Abby Dahlkemper’s long history with spondylolysis, a stress fracture in the spine, took a turn last January, with the nerve pain getting to the point where she felt like her hamstring was ripping.
The U.S. women’s national team defender had been named to the SheBelieves Cup in February 2022 but had to withdraw due to the injury. While she tried to rehab the injury without getting surgery, receiving multiple epidural injections along the way, it didn’t get better.
“It turned out, just trusting my gut, I was like, I just need to get this fixed,” she said on the latest episode of Snacks. “My vertebrae had basically ruptured, and there was a cyst and bone fragments hitting my nerve roots. So it was just never going to get better unless I had gotten it operated on.”
She had a transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion surgery, in which doctors fused one of her vertebrae back together. In February, she revealed her surgery via TikTok and said that the bone had already begun to fuse, which put her ahead of schedule in her recovery timeline.
In late August, Dahlkemper finally made her return to the field, scoring for the San Diego Wave in her third game back in the NWSL. The drawn-out recovery process, she said, helped her find her identity away from soccer and appreciate the game more when she returned.
“It was relieving also because I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to be the same, like how I’m going to feel on the field, all this stuff,” she told Snacks co-hosts Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams. “But it was kind of like riding a bike. And I just feel like we’ve done it for so long that I don’t know, I just feel like one of my biggest takeaways was just literally having fun and enjoying it because we are not getting any younger.”
Dahlkemper, 30, said coping with the injury took a toll on her mentally, but it also gave her a newfound perspective on her life and career.
“I feel like I’ve cried the most I’ve cried ever in my life during the last year, just because your self-worth and your identity is all tied into soccer for so long,” she said. “I feel like when you’re forced to actually not be just a soccer player, then you’re just kind of like, OK, well, I need to find happiness elsewhere.
“And I feel like now I just have a better balance and understanding of who I am outside of soccer, the enjoyment that I can get through my relationships and being where I’m at.”