It’s Worth the Wait

by Teryn Brill Galloway, USA Field Hockey's Senior Communications Manager

13 photos

Months before graduating from Nashoba Regional High School, Caylie McMahon was excited and eager to continue her education and athletic careers.


Little did she know that March 2020 would be an important month on her journey. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit, which derailed Caylie’s plans. Like so many others, she was sad that her high school senior year ended that way but was determined and self-motivated to turn her attention to training and getting fit for the college season. She was committed to play field hockey at the collegiate level, plans that have been in the making for three years, and with graduation coming in May, she was excited to see what the future held.


Caylie McMahon in goal during one of the games of the Junior U.S. Women's National Team series against Canada in February 2020The Stow, Mass. native originally signed a national letter of intent in November 2019 to attend Stanford University, which she verbally committed to as a sophomore in high school. But an email that her and rest of the team received on July 8 would be significant. The note mentioned that in 35 minutes, there was a scheduled Zoom meeting. Nothing else explained but they should attend.


“On the call, the Stanford athletic director said that 11 sports would no longer be supported as a varsity sports after the 2020-21 school year,” said Caylie. “Only half the team was on the call, as they didn’t see the message in time. We were all at a loss for words.”


“[Stanford] never gave us an actual reason on why these sports were being discontinued, just lightly mentioned lack of team culture and success in the programs.”


Following the shocking news, she was left with a big decision. She didn’t know if she was going to stay committed to Stanford for the opportunity to play just one year or look elsewhere. Messages circulated throughout the Stanford field hockey team of options, and with receiving the news literally one month before she was set to report on the West Coast for preseason, she knew finding another college at that time was nearly impossible.


“I reached out to another incoming freshman at Stanford and asked what she was going to do. She told me she was going to take a gap year and I jokingly told her that I was going to come to England and just live with her.”


What started as merely a joke, followed with their parents getting in touch and working out a serious plan. With so much unknown, Caylie elected to take a gap year. She knew she wanted to continue to play, some way, somehow, through all the adversity. So, with one week to go before she left to head overseas, she deferred her enrollment to Stanford and booked her flight to England. She trained with the Surbiton Hockey Club, one of the oldest field hockey clubs in the world, and was fortunate to train alongside Olympians and former gold medalists, receive individual instruction from a renowned goalkeeper coach and elevate her level of play.


But she still had a decision to make. One where there is no perfect answer. Was she going to head to Stanford and attempt to play the final season for the Cardinal in the spring 2021 or was her academic and athletic careers moving elsewhere?


Caylie McMahon in front of the London Bridge signing her National Letter of Intent to play collegiately at the University of MichiganOnce she official deferred her enrollment to Stanford, Caylie started to fully dive into the recruiting process again, reaching out to coaches who might be interested and taking a step back to redo what she had already done three years prior. In November 2020, her plans changed again, she resigned and accepted a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan, where she will join the Wolverines in the fall of 2021.


It all seemed like her journey to higher education and the chance to play collegiately was coming to fruition.


After traveling home from England for the holidays, Caylie was excited for how her journey was going to pan out. The pandemic was slowly lifting mandates, the collegiate season was being played out in the spring and it seemed everything was moving along in the right direction.


“After the holidays, I was excited to return to England and spend a whole spring there training and getting the opportunity to travel,” she said. “The level of play was going to be a great prep for the fall season, but unfortunately, the country went into a lockdown in early January. I ended up staying home until I could return.”


Staying in touch with her Surbiton team, she got news that the England lockdown would be ending at the end of the month and they were told they would be able to resume practices on March 29. She immediately started looking ahead and wanted to book her return flight. But another hardship struck.


For 6 years, she had a nagging pain in her lower back and left leg, and for the past three months she was going to physical therapy for it. After one appointment her physical therapist asked if she ever got an MRI to see if they could figure out the cause of the pain. Caylie decided that before she returned to England, she should probably get it checked out.


