By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
LEXINGTON, Ky. – It would have been more than most anyone could handle, much less a college freshman.
Tearing an ACL, preventing her from playing the game she loves, adjusting to life as a college student and then – the unthinkable – watching her own mother succumb to colon cancer after a valiant fight.
Those were the things Arin Gilliland had to face in her first year as a soccer student-athlete at the University of Kentucky.
“When I tore my ACL was when things started going downhill for my mom, and I had to cope with both things at the same time,” Gilliland said by telephone on Monday. “When my mom was diagnosed, I was 16, and I didn’t really understand what was going on. She never showed signs of anything. Two years down the road, she was acting like the same person, but I started to see all the changes – her skin color changing and her hair falling out. That’s when soccer started to get hard for me.”
Two years later, Gilliland has embraced her struggle and her own identity. On the soccer field, she leads the Southeastern Conference and is ranked second nationally in assists. The reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Week, Gilliland participated in the United States National Team U-23 Camp this past spring and is considered one of the elite players in collegiate soccer.
To comprehend how she went from one of her darkest hours to a nation-leading soccer player, you have to first understand Gilliland at the core.
Gilliland grew up in the shadows of the University of Kentucky, as the daughter of Bruce and Letita and surrounded by male cousins, all of whom instilled in her a competitive nature almost from birth.
“I grew up with all boys in my family and I had the mindset that I wanted to be better than all of the people I was playing with,” Gilliland said. “I definitely think my competitive side came from me growing up with and playing with guys my whole life.”
While Gilliland’s cousins taught her to be competitive in sports, it was from her father that she learned that there was a quest to be the best in all avenues of life.
The home movies from Gilliland’s childhood prove it.
“My dad made everything a competition,” she said. “It was things like ‘Who could eat their green beans the fastest?’ As babies, he would hang me and my cousins on ropes and see who could hold on the longest and then he would catch us. We have these family videos of me always winning. Competitiveness wasn’t something I had; it was something my dad gave me.”
When Bruce wanted to enter his daughter into softball, Letita rejected that notion. It was going to be soccer, Gilliland’s mother said.
“My dad wanted me to play softball, but my mom said ‘Our daughter is playing soccer,’” Gilliland said. “She was always bragging about me to the point that it would make me embarrassed.”
The bragging Gilliland’s mother did was well justified. Gilliland starred at West Jessamine High School in Nicholasville, Ky., where she finished her high school career as an All-American and was named Kentucky’s Miss Soccer. She also played club soccer for Ohio Elite. Along the way, Gilliland earned numerous honors for her accomplishments both on and off the field.
When Jon Lipsitz was named the head coach of the Kentucky soccer team in advance of the 2009 season, he knew he would build his program around players like Gilliland.
For the Wildcats to recruit nationally, they would first have to ensure that the best talent in the Bluegrass State was coming to the state’s flagship institution.
In addition to Gilliland’s talent level, Lipsitz also recognized that competitive nature that was born into his pupil from an early age.
“She is fierce,” Lipsitz said. “She has an edge to her that really drives her and eats her up when she doesn’t play her best. She believes in very high standards daily and works hard to find ways to be successful.”
In her freshman year at Kentucky – with her mother looking on from the stands – Gilliland appeared in all but one game during the season and earned Second-Team All-SEC and SEC All-Freshman Honors. The adjustment to the college game wasn’t always a smooth one either.
“As a player, I started out very rough technically,” Gilliland said. “My knowledge of the game was not very good. I’m not where I need to be in terms of understanding game management or certain formations, but it was something I was too stubborn to learn.”
Things were often sometimes rocky between Gilliland and her coach.
“In my freshman year, I absolutely could not stand Jon,” Gilliland said. “I was constantly battling with him and we butted heads. I couldn’t get it through my mind that he knew more than me, even though he had been coaching for years.”
Gilliland had the opportunity to participate on the national U-20 squad that year, but was unable to do so because of her ACL injury.
Her mother also would never see her play another soccer match.
“I’ll never forget her mother coming into the office and saying ‘Promise me you’ll take care of my daughter,’ when she knew things weren’t going well,” Lipsitz said. “It’s still hard to talk about. I think as close as Arin and I were in some ways, it meant that I need to worry a little more about her as a human being. I love all my players, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there wasn’t a little extra respect there and it adds a layer to our relationship, which is very, very special to me.”
There is a side to Gilliland that, until that point, few of her teammates had been able to see.
In her mind, it was never acceptable to show weakness. She had always demonstrated a fun-loving demeanor, but Gilliland never let what was bothering her become visible on the surface.
“I don’t like to admit fault and I don’t want to be seen as weak, but that’s when everything collapsed for me,” Gilliland said. “Everyone saw me at my weakest point and I learned that it is okay to feel those emotions and let other people see them. When you let other people in, that’s when they can help you. To grow as a person and a player that was something I needed to know.”
Gilliland also has a love for the west coast and enjoys visits to Hawaii to partake in surfing, something to which she escaped in order to help her cope.
“I didn’t know which way Arin was going to go,” Lipsitz said. “Just imagine your stereotypical rebellious young person who suffers tragedy and, quite frankly, would rather be living her entire life surfing in Hawaii. There was a time soon after her mother died where I wondered if she was going to come back. And who could blame her?”
