Picture all of your friends celebrating an incredible triumph, while you are confined to a small, lonesome patch of land far away.
This is life as a goalkeeper—this is my life. Life as a goalkeeper on the varsity women’s field hockey team at Duke University.
BBC Radio once aired a piece called “The Loneliness of the Goalkeeper”—a comedic tragedy, a discussion of the cavernous space between goalposts and below the crossbar. It is about the “thin, tight rope” on which a goalkeeper walks, a rope teetering with every motion, a role pressured to be flawless for the full match, every match.
Goalkeeping is a specialized, focused skill set—a non-transferrable, disciplined, meticulous role. The two polarized lives which a goalkeeper can lead create a cruel binary: living behind a team of 10 who allow a constant barrage of opposing attack, shot after shot, forcing double-digit saves and gymnastic feats to cover the cage, versus the keepers who go all but a single, fleeting moment of a 70-minute match standing on the desolate, lonely island that is the opposite side of the field, 80 yards away from her teammates’ ponytails and passing sequences.
The broadcast asserts that all goalkeepers possess “a desperate sort of courage.” We beg to be heroic, but are reliant on the players in the field to deal the cards. We want the ball, but our teammates disagree—that means they’ve failed at their job. We are shrouded in the backfield behind 10 other bodies for the cause. Keepers are the loneliest players on the field.
But, without a doubt, the loneliest, most conflicted, masochistic of them all is the back-up goalkeeper. The number two. That’s me.
Before entering the collegiate game, I never sat the bench. I played for teams that allowed zero shots for the opposition, and for teams that forced 30-some saves in a single outing. I captained teams. I won state titles. I traveled to other countries to represent the United States. I would be lying if I said I was complacent in my current role. I would be remiss if I said I favored a spot on the sideline to the grit, guts and glory of playing under those dazzling Friday night lights. But what I have learned in my tenure as a Blue Devil is that it can’t just be the in-game minutes that you live for, but instead, the culture that you live in and the character you build. It is the resilience that comes from working and working and working with little to show in the stat book, but managing to create glory somewhere else on the ride.
With nearly four years playing Division I athletics, I am privileged to be a number two goalkeeper, not simply for the value of teamwork and pride in something bigger than yourself. I am lucky to have been hardened by this role, and I am lucky that I play behind and support arguably the best goalkeeper in the NCAA and the best defense in the ACC. I am lucky that they make me better. I am fortunate to have been tested—mentally pushed to the verge of insanity after 12 months a year of everyday physical strain with what many view as a lackluster return of a few minutes in the goal. Those people are wrong. The return is there—you just have to find it another way.
At Duke, we are a squad of 21. We are not 11 starting players and some people on the sidelines wearing matching uniforms, trading glances between the clock’s tedious down-ticking and the artistry on the field in front of them. We are 21 members of that squad, and without all 21 of us, we do not operate. Be it a starter, the last player on the bench, our athletic trainer or the back-up goalkeeper, we hold value in more ways than we know.
I have seen abundant scouting reports and learned offensive presses and defensive outletting schemes. I have been frustrated to what felt like the point of no return, and I have, more than once, contemplated if I belonged in a Duke uniform. But I have also felt the unreal, unparalleled emotion of beating UNC in penalty shootouts this past weekend, handing them their first loss of the year, merely the 11th time Duke has won in the Tobacco Road rivalry in field hockey history. I have endured the implausible whirlwind of emotion in realizing that last Friday will live in my mind for the rest of my life, and no one can possibly take that away.
The beauty of athletics is that you can—and will—learn more about character and heart and commitment than about how to run fast. The beauty of athletics is that you can—and will—learn how to be a professional in something other than your sport. The beauty of athletics is that every moment of frustration, every moment of excitement and heartbreak that accompanies being a team player—being a back-up keeper—teaches lessons far beyond how to save a ball.
I might not always be a game-changer, but the game has forever changed me, and I am lucky for that.
Ashley Camano is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Tuesday. Send Ashley a message on Twitter @camanyooo.