What Happens When You Sustain A Permanent Injury from NCAA Sports? Ryan Vint’s Experience Navigating The High Stakes Pressure of Big Ten Soccer

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In 2006, Ryan Vint was next. If you knew his high school soccer career at that point, you wouldn’t flinch at the thought of him continuing his success in college. His list of accomplishments read: State Champion, Gatorade Player of the Year, All-American, and first goalie to ever win Mr. Soccer in the state of Minnesota. And consider this: as a kid, Ryan was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood arthritis. He was told that he could be bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. While he overcame that, the mentality he developed to fight that experience survived. When you speak to Ryan, you can hear the competitor in him with every word. Coming into college, Ryan only knew overcoming odds and succeeding.

Thirteen years later, Ryan has mixed emotions about his playing days. While he says he’d do it all over again, he now lives with injuries that he sustained as a player at Wisconsin. While injuries are part of the game, athletes don’t often think about the long term effects of injuries, especially when there’s expectations, competition, scholarships, and pressure from your program involved. In this interview, Ryan talks about navigating college athletics as a top recruit, what it means to be your own advocate, and how he navigated the severity of his injuries after his playing days were done.

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Coming in as a top recruit, what were your expectations?

I got offers from Ohio State, Oregon State, Yale, Navy…there were so many different offers I was getting. Wisconsin was the one I wanted to go to because it allowed my family from Minnesota to come see me play. I got the chance to play at the Division I level as well as keeping my personal and family life close to me. I felt like it was going to be a lot of the same success going into college or that I would at least challenge the goalkeeper to eventually earn a starting spot. Going into college that was my expectation. 

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Given those high expectations, it wasn’t a cake walk when you stepped on campus. Can you talk about your adjustment. 

Coming from where I came from to college and feeling like a freshman again was intimidating and humbling. There was a senior goal keeper and a redshirt goalkeeper ahead of me. I redshirted my freshman year so I knew it was all going to be about work. I wasn’t going to be viewed as good as the goalkeepers ahead of me, but I knew for damn sure I was going to out work them.

That mentality is very much the athlete mentality: I’m going to control what I can control and work. Unfortunately your work was stunted by an injury. That must have been deflating.

It changed my trajectory and life up to that point. During my sophomore year, in the second half of my first start, there was a ball coming in on a breakaway. I came out, took the ball away from the forward, but in the process he followed through and connected his knee to my face. I broke my nose and jaw and I was knocked out on the field for 43 seconds. I made the save but I don’t remember the rest of the game or the rest of that week. I was put into a concussion protocol, but I didn’t have nearly enough time to recover as I needed. I was put back into practice within two weeks and I suffered my next concussion and injured my neck.

How did this affect your season and mentality at that point?

They told me they needed to send me home to do cocoon therapy with no lights or stimulus for a week. They were thinking of taking me out of classes and making me re-enroll the following semester. It was near the end of that first semester and I had already put in that work; I wasn’t about to let it just fall through my fingers.

I did what any competitive athlete would do: I said no. I was going to fight, finish the semester, and do everything I could to succeed. I did the cocoon therapy back at my parents place before coming back for finals week. I couldn’t hold a pencil because of my neck injury. My nerves were being cut off and my spine was twisted (I eventually found out later). The sports medicine doctors told me that if I can play through the pain I should play, which basically was a challenge and indirect way of saying ‘if you can’t play then why are you even playing competitive D1 athletics?’ So of course I can play through the pain.

Obviously, I did terrible on my exams. I don’t even remember them. From that point on, when I was back on campus, I went into survival mode. I didn’t even think about academics. I wanted to prove that I could play at the highest level and I was going to stick this out to the end. I was already injured and it affected me to the point that I couldn’t really focus on school. I was a national honors student. I had a 4.0 gpa in high school and now I was struggling academically. This was brand new to me and I didn’t know how to handle it. What I could control was my effort in soccer so I just focused on that.

Did the pressure to play come only from the doctors or was there part of you that was just too competitive to sit out?

