The Journey of Mariah Plieseis


On December 9th, 2012, I remember sitting in Vanderbilt hospital listening to my tenth doctor inform me I would never play soccer again due to an unknown diagnosis to both of my calves. I had been playing soccer since I was five years old, and I had known since then that soccer was going to be a significant factor in my life. As a youth soccer player, I had distinguished myself from the other young players as an elite athlete. The diagnosis the doctors had given me multiple times eventually turned my life as a successful athlete into an emotion rollercoaster full of chaos, misery, and hopelessness; however, quitting the sport I love was never an option. Through my terrors and triumphs, my life has ultimately transformed from not being able to play soccer to being committed to play with Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida.

I’ve played soccer for as long as I can remember. It was habit every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday to grab shorts, a T-Shirt and my cleats and hop in the car for a forty five minute drive to practice. When I was nine years old, my mom, without asking my opinion, signed me up for tryouts for the ’97 Impact club team, which I would stay with until May of 2013. As terrified as I was, it was the best thing she could’ve done for me. After one practice, I went straight to the “A” team and skipped both B and C. Almost a month later, I had my very first real tournament in Atlanta, Georgia where I started as a dominate forward and we went on to win the whole thing. From there, my skills and confidence shot through the roof and I was unstoppable. Before I knew it, I was getting recognized at other tournaments by opposing coaches, players, and even players’ parents. As I grew older, I became stronger and adapted to the difference between AYSO and the competitive world of soccer. I began to set my goals for myself as a player and where I saw myself going. At this point, I had the National Team on my mind and of course the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Though these dreams may seem far stretched, it was definitely something that I was completely capable of. At the age of eleven I was personally invited to play on the one year older Tennessee ODP first team. I was beyond excited, but already working to make a higher level team. During this time period, my club team was brought to the top as we won three consecutive State Championships. Little did I know that my third would uncontrollably be my last.

In the fall of 2010 we were all set to play at the CASL tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina. Shorty into the weekend, my coach notices my lack of speed and competitiveness. I explained to him I was having tightness and cramping in both of my calves. When we returned to Tennessee, I immediately made a visit to my orthopedic clinic. He explained to me the possibility of having Exercise Induced Compartment Syndrome. The next step was to diagnose the problem, which included a test that still gives me nightmares. The diagnosis includes having eight needles jabbed through your whole calf muscle in four different compartments of each leg, then repeating the test a second time after a series of running. When the test came back positive, my surgeon then explained to me that he would operate and basically make more room in my calves so that the cramping would stop. I refused to allow him to only do a leg at a time and I got my way. On December 28th, 2010, I couldn’t have been happier to begin my recovery and drive right over this big bump in the road. Little to my knowledge, this was only the beginning. Six months later, I am fully recovered and ready to roll for my fourth State Championship. It was a normal practice night and we were in a full field inner squad scrimmage. The next thing I know, I lose total feeling in both of my feet. I yell across the field to my coach and explained to him my rare feeling. As I continued to play, not only do I lose feeling, but the cramping is back and worse than ever. I revisit my orthopedic and he sends me straight over to Park West to a vascular surgeon. My new doctor walks in and measures the blood flow in my feet while I lay down and everything seems normal. He then has me stand on my tip-toes and repeats the same test. The blood flow completely disappears. Right then he knew something was going on in my arteries. Though the diagnosis is not final, he explains to my dad and I that I could have a one in a million chance of having a rare birth defect. A week later, I am put in a room in which my doctor performs a very painful test to give us the final answer. I am told to stay still, while a catheter is sent through my groin artery and into my legs. After the procedure, I lay flat on my back for nothing shorter than six hours. The results finally come in and I am finalized with the diagnosis of Popliteal Artery Entrapment Syndrome . This syndrome is one of the rarest and it is typically found in adults between the ages of fifty to seventy. I was fourteen years old when I had the surgery, leaving me to be the youngest person in the world to be documented for this specific surgery.  The popliteal artery runs down the back of your leg and into your lower legs. I was unfortunately born with extra bands of muscles spider webbed throughout my calves cutting off the blood flow to my lower leg by eighty percent. Every time my toes pointed downward, such as walking and running, the blood is pinched off by the extra muscles. Once again, I am relieved that there is a problem, just because I know it is fixable. In June of 2011 the procedure is completed, but with complications. My surgery lasted three and a half hours and my right leg took two and a half, doubling the time of my left.  My doctor explained to my parents that my right leg was a lot worse than he expected. He says, “I did the best I could, but I’m not guaranteeing you that she will ever run again.” Luckily for me, my parents never told me they had this conversation, until about a year after. Coming home from the hospital was everything I expected, already having a practice round with the previous surgery. For weeks, I used a walker and often drug my right foot around, simply because I could not get it to do as my left. As the weeks slowly carried on, I am counting down the days until I am released to play again. Not long after, I teach myself to walk and before you know it, I am running around again with no pain at all. Though no surgery is easy, this one was probably the most difficult to get back in the groove from. Although I am playing, I am not the typical goal scoring Mariah people are used to. Getting back into the swing of things, I quickly have to adjust to the life of starting every game, to keeping the bench warm for the girls who have taken my spot.

