Mike Adler wasn’t supposed to be a lacrosse star.
He and his brother played baseball as kids. When he was in high school, he wanted to become a professional surfer. Even once he decided to pursue playing college lacrosse, schools told him he wasn't good enough to play at that level.
And at 16 years old, he nearly lost his foot in a shark attack.
But now, the grad transfer is an All-American for Duke men’s lacrosse, and will start in goal this Saturday when the Blue Devils take on Maryland in the NCAA semifinals.
“The fact that it all came together like this, from where I started—I was about to go to College of Charleston just to be a regular student, and the fact that I'm about to play in the Final Four is just beyond my wildest dreams,” Adler said. “It's honestly just comical, how it all worked out like this.”
‘I’ll try goalie’
Adler grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with very little exposure to lacrosse at a young age.
His mom, Dana, played tennis at Florida State, and his dad, Matt, was an avid baseball player who coached Mike and his older brother Max’s baseball teams growing up. They even had a batting cage in their yard.
But when Mike was in middle school, a former lacrosse player started a club team in the Fort Lauderdale area, and Mike and Max were immediately drawn to it.
“As soon as they saw [lacrosse], and they saw that it wasn't as, not sedentary, but not as boring as baseball and there was a lot more activity going on...they thought. ‘We like this a lot more than we like baseball,’” Dana Adler said.
In terms of how he became a goalie, Mike said he really didn’t have a choice and that he was forced into it because Max—who ended up being an All-American faceoff specialist at Division II Bentley and now plays for the Chaos of the Premier Lacrosse League—“wanted somebody to shoot on.” Matt, however, did give some credit to his son’s former baseball position.
“Because Mike played catcher in baseball, and he was a very good catcher, he goes, ‘Well, I'll try goalie,’” Matt Adler said. “And they started shooting the ball on him, and because he played catcher he really liked it a lot. And so that's how he started the whole lacrosse journey.”
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‘I needed to be surfing’
Lacrosse wasn’t the only new extracurricular Mike found in middle school, though.
“Eighth grade hit and I really got into surfing, really caught the bug,” Mike Adler said. “So I honestly wanted to quit lacrosse and just surf. I would skip out on a lot of these summer and fall tournaments on the weekends because the waves were good…. It's bad because it was almost like an addiction for me. Like if the waves were good, I needed to be at the beach, I needed to be surfing.”
Adler eventually realized surfing wasn’t a viable career path—he told ACC Network that he went to California while in high school and “realized there were 12-year-olds that were better than me at surfing”—and that lacrosse would likely offer better opportunities down the road.
Nevertheless, Adler remains one of the most passionate surfers you’ll ever find. While at St. Joseph’s, where he played for three years before transferring to Duke last summer, Adler said he would always sneak off to the Jersey shore for a surfing break. He still has his surfboard in his room at Duke, even though COVID-19 prevented him from using it while on campus.
He also finds a lot of parallels between surfing and his role on the lacrosse field.
“The one thing about surfing—especially surfing waves of consequence, serious waves—you can't think about anything else, even if you tried,” Adler said. “You're paddling for this wave, you got a three-foot sharp reef right below you and this wave is just barreling down on the reef, it's like, how can you think about anything?
“It’s kinda like the same for lacrosse. When somebody is winding up from 10 yards and they're about to absolutely smoke it, you can't think about anything else. It’s the best feeling in the world. You’re so present, your heart's going, your adrenaline's pumping—there's nothing better than that. And that's why I play the position.”
The shark attack
There’s one other thing surfing gave Adler: one heck of a story when he was a freshman in high school.
Adler has told the story countless times: In May 2013, he and four of his friends traveled to Central Florida for a surfing road trip, during which he felt a shark clamp down on his left foot while riding a wave. Adler then ripped his foot free and swam to shore, where a former Army medic who happened to be on the beach that day helped stop the bleeding before paramedics arrived. He tore five ligaments in his foot, got 50 stitches and spent five days in the hospital.
While the details of the shark attack are captivating in their own right, what really makes the story stand out—and what grabbed the attention of Good Morning America and CNN—is how Adler reacted afterward.
While being carried away from the beach on a stretcher, he posed for a picture. He tweeted “I better be on shark week” and changed his Twitter name to “Shark bait.” He told The New York Daily News the whole thing was “pretty cool,” and said he’ll be perfectly fine going surfing again because “not many people get bitten by a shark twice, so that's good. It lowers my chances."
To his parents, that’s just Mike.
“He’s super chill,” Dana Adler said. “I mean, nothing gets to that kid.”
“Goalies tend to have that [attitude]—I mean, if you’re sitting there getting drilled by balls constantly, you have a little bit of a different mentality than a normal person,” Matt Adler added.
‘Had to sell myself’
The shark attack had no serious long-term health impacts on Mike, though it did affect his lacrosse recruitment. While recovering from the bite, Adler wasn’t able to play during the summer after his freshman year of high school, which is when most colleges recruited at the time.