There was a lot of different things playing into that situation. I didn’t want to lose my spot. I didn’t want to lose my momentum. And I didn’t want to lose my scholarship. I put in all this work already. I didn’t care about the costs going forward; I was going to pay them. Also, the thought of living life as someone other than an athlete wasn’t something I wanted to experience. I didn’t know who I was without soccer. I was Ryan the soccer goalie. If I took time off, I was letting down my team, myself, my parents, my friends, and my hometown. I put as much pressure on myself as I could at that time. I don’t know why I did it, but thats all I knew back then. It was a really hard experience and I still don’t know if I’m fully recovered from it. Hopefully in telling this story, it can reach other people who are going through similar things.

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In addition to dealing with that injury and fighting to keep your spot, your coaching staff was fired. Did this make the challenges you were already having easier or more difficult to deal with?

Going into the spring with the new coaching staff, I didn’t get the chance to sit back, recover, and take it easy. Typically with the offseason, there is a focus on getting healthy. But it was back to tryout mode. People are gunning for your spot and you have to not only protect it, but also for me, hopefully earn a starting spot. Either you sink or swim and I wanted to swim. That was going into my junior year or redshirt sophomore year. I was beat out again, but was still on the team and earned a 75% scholarship at that point. I was continuing to advance slowly, but I didn’t want to leave the team to heal. I wanted to continue pushing and hopefully earn some playing time.

That’s a lot of pressure to go through.

Yeah. And the next year, I would experience another coaching change, which made it three coaching changes in three years. During that time I had numerous other injuries. I tore my meniscus which required surgery. I suffered a broken hand in warm-ups and was forced to play in the game the following week. I didn’t get a chance to have my hand heal and I still have a large deformity in my hand because obviously I was using my hands to stop balls.

Did you really feel like you had to keep going? 

What wasn’t really helping me realize what I was doing to my body was medication. It helped hide the pain and helped me survive in school. I was getting a B here and there, but mostly C’s in class. Adderall was prescribed frequently to a lot of athletes and it allowed us to go above and beyond when our bodies might have told us to shut down. It not only helped me in the classroom, but it helped me on the field when I wasn’t getting any sleep from the pain and had to perform the next day. I didn’t even realize what I was doing to my body until later when I was removed from [Adderall], but when you’re in it, you don’t know.

There’s a fine line between surviving and thriving. While you found a way to make it through, do you feel like you were progressing as a soccer player?

As a captain my senior year, I started the season earning all-tournament honors at the UC Irvine College Classic. We faced Indiana, where one of my previous coaches was coaching so I wanted to prove myself. That game showed everyone that I belonged there. I earned Big Ten All-Defensive Team for that week and at that point it felt like I finally showed everyone that I could succeed. But that was when the injuries really started to catch up to me. I couldn’t continue to play every game. Some games I had to sit out, even though the pressure was off. It really had me thinking about my health and where I was physically. 

Did not being able to play make your senior year harder given that the end was near?

I was pissed. Our coach was really focused on developing the younger players, so he would start swapping games. I would play the Big Ten games and my backup would play the non-conference games. I was frustrated. I remember having an exchange with him about it and standing up for the seniors because we didn’t have much time left and we had been through such a tough four years.

How did that situation end up? 

It got worse. I got in a couple games here and there, but he started the freshman keeper the rest of the year. At that point all I could do was step back and heal myself. I didn’t want to give up, but it felt like the sacrifices I was making were for a lost cause. I had other aspirations and I wanted to focus on my life after college. Now, I understand where the coach was coming from, but at the time I didn’t.

You go from a top recruit to battling injuries and coaching changes. After all that how did you prepare for life after sports?

Throughout my summers, I had a few sales internships. I still played soccer during those summers, but I wanted to do some internships to keep my resume looking good. When I got done with soccer, I started looking at sales opportunities. I knew my skills would translate and that a lot of sales people are former athletes themselves. I just started networking on LinkedIn and with people I had met through my internships. I ended up finding an opportunity with Dell.

