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Living on the Sidelines

Training and competing as a student-athlete is hard, but quitting because of a medical condition is hard, too

Caitlin McComish tends the goal. Photo credit: University of Toledo Photo

For soccer, Caitlin McComish was willing to nearly drown. 

Last fall she realized another flood was coming when she felt the familiar tingles in her hands and feet. The nausea and hives would arrive next, she knew. Then her tongue and lips would swell, her throat would start to close and air would elude her as if she were trapped underwater.

She had felt those sensations about 70 times before. What was one more? So during a conditioning drill in one of the final practices of the University of Toledo women’s soccer team’s 2013 season, McComish didn’t stop when she felt the tingles and the nausea because she finally understood, deep inside, that her time playing the sport that she had been drawn to shortly after she learned how to walk was about to end. 

McComish, a goalie who never made it into a game in two years at Toledo, was medically disqualified soon afterward. The attacks had started in May 2013 and worsened; after being befuddled for months, doctors eventually deduced that her body went into shock when it overheated, a condition triggered by an underlying autonomic dysfunction.

Unable to fathom having their sport taken from them, her teammates hurt with her and stood by her and helped her through the transition to a new life without soccer.

“She was telling me, ‘I can’t let it go; I can’t let it go; I can’t believe I’m not a soccer player anymore,’” Toledo junior forward Geri Siudzinski said. “We tell her every day, ‘You are still part of the Toledo family.’” 

McComish missed her freshman season because of hip surgery. After the hip healed she was greeted by this new, more menacing tormentor. On her first day home from her freshman year, she went for a run that started with visions of a successful sophomore season and ended in the emergency room. 

The attacks – anaphylactic shock – persisted through the summer and fall, and Toledo assistant athletic trainer Gretchen Buskirk and the team’s medical staff scrambled to create a protocol to treat an athlete who was seemingly allergic to exercise. When an attack started, they escorted McComish away from the gaze of concerned teammates and took steps to cool down her body. She left practice in the back of an ambulance four times. 

Both Buskirk and Siudzinski admired her willingness to take the field knowing that panic and a tightening airway might be only a few drops of sweat away, but they wondered whether she would ever be willing to give up. The Toledo medical team held off from making that decision for her as long as they could. For any dedicated athlete, they knew, quitting’s ache lingers deeper than any ailment’s. 

“I sat her down more than once,” Siudzinski said. “‘Caitlin, you have got to look at the big picture. This isn’t career-ending; this is life-ending.’”

Ultimately, the discovery of the underlying condition – postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome – necessitated medical disqualification. McComish spent her youth being ferried to practices and tournaments year-round. She spent two years in college trying to set foot in a Division I game. In an instant, all of that was gone. She needed an outlet. 

She found several. She is on medication that has kept the attacks in check and now helms three local youth teams and will assist Toledo soccer’s marketing this fall. She is also working toward a nursing degree. 

“Do I think she’s handled it well?” Toledo head coach Brad Evans said. “Yes. She’s proactive.”

McComish, embarking on her new life, insists her former sport never defined her. Soon, though, she hopes doctors will clear her to watch Toledo practices. 

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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