A year later, my legs are fine and I’m full speed ahead looking towards my future. As a new sophomore at Maryville High School, I am beyond excited to represent a brand new school and show everyone what I am capable of. The summer before, I get a terrible case of shin splints, but am fully recovered by the time my season began. Shortly into the season, I notice an all too familiar feeling: cramping and tingling. I keep my feelings on the down low, afraid to accept that there is yet another issue going on with my legs. However, I couldn’t hide it much longer. I became slow due to pain and often teared up during games because of the amount of pain I was in. September 10th, 2013, I could no longer face the pain and was not a help to my teammates in any way. I stepped down from playing until I could figure out what was causing me so much bother. Doctor after doctor, no one is able to pin point the problem. My parents begin to contact doctors from all over Tennessee to get any type of answer and resolution. Traveling back and forth from Nashville to Knoxville multiple times, the visits got old still with no answers. In November, trying whatever possible, I was misdiagnosed with micro tears in each calf and was put into two walking boots. I learned to do a rainbow with my boots and quickly picked up the nick names “two boots” and “forest gump”, only to lighten the situation. A month later, I am at my tenth doctor in Vanderbilt Hospital. I walk into the office with high hopes, only to receive the worst. My doctor finally walks in and sits down in front of me without ever asking for me to show him me legs or even explain to him what is going on. Before I knew it, I am hearing the words no athlete ever wants to dream of: “I hate to be the one to tell a girl who has always played soccer that she can never play again, but that is what I am doing.” Tears quickly poor down my face and I am in a sudden phase of shock. In an instant, my whole world is turning upside down. My thoughts are scattered and I feel like a lost puppy. After eleven years of doing what I love, I am to change my whole life and future plans.

Refusing to leave the only life I’ve ever known, I think of any sort of scenarios in which I can still apply myself to soccer. As my parents won’t accept the news, they keep pushing to find a doctor somewhere that can at least explain to me why I am no longer able to play. Meanwhile, I am training as hard as possible to transform myself from a forward, into a goal keeper. A month later, my mom makes a desperate call to my “savior doctor”, Doctor John Krusenklaus. He then sets up and appointment, which will turn out to save my career and passion. The next week I find myself on another doctor’s table with the white paper that makes noise every time you move an inch. He walks in and asks me to walk to the door and back and grabs my calves as I whine due to the hurt. Five minutes later he says, “I can have you playing in three months.” Once again, I am confused and in shock. How? That easy? He explains to my dad and I that I have a serious case of over training that has been going on for about three years. He describes my calves as “a bowl of spaghetti”, meaning my muscles and arteries are jumbled together, such as that you would see with spaghetti noodles.  I am to go to several therapy sessions that include the most painful massage therapy out available, along with a series of stretches. Once I am able to fix the flexibility and muscles issues, once again, I am to re-teach myself how to run. Due to my massive calf muscles, my legs were forced to adapt to the overload and made my feet pigeon toed. I was taught to fix my gate and after long, emotional days, I was on the field with the rest of my teammates.

Though my legs were up and functioning again, not everyone was on board to allow me to pick up where I left off. I never saw the field, but stuck through the challenges. I soon became frustrated with the situation. A week before my fifth State Championship, I stepped away from the team I had been with since I was nine years old. The team was all I had ever known, and while it broke my heart, I felt sudden relief and was looking forward to a new beginning. Not sure what to do or where to go, I received a call from assistant director Josh Scott. After speaking with him, he welcomed me after noticing my potential. A week later, I find myself at a practice and by the end of May 2013, I have a new team and set of coaches that suit my style just right. By December, my team had qualified for the Super Y Nation Finals at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Little did I know, a day after the tournament ends, I receive the call I had been longing for; an offer from head coach Bronson Gamble, at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. Though as a young player I was looking at the best soccer team in the US, I couldn’t be more grateful to find such a perfect fit for not only my skill set, but personal views as well.

Often when injuries come, the very first question any athlete asks is, “why”. For three years I fought a never ending battle that changed my life that I still work with to this day. I have to monitor my work and continue to stretch and receive massages. Though I’m still uncertain as to why I was born differently and why I was the one put into this situation, I’m grateful for the person it has made me and the paths it brought me to. Furthermore, nothing beats having a spectacular support system to keep my head in the right place and allow me to look at the bigger picture, which the bigger Man has in store for me. I would like to thank my amazing parents Todd and Andi that stuck by me through everything and were strong for me when I was not. Also, I give much credit to my club coach, Josh Scott, who gave me a second chance, when others gave up on me. Character is not formed when you’re at the top, but how you handle the brutal adversity.