He went on to lead Saint Thomas Aquinas to the state championship game his junior year, eventually winning the state title and earning championship game MVP honors his senior year, but still hadn't garnered much attention at the next level. He attended numerous prospect camps and continued to make calls to college coaches—still, nothing. It eventually got to the point that Adler was planning to attend the College of Charleston without playing lacrosse, before St. Joseph’s head coach Taylor Wray finally offered him a spot on his team.
“I got into College of Charleston and right around that time, Coach [Tony] Seaman—who was a coach that coached against me, who's kind of like a lacrosse legend—he called Coach Wray and was like, ‘You gotta take this kid.’ And that's kind of how I ended up at St. Joe's,” Adler said. “I had to sell myself. It's not like it just happened—I really had to sell myself…. And then I just wanted to prove to him that he's the man, so I wanted to prove to him that he made the right decision and that I would be a great decision for him.”
Adler did just that.
After redshirting in 2017, he won the starting job in 2018 and earned College Crosse All-Freshmen First Team and Northeast Conference (NEC) Second Team honors. He received another NEC Second Team designation in 2019 before leading the country in saves and earning honorable mention All-America status during the shortened 2020 campaign.
But after graduating with a degree in finance and two years of eligibility remaining (one because of his redshirt and one because of the NCAA’s COVID-19 extra eligibility ruling), Adler decided a change in scenery was necessary.
“It just didn't make sense academically to really stay,” Adler said. “So I opened up, I talked to my coach and yeah, I just thought it was best for myself to go in the transfer portal. And that was one of the toughest decisions I've ever made.”
Nearly four years since arriving at St. Joseph’s, Adler was being recruited for the first time, and he certainly had his options for where he wanted to attend graduate school. But in the end, the idea of playing at Duke and going to the Fuqua School of Business was too good to pass up.
“Mike had some choices,” Matt Adler said. “There were several colleges that were interested in him. But obviously, Duke—the potential educationally to be able to go to graduate school at Fuqua was the icing on the cake.”
Adler’s Duke career didn’t get off to a great start.
In his first official game as a Blue Devil, he allowed six goals in just under 17 minutes and was pulled early in the second quarter. Duke went on to come back and win, but it was far from an ideal first game for the team’s starting goalie.
“I felt confident,” Adler said of his emotions after getting pulled. “I wasn't freaked out by that. It's just like—three-and-a-half years at St. Joe's, you get in a routine. You have a pregame routine, you have the same guys shooting on you. And at Duke that changed, and that game on Koskinen was...my first time going through a game-day warm up. And for a goalie that pregame routine is pretty important. So that's when I was a little thrown off and then I got into the game, and I just didn't feel 100% comfortable.”
Adler didn’t start Duke’s second game against Robert Morris, but after fellow goalie Turner Uppgren got in some trouble of his own, he stepped right back in and anchored another Blue Devil comeback with 11 saves and only five goals allowed in over 45 minutes. He’s started every game since then, garnering first-team midseason All-American honors and second-team All-American honors at the conclusion of the regular season.
“Getting pulled in that game was the best thing that could've happened, because I got to just relax, see the field, realize where I'm at, what I'm doing,” Adler said.
Perhaps Adler’s most notable moment of the season thus far came March 25 against Syracuse, and not just because he made the last-second save that clinched Duke’s first ACC win of the year. Rather, it was what happened after the save that caught the attention of some on Twitter, with Uppgren, a returning fifth-year senior who had started at goalie the previous two seasons, sprinting onto the field to celebrate with Adler. And the latter made sure to show his appreciation after the game:
“Being the starting goalie at Duke, it's so many people's dreams, including mine, including Turner's—he was in the toughest position and could’ve handled it the completely wrong way,” Adler said when asked to elaborate on the tweet. “And I think the majority of people would have handled it the wrong way, myself included, and the fact that the only thing he cares about is one the team plays well and the next one is whoever’s in goal plays well.
“He's one of my best friends on the team, which to be honest, coming in, being in the situation, having him be here—it's like, I [couldn’t] see us being best friends nine months ago, 12 months ago. But now, it’s epic, and having him on my side is really neat.”
‘That dream has changed’
Adler may have another year of eligibility remaining, but just like how he surfs, and just like how he plays goalie, he’s simply focused on the moments right in front of him.
On Saturday, Duke plays Maryland. If the Blue Devils win that game, they’ll play the winner of North Carolina-Virginia on Memorial Day. And if they win that one, then Adler’s journey from baseball player to surfer to shark attack survivor to—eventually—college lacrosse goalie will have finally come full circle.
“I wanted to be a professional surfer,” Adler said. “So growing up, that was my dream…. And now that dream has changed, like I want to win a national championship, I want to become a national championship goalie and that will really solidify this whole journey that I'm on.”