So after this career that didn’t go as planned you seemed ready and prepared to move on. Is that how you felt when you started working?

There was a huge adjustment curve. I didn’t think I would go through an identity crisis, but I did. It felt like there was always something missing. I realized how much of my identity was tied up in sports so I started coaching. Part of my recovery and healing was being able to use my experience and what I knew to teach the next generation. I got an opportunity to coach the goalkeepers at a Augsburg College, a D3 school in Minnesota. I did that for six years while also working in sales and now I coach the goalkeepers at my high school. It’s fulfilling. It’s something that I didn’t know I needed.

What is one thing you wish you would have known about the transition?

I was being told what to do, what to eat, and how to study my entire life. Now I had all this free time and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I would go to work, come back and just sit around. I didn’t know how to necessarily stay healthy. I was eating how I normally would eat in college and I needed to find a way to fill my life with things that filled me up. It took me five years to really find a routine. 

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In your transition, you also had to deal with some of those injuries you sustained while playing. Can you talk about what that was like?

Through those five years I was dealing with getting second opinions on my neck. As soon as I got a second opinion, they saw the MRI and said the doctors at school had messed up. The doctors recommended that I get a fusion surgery. I was a brand new kid out of college. I didn’t have the money to cover these surgeries. I actually ended up needing two fusions and two subsequent disc replacements because of my condition. I told Wisconsin about it and luckily, they said they’d pay for everything going forward. That lasted for two surgeries, PT and the follow up after that. As soon as the statue of limitations hit for malpractice, they stopped paying. 

Emotionally, knowing you have to deal with this injury even now, how does that make you look back on your college career?

It is bittersweet. There is a great amount of adoration for my teammates that I played with. I’m still going to weddings across the U.S. because of my teammates. We only hung out with each other. We had such weird schedules; that was all I knew. I didn’t have friends in college besides my teammates. 

Doctors ask me if I would do it all over again if I could. And I say yes each and every time. It taught me a lot about who I am as a person. Had I not experienced those trials, I wouldn’t have been as prepared for other challenges in life after college. There were a lot of things that came down on me after college that any other person may have handled differently. It felt like I had been there before and I would get through it.

What would you tell student-athletes now?

Be your own advocate. Going into college, I was so pumped up to be that D1 athlete that everyone expected me to be. I didn’t know anything else. Being your own advocate means asking all the right questions. These universities have us for four years, five years if you redshirt. They are trying to get as much as they can out of their investment in those four years. You have to think of it as a business. You have to think these guys might have my best interest in the short term, but what’s the long term? You have to be responsible for that and take ownership of it.

I would just encourage every student-athlete to really question the people that they think are on their team. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong or off, get a second opinion. It doesn’t hurt to stand up for yourself. Once you get out of college in the real world, you have to do a lot of standing up for yourself and believing in yourself. Don’t just accept things the way they are. Really question what’s going on. In business, relationships, and a lot of the things that impact every day life for you, you’re going to have to question and stand up for what is right.

You are still coaching, but you also work in sales. Why is Protolabs such a great company for your career right now.

I wouldn’t appreciate what I have right now if I hadn’t gone through the experiences that I had. I was struggling throughout the first couple years of my career because I had these leftover health issues from college that were unaddressed. I’m now putting down roots to help me grow a long term career. I’m not chasing expectations and I’m not trying to be someone that I’m not. I’m comfortable with who I am. I’m comfortable with the amount of time I put in at work and the time I put in at home. I have a work life balance that is comfortable for me. It is something that I always wanted, but also something that I didn’t know I needed. I gave up this whole notion that I need to be this successful person that I’ve been in sports and I need find that type of success in business. That’s just not true. You need to do what makes you happy and thats what I’ve found at my current position. I’m able to put my phone down at 5, go home, and enjoy my night with my wife Mindy, who was my high school sweetheart and by my side through all of this. Right now, I’ve found a great opportunity and I’m excited to see where it goes.