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Invincible: Four knee injuries, life's trials can't touch the fight in Lopez

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Giuleana Lopez had done it so many times.

The alarm clock buzzes, she turns over, smacks the button and rolls out of bed. It takes her a few seconds longer than it used to because of her leg. There's a little pain, but nothing she hasn't dealt with before.

She gets up, laces up her shoes and heads to physical therapy nearly an hour before the sun will splash a ray of light through her room.

Giuleana makes the trip to the physical therapy office. It's only a three-minute drive from her house, but she can't stand it. She doesn't want to be driving, she's tired of being up before dawn and she's sick of being hurt.

Giuleana walks in, mumbles a few words to her physical therapist and sits down. She doesn't stretch. She doesn't even move. Her physical therapist hands her the sheet with her normal routine, but today isn't normal.

Today is the day she finally walks away.

After four major knee injuries, hundreds, maybe even thousands of hours of physical therapy, Giuleana has had enough. She's wasted too many years of her life and done too much damage to her knees - two anterior cruciate ligament tears on her right knee, one on her left and multiple menisci tears on both.

"I was sick of rehabbing," Giuleana said. "I get there and I look at my trainer and I was like, `I'm not doing a thing today.' I was so mad and I was so sick of doing it that I didn't want to do anything. I burst out into tears and was like `I'm done with this, I'm calling my dad, I'm packing my stuff and I'm going home.'

Giuleana did what she said she was going to do. She cried. She kicked. She screamed. She told her dad she was done.

BUILT STRONG

That Giuleana even made it that far was already a lifetime's worth of triumphs.

Growing up, the Lopezes didn't have a lot of money, even if it was partially by choice. Benel and Eveline Lopez's children were active in everything growing up. Whether it was band, choir, a soccer game or a play, there was always something going on in the Lopez household. And Benel didn't want to miss a second.

So instead of putting his work first and his children's extracurricular activities second, he made sure his strenuous hours as a travel agent in downtown Chicago didn't interfere with the chance to watch his children grow. To do that, he switched jobs and became a contractor/plumber so he could attend anything and everything (to this day, Benel still makes the six-hour drive to Lexington to watch Giuleana's games).

Benel would sometimes work for two days straight to take a day off and make a game. Other times, he would wake up hours before sunset to make the 30-minute trek downtown from Waukegan, Ill., to attend a match in the evening.

Naturally, though, Benel had to cut back on his hours.

"He said, `Either I work and make money, or we're going to struggle a little bit but I'll make it to all of your games," Giuleana said. "He never missed any of our games from there on out - all five of us."

It came at a price, though. Because Benel was attending games, he was sacrificing work in order to watch his children play. The children attended a Christian school, and to help with the tuition their mother, Eveline, worked at the school. But eventually the bills added up and the Lopezes were forced from their home.

From that point on, the Lopezes rarely stayed put for more than a couple of years, and Giuleana even lived at her grandmother's place for a period of time. When they were living together at a house, to pay the electric bill on time would be a good month. To pay a college bill would be impossible without an athletic scholarship or financial aid. But it didn't stop Giuleana or her three sisters and brother from dreaming.

So instead of worrying about the bills or where they'd be next month, they lived and they dreamed. They let the situation be what it was - a financial difficulty and nothing else.

Giuleana Lopez's battles off the field shaped her on it.


"We've gone through a lot together as a family," said Francia Lopez, Giuleana's oldest sister. "We believe that the more difficult the past is the stronger you become, especially as a unit. We've had to go through a lot of difficult things that most people haven't had to go through, but it's brought us together and made us stronger together."

It started with their parents, who Giuleana and Francia called the rocks of the family.

"I wouldn't trade my childhood for the world," Giuleana said. "The love I got growing up, I would sacrifice struggling financially in order to give the love and attention I received from my parents to my children. For me, it was a better experience having the things that I needed than having money. It benefited me growing up to learn how to become responsible and earn things instead of just having things given to me."

So what if they couldn't afford to buy their children a TV. They didn't need it. They had a backyard to play in and siblings to bond with. It was there the Lopezes came together. They pushed each other through everything. They became stronger.

And they continued to dream.

THE NIGHTMARES

When Giuleana Lopez entered high school, her dream to go to college and play soccer wasn't so far-fetched anymore.

She was already one of the top players in the state of Illinois, she was playing for one of the best select soccer clubs in the nation, plus she was a pretty good basketball player to boot.

Ironically, that's what got her into trouble.

