Bree McMahon reaching for dreams
BREVARD, N.C. -- If ever an afternoon offered an invitation to trudge to practice, this was it. Classes and all of their accompanying burdens were back in full swing at Brevard College by the middle of September, but neither the heat nor the swarms of flying insects appeared ready to cede summer amid the mountains of western North Carolina.
There is a reason people rarely get together to choose sides for pickup practices. Training can be tedium. All the more so for those Brevard players on this particular afternoon who knew they were unlikely to play in the next day's game at Converse College across the border in South Carolina.
But if Bree McMahon's steps were sometimes labored as she moved through drills, she did not trudge. She never does.
"I love practice every single day," McMahon said. "I cherish every single practice I go through, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how exhausted I am at the end of it. I'm just glad to be able to go to practice at the end of the day."
An amputee as the result of an accident her senior year in high school, McMahon made an improbable comeback. She just didn't stop there.
She is well aware of her approaching anniversary. Even as she begins her fourth year of college, the memories of Sept. 26, 2009, remain fresh in her mind, as they forever might. To raise money to cover the costs of a tournament in another state, the kind of tournament college coaches rely on for recruiting, the Orlando, Fla.-area club soccer team for which she played staged a car wash. Rather than spend hours arm-deep in soap and water, she spent most of the day drumming up customers. It wasn't until the fundraiser neared its end that she made her way in from the street to help wash a teammate's car.
The driver's foot slipped and hit the accelerator. The car shot forward and pinned McMahon against a wall. The impact broke her right femur and dislocated her left knee.
She remembers the distraught friend who had been behind the wheel holding her. She remembers her mom holding something to her leg to try to stanch the flow of blood. She remembers sending texts from the back of the ambulance and her protests when the paramedics began to cut away her shorts and the bathing suit bottom below. They didn't need to ruin the latter, she remembered protesting; the suit tied at the side. It was an unfathomably inconsequential loss to worry about in that moment, but her mind sought out some semblance of the familiar to which to cling in the face of a reshaped reality.
"I had a bad feeling, just looking at my legs," McMahon recalled. "They didn't look good."
She did not stray toward maudlin as she recounted those moments before she arrived at the hospital and anesthesia took over. At times in the telling, she seemed almost glib in her pragmatism.
"I thought I would lose my right leg, but I lost my left leg," she continued. "I'm kind of glad I lost my left leg because I'm right-footed. I would have had to retrain my left foot, and that would have been really annoying."
The hint of a smile as she uttered the last couple of words suggested she knew the effect it has on listeners when she makes it sound like the annoyance of losing a phone.
That was the personality Brevard coach Shigeyoshi Shinohara encountered when he first recruited her before the accident, big and a little brash but eminently endearing. She got along well with his players when she visited the school on a recruiting trip. He saw talent he could put to immediate use in a starting role in the back line, a versatile defender with a good long throw. There is never a lot of scholarship money to be found in the Division II South Atlantic Conference. What he offered was far from a full ride, but it was commensurate with a player of consequence and cornerstone of his first full recruiting class.
"What we offered to Bree was definitely what we offer to players we need to count on," Shinohara said. "If we give the athletic scholarship, it means we would like to see they will be able to change the program, they will be able to help the program."
I was born normal, and I'm having to adapt to a different situation, a different way of life. This is my normal now. I'm used to it this way. This has been a blessing in disguise. I've learned a lot, and I've become a really good person, and I've been able to do a lot for others.Bree McMahon
Even so, he didn't feel Brevard was her first choice, a hunch that appeared confirmed when he didn't hear back from her for several weeks after extending the offer. When her high school coach subsequently called and seemed to beat around the bush while building to the reason for contacting him, Shinohara assumed it was to let him know McMahon had picked another school. Instead, the voice on the other end relayed the news that she was in the hospital. And that there had been no choice but to amputate the dysvascular limb.
The human spirit is not limitless in its power, which is precisely why its ability to push the boundaries of what is possible often amazes. So it was with the comeback story that unfolded well off the beaten path in this town about 45 minutes south of Asheville.
Although McMahon had yet to commit to Brevard at the time of the accident, Shinohara honored the scholarship offer. Still in a wheelchair for much of her freshman year, still trying to wean herself off the pain medication that reduced much of her senior year of high school to a haze, she faced daunting challenges in everyday life. It was difficult to be a student, figuring out how to get around campus and take care of herself more than 500 miles from the support of her parents. McMahon was steadfast that she would play soccer again, but it must have seemed a remote possibility to those around her.