While Lipsitz was unsure, at that time, how Gilliland might handle her future, he also was not surprised by what he saw when she returned to the soccer field.
“She came back stronger and more resolved than ever to reach her goals, lead this team and help this program develop and leave a legacy,” Lipsitz said. “I think it has really made her live for today, while at the same time, doing what she can to make it better after she is gone.”
It might be difficult to grasp how Gilliland overcame that tragedy, if one didn’t already understand her relationship with her mother, and with soccer.
“When things started going downhill, my mom made it very clear to me that she wanted me to excel in soccer,” Gilliland said. “I kind of think of it as she’s always watching me and every step, I do for her. Everything I do, I do for her because I know if she could be here, she would be ecstatic. It changed me as a person and the way I view everything.”
Gilliland earned the school’s Blue Heart Award, which recognizes a student-athlete who has overcome adversity, at the CATSPYs – Kentucky’s annual athletics awards show. Given what Gilliland had been through during the course of the year, the honor had special meaning.
“There aren’t even words that can express how I felt when I got that award,” she said. “With the experience I went through and everything going on in my life, I was able to come back and be better. If my mom was here now, she probably would have been more proud of this award than anything I have accomplished. This is my favorite award of any I’ve earned and it will continue to be my favorite award.”
One of the very definitions of the word is “a compelling or constraining influence.” And that’s how most people see pressure – a force under which it becomes too great for them to perform.
On the other hand, it is a condition under which Gilliland thrives.
“I like to excel in moments that are hard,” she said. “Some people collapse under pressure. Life should be lived in the moment and that kind of plays out on the field for me. I’m not the most technically sound player, but I try to think about ‘How can I put myself under so much pressure that I’m going to excel.’”
Lipsitz admires that trait and tries to put Gilliland in situations where her strengths will shine.
“She is a kid that loves when the spotlight is on,” he said. “She doesn’t need it to be about her; she wants it to be about the team. She loves the big games, the challenges and the weight of the team being put on her shoulders. There’s only a handful of players that I’ve ever coached who I’ve given this much on-field discretion to. She really relishes being asked to have that pressure put on her and to be responsible for our success.”
Since Gilliland first arrived on the Kentucky campus in advance of the 2011 season, the Wildcats have won 33 matches and have made a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances. In her first-ever NCAA game a year ago – she missed the 2011 event due to injury – Gilliland helped lead Kentucky to its first postseason victory in school history.
Off the field, she has become comfortable in herself – knowing now that showing emotion and being a relentless competitor don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
For Lipsitz, Gilliland has become the benchmark for what he wants his program to represent.
“I think she’s right at home,” Lipsitz said. “Why work this hard if you don’t enjoy showing up every day and being a student-athlete at this level? She is so intense when she walks across the line but, at the same time, she is the goofiest kid in the world. I understand that I’m the coach and I have to lead, but we’re in this together and there is a time and place for everything. She has a silly side that is very important to this team that people outside the program don’t know about.”
The lessons Gilliland has learned during her journey at the University of Kentucky have been invaluable and she strives to improve daily.
“Something I really lacked was responsibility and being detail-oriented,” Gilliland said. “Those are things that changed within me. I knew that I had to be responsible for myself because I only have my dad now and I was also responsible for getting myself back on the field.”
She has also learned to value her relationship with Lipsitz and enjoys spending time with her coach.
“Our relationship has grown to an unbelievable amount of respect,” she said. “Jon understands that I am a little bit different and have an exuberant personality. I will speak my mind, but I know where the authority line is. We can just read each other and know what the other is thinking. If we’re not on the same page, then we talk it out. With him, you have to communicate, which is something I never wanted to do. Communication on and off the field has really helped me grow.”
Lipsitz has ultimate confidence in Gilliland on the field, but has also enjoyed the time he’s spent with her away from soccer, and learning who she is as a person.
“There is so much to talking about life that I enjoy with Arin,” Lipsitz said. “We talk about her plans for the future and what she is doing with her free time. It’s not checking up on her or anything, I’m just enjoying that time talking with her. What has been great, as she has matured, is to watch her bring this silly, crazy personality into a team setting in such a positive way and give us great leadership.”
Gilliland has a dream to play professional soccer and to, one day, play in the Olympics – a dream that she and her mother visualized many years ago.
“I definitely want to continue to play wherever it takes me,” Gilliland said. “My dream is still not fulfilled; it’s just a matter of when it’s going to happen. I’m willing to do whatever it takes and continue to do that until I reach my goals.”
Lipsitz believes the sky is the limit for Gilliland. He knows she has the ability to be a top soccer player on the international level and to be a successful person away from the pitch.
“She is absolutely a professional player and a full national team player if that is what she wants, which as of now is what she wants,” Lipsitz said. “If she continues the work she is doing, she is going to play soccer for a long, long time.
“She’s got a good balance in her life,” Lipsitz continued. “In the offseason and between national team camps, you are going to see that kid on the beach in Hawaii. That’s just who she is and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I think she is also realizing the importance of having loved ones around her, opening up and letting people know who she is. If that’s what she wants, she can have it all.”
That balance, drive and the memory of her mother is what keeps Gilliland going strong every day.
“I’m still not half the player I need to be,” she said. “Theoretically, one day my mom will be with me at the Olympics. It still replays in my mind her telling me that, one day, I’m going to be there. She is what has kept me going. I want to be everything that she wanted me to be.”