Midway through her freshman basketball season - on the varsity team of all places - Giuleana and her team were in a heated game with one of the school's rivals when Giuleana got the ball on a fast break. She drove the length of the court and into the lane when she pulled up with a jump stop, tearing the ACL in her left knee.

It would be the start of an ugly and unfortunate trend.

Giuleana's second knee injury came in the same sport but different knee.  During a Thanksgiving basketball tournament her junior year in high school, Giuleana's right knee was shredded when she stole a pass falling out of bounds. Her right leg stuck to the gym floor and never moved. The rest of her body - now parallel to the ground - did, tearing both menisci and the ACL in her right leg.  

When she went down, she looked up at her teammate and said her career was over with. Little did she know, she was just getting started.

Giuleana went on to college with the help of her family (more on that later) and made it to Kentucky, where it seemed her injuries were a thing of the past after a sensational freshman season. Giuleana played and started every match in her first year, scoring a team-high 10 goals and five assists in 24 games, while being named to Soccer America's All-America Freshman second team and the All-SEC second team.

But just as her career began to blossom, it came tumbling down again. As she was training for the spring season in UK's Nutter Field House, she tried turning with the ball and her knee popped again.

It wasn't a torn ACL this time, but another torn meniscus was enough to sideline her for the spring season and the rest of summer.

After the lightest injury yet, Giuleana entered the sophomore preseason healthy and poised to build on a huge freshman season. But three days into preseason practice during UK's "wall" drill, an all-out tackling fest that's usually full of blood, sweat, tears and sometimes injuries, it happened again.

Giuleana received a pass from a teammate and tried to turn with it when one of the freshmen tackled her. Giuleana tried turning one way, but her freshman teammate turned her the other way, tearing the ACL in her right knee again. It was her fourth major knee injury.

She'd done it so many times that there were hardly any tears or anguish. Giuleana was almost used to it. In fact, she'd torn her knees up so much that she could diagnose her knee problems better than a doctor.

For her third and fourth knee injuries, she told her trainer exactly what she did down to the ligament and tear before the trainer even examined her. She was right both times.

 "There's different pops when it's cartilage and ligaments," Giuleana said. "When I went down (that fourth time), I was like, `Yeah, it's an ACL. Stop trying to fool me. I know what I'm talking about.' "

QUITTING ISN'T A `LOPEZ THING TO DO'

After dedicating years of her life just to get back on the field, Giuleana was ready to give it up for a return to normalcy that day in the physical therapy office in February of 2008.

She had made up her mind and was leaving soccer, school and her entire life's worth of work. Nobody could blame her for wanting to give up after the physical and mental abuse that few people will ever have to go through in their entire life, much less six years.

Giuleana Lopez has battled through four major knee injuries to get back on the field.


Physically, some of the injuries were excruciating. The first was devastating and eye-opening, the last the most painful and the most heartbreaking. She still deals with arthritis and tendinitis to this day because of the injuries, but it's the mental toll that turned out to be the toughest part.

The thought of rehabbing nine months, sometimes even a year, four times in a row is enough to smash any elite athlete's psyche into a million pieces. Often times, Giuleana's spirit was crushed, but every time, she picked up the pieces off the floor.

Still, it wasn't without its long-term damage. Once called a fearless player entering college - as evidenced by her team-high 10 goals her freshman season - Giuleana started to become timid and hesitant on the field.

"I have to reboot my confidence every time I get injured," Giuleana said. "It's tough and it gets harder every time. It builds character, that's for sure. Every time I talk to a teammate or people find about my knee surgeries they ask me what I'm still doing playing."

Giuleana said that the only reason she held on that final time was because of the support staff she had built around since she was a little girl in Illinois.

"I would get shredded if I ever quit because that's not a `Lopez thing to do,' " Giuleana said. "It's an emotional rollercoaster. It takes a toll on you psychologically, mentally, physically. It's draining. I guess the strong survive. I don't know how I made it through. I definitely didn't make it through by myself."

Her parents, her siblings and her teammates pushed her through. No one was letting her come this far to let her quit.

Take for instance her sister Nina.

Following the second knee injury in high school, Giuleana's collegiate dreams appeared dashed. Since she'd been rehabbing her knee for half of her high school career instead of playing on the field, she got little visibility on the national scene and absolutely no interest from college coaches.

"I didn't think I was going to make it," Giuleana said. "I didn't want to do anything but play sports, so I didn't want to go to college if I don't play soccer."

Nina knew that and took Giuleana's fate into her own hands. She e-mailed 50 Division I schools without her sister knowing, telling college coaches what happened. Nina wrote that Giuleana was on the top club in the nation at the time and was talented enough to play.