There were times, in fact, when Shinohara recalled conversations between player and coach in his office in which it seemed even her belief had its limits.
Two-and-a-half years after the accident, having made the move to goalkeeper and adapted to a prosthetic leg that allowed her to run again, she played in a spring exhibition game.
That is where the movie might end, the curtain falling on a comeback completed and a dream realized. It would be a full story. But life kept going. McMahon kept going.
She made two appearances in the fall season in 2012 and was credited with two saves in slightly more than 50 minutes on the field. She played goalkeeper a little bit growing up -- Shinohara actually missed her the first time he went to see her play club soccer because he didn't think to look in goal, where she was filling in for an injured teammate -- but there was a lot to learn about playing the position in college. Not to mention there was a lot to learn about how to play the position with a prosthetic leg.
There is a physical toll to what McMahon does on the soccer field. By her count, she is up to 20 surgeries related to the original injuries, the most recent of which was this past winter. She has almost no calf muscle in her remaining leg, the lower half of her right leg noticeably undersized. She does not have full range of motion in her right knee. Every dive, every shuffle to the side comes with a price.
"I know my limitations," McMahon said. "I know I will never be -- I will probably never be -- a starting keeper. I understand that because we are in a very tough conference and I still have a lot to learn. Even as a senior, I'm still learning every day. Being second string, that's my goal right now."
It did not go unnoticed that she hedged her bet on the impossibility of starting. It is unlikely, to be sure. But there are plenty of people who will assume what she can't do. She need not join in.
"She's always talking about what she can do to get better," teammate Megan Jenkins said. "Or even if she observes other goaltenders, she's always critiquing and she's always on the little details which matter. I know, for her, she might not be able to go out of her box because of how she is, but she thinks of what she can do instead to make up for it."
McMahon's insistence that she can make up for it, her refusal to accept an amputated leg as reason to give up on playing college soccer against able-bodied opponents, says a great deal about her and her ability to inspire. So, too, does the passion she developed for another sport, one that only came to her attention as a result of her changed circumstances.
Not volleyball in wheelchairs, as USA Volleyball's Elliot Blake hastens to make clear, sitting volleyball is played by the same rules as standing volleyball, only with a shorter net on a smaller court. The biggest hurdle Blake, the program coordinator for the national organization, faces in recruiting newcomers is one of perception.
"Sometimes it's difficult to get a disabled individual, I'm going to take out the word 'athlete' for a moment, to accept the idea of sitting on the floor and, quote, looking disabled," Blake said. "Sometimes there are individuals, they're fresh off an injury, and they want to be right back to being 'I am able-bodied. I can do anything that any other person can do. I don't have a disability.'"
He had no such trouble winning over McMahon. She paid her own way to attend one of the national program's training camps at the University of Central Oklahoma, where the team is based, and was hooked on the sport. She took the summer off from soccer to rest her body, but she still traveled in May with her sitting volleyball team to the U.S. Open in Kentucky.
All she wants to do is compete as part of a team. Whether she's standing in goal on a soccer field or sitting on a volleyball court doesn't much matter.
"I was born normal, and I'm having to adapt to a different situation, a different way of life," McMahon said. "This is my normal now. I'm used to it this way. This has been a blessing in disguise. I've learned a lot, and I've become a really good person, and I've been able to do a lot for others. That means a lot to me."
She will return to Brevard next year to complete her degree in exercise science and play one more season of soccer. She would like to coach soccer, but she also wants to compete for a place on the sitting volleyball national team.
Accomplishing the latter won't be easy. Blake said it generally requires at least a year and a half of training for an athlete to progress from novice to a level where the national team is a viable option. And that is in the cases of athletes who relocate to the sport's hub at the University of Central Oklahoma rather than fly in for perhaps half a dozen multiday training camps over the course of the year.
Still, McMahon is a hard person to bet against. Shinohara cautions that she still has much to learn, that she can at times be too willing to overextend herself. Blake sometimes finds himself correcting the coaching she gives players only slightly newer to sitting volleyball than she is. What both make clear they admire is the boundless enthusiasm and energy with which she goes about everything, the successes and the missteps.
"I can clearly see that she's going to be a very successful young lady," Shinohara said of someone who more than lived up to her end of the bargain when it came to changing the program. "She will get wherever she wants to go. And wherever she dreams of. I have no doubt that she will be able to get to it.
"To be honest, she's not the type of person to sit down and say it's done."
Bree McMahon came back. That was only the beginning.