“I thought it was just from playing or overuse. That is what I had always attributed the pain to over the years. It was something I just kind of managed and dealt with.”


What she thought would be a standard MRI on March 2, turned into something larger. The doctor called her immediately following and told her, “Don’t freak out, but you have a tumor embedded in your spine.”


Caylie was diagnosed with a tumor on her L4 about 7 centimeters in size wrapped around her spine and spinal cord and that it had been there for years. The doctor told her that if she got it out now, she risked being paralyzed in her left leg, or if she waited a year, she could be paralyzed from the waist down.


Literally having no time to process all the information thrown her way, she knew it needed to come out. Once again, she was flooded with more emotions and thoughts of the unknown. On March 12 at the Boston Children’s Hospital, she underwent surgery to remove the tumor, and although the surgeons were successful in removing the mass, she was told she would indeed be partially paralyzed in her left leg.


“I woke up from the surgery and couldn’t feel my left leg at all. They said when they removed the tumor, they had to cut nerves, muscles and shave bone to get it out. But that I was also lucky!”


Similar cases of this kind of tumor showed a history of them shifting with the slightest of movements. Not knowing that it existed, any dive, lunge, stop or leap in her goalkeeping kit could have left her with a more severe outcome.


Caylie remained at Boston Children’s Hospital for 7 days following. During that time, she did manage to stand up on her own, but fainted from the rush and unrecognizable connection her brain and body were having due to the paralysis. Progress for sure, she kept abiding to the doctor’s orders as she was determined to improve.


“At [Boston] Children’s they would continually poke me in the left leg with different objects to see if I would regain feeling. One day a woman came in and swiped a credit card on the bottom of my left foot, and I could feel it!”


Caylie McMahon and her family following one of the games of the Junior U.S. Women's National Team series against Canada in February 2020With that left foot sensation, Caylie was transferred to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Boston on March 18 and underwent intense physical and occupational therapy, and other treatments. Those times were long as she spent four hours each day going through different exercises in what she called ‘Nerve Bootcamp’. But she knew what she had to do. She had to retrain and rewire her brain to get the muscle memory back even though she couldn’t feel the motions.


She made progress and on March 25 was able to return home with just a cane. Her doctors at Spaulding said that once she showed that she could navigate a ‘home-setting’ she was able to leave.


“They told me that my house was my new obstacle. Getting used to the stairs, practicing getting in bed, washing my hands, showering. I’m trying to strengthen my core around my back as much as possible. The hard thing is, if I drop something, I have to squat, or get on the ground to pick it up, without bending over.”


To allow her back to properly heal she has to refrain from the BLT - Bend, Lift, Twist - functions. She is still working toward retraining her brain and sees a spinal cord specialist three to five times a week at out-patient physical therapy.


She’s optimistic that in about three months, once her back heals, she will have more movement and get back some agility function, even though she might not be able to feel her lower half of her left leg. There’s no doubt Caylie’s recovery will be a long one but playing field hockey again is still high on her priority list.


“It is literally a waiting game for when my back heals, and I can retrain my brain to function with my immobile knee and shin. This is just another setback, but I WILL be back on the field!”


“I remember my first day at Spaulding, they asked me my goal. Never did it cross my mind that this would end my career – and I still don’t. I’m determined to make small progress every day, even if it is standing at the sink and washing my hands on my own.”


Caylie has plans to suit up for Michigan this fall, but for the time being will stay involved with the game locally by coaching at NorthEast Elite Field Hockey Club, even if it is on a scooter.


She’s determined, motivated and hopeful with each little victory, and knows through all the time and rehab, it will be worth the wait.


Consider supporting Caylie on her road to recovery and back to the field hockey pitch by donating to a GoFundMe setup in her honor.


Caylie was named to the U.S. Rise Women’s National Team in January 2020, following being on the U-17 USWNT for 2 years. She played for Nashoba Regional High School, graduating in May 2020, and NorthEast Elite Field Hockey Club.