Only one school believed her.

Former Kentucky coach Warren Lipka responded by calling Giuleana's club soccer coach. Once he told Lipka to take a chance on her, she came out the next week for an official visit. Shortly thereafter, Giuleana committed, but she had to perform just to stay in school.

"It was either I did well freshman year or I was going home because my family doesn't have a lot of money so there was no way I was going to make it through without a scholarship," she said.

Her oldest sister, Francia, has been equally as important. Every time Giuleana went down with a knee injury, Francia flew across country from California for at least a week just to stay with her sister. Often times, Francia would take the night shift with her sister, which was typically the hardest on Giuleana.

Because of the pain, she would toss and turn and almost never sleep. Francia would stay up with her for every single one of the restless nights, talking about life, the injury and getting back on the field.

When she went down for a fourth time and wanted to leave UK, it was Francia again that held Giuleana together. Once Francia heard of Giuleana's intentions, she called and "screamed at her." Francia, the elder by six years, told her she wasn't going to let her quit on both of their dreams.

Francia doesn't remember the details of the conversation because it's not the first time she's called her to scream at her, but she remembers that she knew Giuleana wasn't going to give up. Francia said she was too much of a fighter to do that. Giuleana just needed someone to "bust her up a little bit."

"We don't have the same goals as average people," Francia said. "Our objective isn't just to go to school, get a job, work and retire. Considering that we have a little bit of a bigger goal, you've got to push a little harder and be a little stronger."

Her other siblings had an impact as well. Her brother, David, who Giuleana competed with throughout her childhood, called in tears one day to tell her she was living both of their dreams. Her youngest sister, Grecia, called Giuleana her hero and would be devastated if she ever quit.

"They pushed me through everything," Giuleana said.  "They're the ones that got me here."

Giuleana credited her team with helping her fight through everything as well. She said teammate Katie Fahey was always there with a shoulder to cry on, her senior captains were always pushing her and her three roommates were like sisters when her family couldn't physically be there for her.

"My team told me I was selfish if I quit and they didn't see me as a quitter," Giuleana said. "They didn't want me to give up and take the easy way out."

BACK WHERE SHE BELONGS

Giuleana never did take the easy way out. She took the advice of her family, friends and teammates and rehabbed for a fourth time. Miraculously, she returned to the field once again last year for her sophomore season and played in every single game.

Under the direction of new head coach Jon Lipsitz, Giuleana Lopez is primed for a huge junior season.


"It was a blessing that I didn't have to deal with anything," Giuleana said. "It finally felt good to go through an entire season without any issues or problems or worries."

But by her account, the season wasn't a success. Although most considered it a miracle that she even made it back on the pitch, Giuleana wasn't happy with her play. Regardless of what happened to her in the past, Giuleana's goal once she was on the field was to score goals for her team.

She totaled nine points on the season, including four goals and an assist, but the only real uplifting moment, she said, was when she scored a goal against Cleveland State, her first score in nearly two years.

"It was like taking the Sears Tower off my shoulders," Giuleana said. "My job is to score goals for my team. I felt like I wasn't doing what I need to do for my teammates. I didn't feel like I was getting the job done. I felt worthless on the field because I'm here to score for my team to win. I just felt like I was disappointing them every game not coming out and scoring. Finally it just came off. It was a major relief. I could finally breathe again."

Now that she's had a season to regain her confidence, her health and the fearlessness she possessed when she entered college, she's hoping to end her career the way she started it.

"If I get hurt again, I get hurt again. I've been through it, I can do it again," Giuleana said. "A fifth one is not going to hurt me. I think the doctors said I'm done after my next one, but I won't stop. You'll have to drag me down before I stop."

Four knee injuries later, nothing might be able to stop her now. Heading into her junior season under the direction and bright future of new head coach Jon Lipsitz, her mind and attention are focused only on a successful junior year.

In the first game of the season, Giuleana played with the confidence of an invincible force. She made cuts as violent as the ones that tore her knees to pieces years earlier, made tackles that used to make her wince. She played nearly the entire match in a 2-1 win against Cincinnati, providing an assist in the second half to tie the game up.

Giuleana Lopez looks to be back and better than ever.

"Whatever I can do for my team, that's my goal," Giuleana said. "For our team to be successful, I'll do whatever I can. If I need to sit the bench for us to be successful, that's fine. I'll break my leg for them to be successful."

Break her leg? Giuleana Lopez, you've done quite enough.

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