By Parker Johnson
Susan Stone stood anxiously while she watched her decorated daughter, Olivia, do warmup drills on an outdated artificial turf pitch near Austin, Texas in February 2018. An uneasiness crept in – the uniquely maternal sense that something was just … off.
This was Olivia Stone’s swan song. It was the last game the 17-year-old forward would play for her local soccer club, Lonestar SC. In the past month, she had committed to Northwestern University and attended training camp with the United States Under-18 National Team, after which she received an invitation to represent her country in a series of upcoming friendlies. It was a game to send off the seniors, and Olivia was in the mood to celebrate.
Why aren’t there any rubber pellets under the turf? Susan thought. Why are the girls slipping around so much?
Moments after the game started, Olivia was chasing an opposing player when her right leg buckled, and the full weight fell over her knee. She heard the dreaded “pop” that signifies an injury all too common in women’s soccer: an ACL tear.
Stone crumpled to the ground a few yards away from the woman who recruited her to the National Team, a cruel reminder of just how close she was to fulfilling her dreams – and the distances she would now have to go if she still wanted them to become a reality.
Born into a soccer-loving family, Olivia Stone had been kicking a ball since age three. Her father, Tom Stone, played at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and he was often her partner on the pitch. She said that soccer was part of a “pattern” woven into her everyday life.
“Ever since I was little, when I was stressed or just wanted to go have fun, it was something there that I could go do. I grew up loving the game,” Olivia Stone said. “To go to soccer practice and then to have those games on the weekend, it was a crucial part of my life.”
After having surgery for her “Triple Threat” injury – Stone had torn her ACL, MCL and Meniscus – soccer simply was not going to be an option for a while. Bedridden and certain to be off the field for months, Stone struggled to cope.
“(Soccer) faded into the background,” Stone recalled. “It was hard to let that happen. It was hard to sit there and constantly think about, ‘Am I going to get back on the field? When is that going to be? What’s it going to feel like?’”
“She didn’t have control of things she had always had control over,” said her mother Susan, who was by her side throughout the home recovery. “She couldn’t get up. She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t do anything … In 18 years, she had never just sat on the couch and watched TV.”
Motivation to get better was not an issue for Stone. Susan remembers finding Olivia, just two weeks after surgery, doing pull ups to strengthen her upper body while she still couldn’t move her leg. Olivia was always hungry to move onto the next step in her rehab, but Susan wanted Olivia to expand her horizons while soccer was off the table.
In her ample down time, Stone dove into art and her studies. She took a hobby, painting, and turned it into an online business that she managed herself. She sold approximately 25 paintings and created countless more over the course of her rehab. Meanwhile, she also had a senior thesis due. Rather than asking for extensions because of her injury, Stone proved she was just as capable as her classmates. She presented her thesis on the standardization of policies for transgender athletes in a knee brace and high heels.
If rehab made one thing abundantly clear, it was that Olivia Stone would not be easily deterred. She studied the paths of many accomplished women’s soccer players like Alex Morgan and Joanna Boyles – who had serious knee injuries around the same age as Stone – and found a common thread of overcoming adversity. The strength of her knee was far less important than her mental toughness.
“You have to mentally get control of your mind,” Stone said. “You have to trust that this happened for a reason. I am in control of how I respond. I am planning on trying to get back into (National Team) camp and trying to be the best I can be. It’s just going to be a longer path and take a little more from me.”
Despite redshirting her first season at Northwestern, Stone made an impact from the moment she stepped onto campus in Evanston last August.
“As a freshman, she is incredibly mature for her age,” said Olivia Korhonen, a senior who was recovering from an ACL injury at the same time as Stone and became close friends with her. “She came in instilled with the values and maturity that some of our older players have. It took me years to find that kind of commitment, but it just comes to her naturally.”
Sophomore Mikayla Hampton, who was recovering from exertional compartment syndrome in the fall and spent time rehabbing with Stone, said that Stone was a role model despite her freshman status.
“Usually you’re inspired by people older than you who have done a lot of fancy, crazy things. But Olivia – her energy, her drive, her motivation has been something that, when I was struggling in the recovery process, I looked up to her,” Hampton said.
Korhonen said that when she thinks of Stone, she thinks of an “absolutely ferocious” player. Around January, when Stone was first cleared for full practice after 11 months of recovery, the Wildcats got their first look at her toughness on the field.
The women’s team practiced with male players in the offseason to challenge the women physically, and Korhonen said that Stone would seek out tussles with the male players that often turned into “what looked like a wrestling match.” She said the guest players eventually started flinching when Stone came their way, bracing themselves for Stone’s indefatigable presence.
“A lot of her personality and a lot of what comes across in your interactions with her are apparent in the way she plays. She’s incredibly driven and incredibly competitive,” Korhonen said.
Stone has played in a handful of spring friendlies, but she said she felt the best after Northwestern played the Mexican Under-20 National Team in April. It was her first game playing without a brace, and she was matched up with Reyna Reyes, a defender committed to University of Alabama.
“The ability to beat a college defender one-on-one, you know, that was fun,” Stone said. “I felt back in a sense, but I also felt an excitement of, ‘I have a lot of work to do, but here’s where I can go.’”
With 10 seniors leaving the team, Stone will have a chance to make an impact right away for Northwestern in the 2019 season. The Wildcats have made the NCAA Tournament each of the past four seasons and went 10-5-4 last year.
Stone has worked tirelessly to reclaim the success she had built before that rainy day in Austin shifted her course, but her progress is constantly shrouded by what she calls the “little voice on the back of her head” that asks, what if you mess up?
When asked how long she would have to hear that voice, Stone’s relentless attitude shone through in her response.
“Honestly, I think it’s going to be there until I score my first college goal,” she said.
“But I’m fighting against it. And I’m excited.”