Nelson Is Back On Track
Nov. 8, 1999
By Jared Hoffman
It was getting harder and harder to maintain the image.
For so many years, Julie Nelson was known as a bruiser, a scrapper, and a girl who did everything at full speed. But it was difficult for Nelson to continue to be that person as she sat on a plastic lawn chair in the middle of her shower. It was simply impossible to maintain her down-and-dirty persona when she was forced to allow friends to bathe her and shampoo her short blond hair.
“One day I woke up with a weird pain running down my leg. It went on for two months, and I just thought it was a pulled hamstring,” says Nelson, who at the time was coming off her sophomore season on the University of Maryland women’s soccer team. “So I went to a doctor and they told me that I have a broken spine. I was shocked. I insisted that it was just a pulled hamstring, but [the fracture] was so clear on the X-ray."
Nelson’s spine was actually diagnosed with four bilateral stress fractures. Just like that, the girl who was virtually unstoppable as an All-District, All-Region forward on the Langley High (McLean, Va.) girls’ soccer team from 1992-95 was stopped dead in her tracks.
Nelson was forced to wear a full-torso back brace for the next three months. But in June of ’98, follow-up tests showed that Nelson’s spine had not healed at all. So a choice had to be made: Retire from sports, continue wearing the brace and let the bones heal naturally, or have major back surgery (accepting all of the risks involved) and be out of commission for four to six months.
For Julie Nelson, it was a no-brainer.
“I had surgery to get back on the soccer field,” says Nelson. “And, well, because it hurt, too. But there really was never a question in my mind. Since the day of the surgery, my goal was to come back to soccer.
“Soccer has been such a huge part of my life,” she adds. “I didn’t want an injury to prevent me from fulfilling my dream of playing college soccer.”
In July 1998, Nelson underwent four hours of surgery. A piece of bone was taken from her left hip and fused to a vertebra. Two screws were then inserted into her spine, and wiring held the entire contraption together. She spent the next week in the hospital, then the next four months in the full-torso brace. Although she could walk, Nelson was forced to live in her Plexi-glas prison day and night — while she ate, while she slept and, oh yeah, while she showered.
“My roommates and my teammates were so nice,” says Nelson. “They really took care of me. Everyone was always dragging my one lounge chair around so I could come to soccer practice and watch.”
By Christmas vacation of last year, Nelson was finally able to take off her back brace. She suffered slight nerve damage due to the surgery, and began taking medication to deal with her newest pain. But Nelson was finally on the road to recovery, and that’s all that really mattered. Well, that and being able to get back onto the soccer field.
She began jogging in late January and began full rehab shortly thereafter. Nelson committed herself to the university’s weight room and started rebuilding her leg muscles. By the time the 1999 preseason rolled around, she had put on more than 10 pounds of muscle.
“She’s a heck of a hard worker, and she put up with a lot of pain to be here,” says Terrapins women’s soccer coach Shannon Cirovski, a member of the U.S. women’s national soccer team from 1986-91. “After the surgery, she came back and played on turf — which is just carpet over cement — and she’d just fling her body all over the place. I remember she went flying one time and landed right on her back. We all cringed, but she bounced right back up and kept going. She’s probably one of our hardest workers.”
Through her hard work, Nelson earned a spot in Maryland’s starting lineup after seven games this season. Through 13 games, the senior had three goals and two assists for the 5-7-1 Terrapins.
Nelson will take advantage of her extra year of collegiate eligibility (she was red-shirted prior to surgery) and stay at Maryland as a fifth-year senior through the 2000 season next fall. She’s staying at school because she realizes it’s her last chance to fling her body around, to be a bruiser and a scrapper. But she’s also prepared to hang up her cleats following next season.
“The bone is healed, and I won’t break it if I fell,” says Nelson. “But I know the more I play, the more chance I have to get hurt. So [these next two seasons] are it for me. I know right now that when I get older I want to be able to pick up my kids.”
After all, image isn’t everything.