched it appear from the thick gray fog in the morning and disappear in a warm orange glow at dusk. In the winter I can observe its dramatic ebb and flow from our balcony, and in the summer, though calmer, I know that it rolls in and out in a natural rhythm.

Like me, the ocean is always moving and always changing. But more specifically, I connect with the waves because they are the way I want to be: resilient. Through torrential storms, they crash and break against the cliff rocks but are not diminished. After they have been pulled and strained and sucked down by the tides, they form again. I have watched the waves of the Pacific breaking and rebuilding for years from the cliff by my house, and I never realized I was watching the soul of a great athlete.

~

The current takes hold

Every night during the summer of 2010, I would lie awake in the darkness, waiting futilely for my eyelids to get heavy, yet terrified to view the movie that played in my head. Most people my age have nightmares about showing up naked to class and running in slow motion away from evil, but I dreamt of missing breakaways. I stand alone on the 50-yard line, just the ball and me. Ahead of me lies a blurred vision of a non-athletic goalkeeper, and my true nemesis: the goal. Over and over I dreamt, and over and over I missed.

The summer days, however, were bright and hopeful. Fueled by sunlight, sweat, and protein shakes, I approached my preparation for my senior preseason with enthusiasm. Some mornings, I huffed and puffed the bluff trails of Palos Verdes navigating the dry cliffs alive with lizards and the distant sounds of seals. Other mornings I trekked the packed sands of Rat Beach barely aware of the groups of beach goers laughing as they sunned and surfed. Running is focused when you are on a mission. At the day’s end, my ride to soccer practice took me cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway, all pink stained skies and blue water. The road to paradise seemed crystal clear to me.

~~

These are the stories that aren’t often told. The stories that begin when the cameras shut off and the reporters walk away, leaving the athletes on the field, some to pick up the equipment, and all to pick up the pieces. And while these stories appear to be about losing something, they are really stories about finding something… finding oneself. When the bright lights go off, another light comes on. You have read these stories about falling down, but I lived the same stories about getting back up.

So, without a reporter hanging on our every word and movement, we begin the journey back to an imperfect reality. On the bus ride home, the awkward silence is interrupted only by bitter utterances of trepidation about what happens next. We shutter at the thought of the lonely first shower, where the angst seeps in with the hot water. We dread the first time we will see our friends back at school. The upperclassmen laugh sourly at the realization that we are so well acquainted with the stages of post-big-game-loss suffering.

~

Riptide

December 6, 2009

The tide does turn. As the clock winds down and our ship slowly sinks, every movement we make is an act of desperation. In a frenzy, we slide, chase, and push… but mostly we tread, eventually succumbing to the Tar Heel blue undertow. And then, it’s over.

I wipe my face and look upward. I am still alive. I know because my heart beats hard and I choke on every breath. Losing has taken a chunk out of me, but somehow left me more whole. We stand in a circle that lies somewhere between despair and hope. And with our arms linked we transcend the pain of defeat. Somewhere under all the hurt, we can feel that we are on the brink of something beautiful. There is something magical about being so close, to both my teammates and our dreams, and it gives us something to strive for.

As we look into each other’s watery eyes, we promise each other that we will do everything in our power to never feel this pain again. “It starts today,” I say to the team. Next year, I say to myself… next year.

_

Christen Press, ’11,  a striker on the Stanford women’s soccer team, broke school records for career points (183), goals (71), assists (41), and shots (500). She set the single-season school records for shots (180) and game-winning goals (10), and tied the mark for goals (26). Christen became the second consecutive Stanford player to win the Missouri Athletic Club’s Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s most prestigious award. The no. 4 pick in the Women’s Professional Soccer draft, Christen now plays for the Florida MagicJack. She will graduate from Stanford with a major in Communication and Psychology.