Between the oppressive heat, lopsided score favouring her opponent, and early exit following a knock to the head, suffice it to say it wasn’t a banner day. It would have been understandable if Lancaster Inferno winger Tesa McKibben was frustrated following a 6-1 loss to the New York Surf, but if she was, it certainly didn’t show.
Perhaps when you’ve been through as much as McKibben has the last several years, you gain a bit of perspective on the difference between a run-of-the-mill bad day and a more insidious one. Less than a year removed from a complete reconstruction surgery on her right ankle, the St. Francis graduate tries to enjoy her time on the field. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that McKibben doubted whether she’d ever play again.
“Honestly, I never thought I would go back overseas with getting another surgery and the process of getting back into it,” McKibben said of her return.
“I didn’t know how my body would take it but now that I’m going back my only thought is to just be happy; happy that you’re out there playing because it can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye.”
Now, she’s spending her summer with the Inferno preparing for her return to FC Saarbrücken, a second division side in the Bundesliga, in August. Prior to her ankle surgery last summer, McKibben spent two years in Germany, playing half a season with ESTV Wurzburg, before transferring to FC Saarbrücken.
During that time she managed 15 goals and five assists in 33 appearances, despite dealing with ankle issues the entirety of her stint abroad. In her very first game in Germany, she sprained her ankle so badly her team initially thought it was broken.
For the next two years, she would play on the damaged ankle, often having to sit out practices and even games because of it, sometimes for weeks at a time. In March of last year, it became evident that she couldn’t play on it anymore. After playing in just three games in the second half of the team’s season, she was resigned to the bench.
Prior to moving across the pond to begin in her professional career, she had been through the surgery and subsequent recovery process before when she tore her ACL, MCL, and meniscus just three games into her freshman season with the Red Flash.
Following her redshirt season, she accomplished a feat that’s rare not only in soccer but across the college sports landscape as well – earning a conference player of the year award four times. McKibben did so in the Northeast Conference, racking up 70 goals and 40 assists during her career at St. Francis.
The recovery process from the reconstructive surgery was long and extensive. For the first four months, she had to remain idle. Then came ankle exercises and exercises to build back her leg strength and balance. She’s also had to get used to basically a brand new ankle with a new ligament that makes her foot move a totally different way than it did before the surgery.
“It was rough. It was very rough. It was definitely a test of whether or not I wanted it. Multiple times I thought to myself maybe I should just hang up my cleats, maybe I should be done.”
She’d think maybe it was time to move onto the new phase of her life and get a ‘real job’. Every time she thought she was ready to call it quits, her work as a coach made her realize that she wasn’t ready to be done yet.
“I would go coach a soccer game and I’m like, ‘I want to be on the field. I just want to play,’ and I think that’s what made my decision so easy is that I’ve never once didn’t want to be on a field,” McKibben said. “I’ve always had that itch to be out there playing.”
It’s that itch that compels her to get in long distance runs, lifting and sprints as much as her schedule allows. That itch also drives her to trek two and half hours each way twice a week for games and practices with the Inferno.
“Thursday nights I usually leave my house between two and three and our practice is at 6:15,” McKibben said, “So I don’t get home until usually around 11:30. I mean it’s worth it because it keeps me on a ball, it surrounds me with killer players and fun players…The drive sucks but it’s all worth it in my eyes.”
Just like it was worth it to try out for four NWSL teams when her college career ended. In one of those stops, she earned a spot on the Seattle Reign’s preseason roster. One of the last cuts from the team that season; she declined a spot on the reserves roster to try her luck in Europe.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Do you regret flying all over the place and spending all that money?’ and I was like ‘no’ because it showed me what I wanted and it gave me the opportunity to go overseas and that was the best decision I’ve ever made,” McKibben said.
Once more she has the opportunity to go abroad, one she wasn’t sure she’d have. While living an ocean away from her family and friends, and being surrounded by a foreign culture is now familiar to her, some parts in the next chapter of her soccer career will be unfamiliar.
Those include dealing with changes in personnel and tactics, as well as adjusting to her new ankle. She is embracing her new journey, one she understands won’t be the same as her first stint in Germany.
“I know the expectations for me are going to be a little bit different,” she said. “My goal is to just be present. I know my first year over there I beat myself up a lot trying to be perfect while I was playing and I realized it’s not possible. So for me, I just want to be present in every game and leave with the attitude that I know that nobody worked harder than me on the field.”