My Best Friend and Direct Competitorby Lauren Demarchi
All any of us can do is the best we can, and then support each other if your teammate’s best was better than your own
For four years, I spent roughly 20 hours a week dedicated to training or playing as a goalkeeper for Vanderbilt women’s soccer. Now that I have been removed from my collegiate career for the past six months, I find it funny that I rarely think about all of those hours spent training. I don’t think about the summers spent running in preparation for our fitness tests, and honestly, I rarely think about the wins and the losses. All of these challenges and struggles that I experienced are now in the past, and as I move forward to the next stage in my life, I can feel my mindset shifting to the things I will remember most from my four years as a collegiate athlete.
Now that I have been removed from the sport that shaped my life, the things I think about most are the relationships I formed with my teammates, women that I know will be my friends for life. Some of these relationships were more likely than others, and I want to highlight one that had a particularly strong and unique impact on me. That relationship is with one of my best friends, “direct competitor”, and fellow goalkeeper, Taiana Tolleson.
For those who are less familiar with collegiate soccer, goalkeepers are often isolated during training and spend the majority of training sessions on their own with a goalkeeper coach. When it comes to playing time, typically one goalkeeper emerges throughout the season and will play exclusively. Similar to a football quarterback, the way a goalkeeper organizes the backline and builds trust with teammates is tough to shift from one player to another. For this reason, I remember my brothers constantly telling me that I should stick with a different position.
My oldest brother was a goalkeeper in college himself, and because I am nine years younger than him and grew up watching him play, I always wanted to be like him, especially as I discovered I had a natural knack for the position. He would always warn me how difficult it is to be a high-level goalkeeper because only one typically plays per team, and how much competition and inevitable time on the bench I would see. Deep down, I knew there was truth to his words but I did not experience them in their entirety until I reached high school.
I was lucky enough to attend a private high school known for their success in women’s soccer. Our coach had been the coach of the program for 20 years by the time I arrived and had already won five state championships. He had created a culture of “team before me,” where everyone had a role on the team and everyone’s role was important, even if this role did not necessarily include a lot of playing time. If you did not have a role on the field, your role could be hyping people up before the game, being an amazing teammate, and making your teammates better in practice, all while simultaneously making yourself better and furthering your chances of playing one day. This culture was amazing in theory, and worked incredibly when everyone bought in, but for me, and for many other freshman, this was a hard idea to swallow.
There was another future Division-I goalkeeper who was a year older than me, and we began splitting time. When playoffs came around my freshman year, she played over me. I remember feeling as if I had a choice to make. I could be a bad sport about it and give into all of the feelings that consumed me, or I could support her in any way that I could. It was not easy, especially at first, but I chose to focus on myself and my playing first, rather than shifting my blame to the coaches, and I continued to make myself better at practice, thereby challenging the other goalkeeper to become better too. Embracing this mindset was an ongoing challenge, but I knew it was the right thing to do, and I was lucky to be surrounded by a culture where nothing less would have been acceptable. I ended up splitting time with the older goalkeeper through my junior year until she graduated, and thanks to her as well, we created an amazing, supportive friendship. Every year we progressed, we bought more and more into the culture, and by my senior year, we had never lost a game, won four state championships, and I attributed it all to the culture we had bought into.
One of the main reasons I chose Vanderbilt was because I felt aspects of this culture were present. Before arriving to Vanderbilt, I heard there was another goalkeeper in my class. This is pretty atypical (teams typically carry three-to-four goalkeepers dispersed throughout different classes), but because there was a coaching shift and a lot of transfers, our class ended up lopsided with two goalkeepers. Because of my experience in high school, I did my best to focus on what I could control and was optimistic that having another goalkeeper in my class could create a great competitive environment. I hoped her and I would be friends because I knew we would be spending so much time together, but I never could have imagined the relationship we would form.
When I first met Taiana, she seemed so different than me. She was this bright-eyed girl from Hawaii, immersed in this environment that was so different than anything she had experienced before. The thing about Tai is she gives her entire heart to everyone and everything she comes into contact with. She came to Nashville and almost immediately bought cowboy boots and became obsessed with country music. She would talk about her home, the beach, surfing, and all of the fresh sushi she could only get in Hawaii. Being from Ohio, her life seemed like something out of a dream compared to mine. I would only come to find out later how truly incredible I think she is. From her class, only nine people in the entire state of Hawaii went on to play Division-I soccer. There was well over nine people from my club team alone, and this disparity in opportunity struck me.
Throughout freshman year, Tai and I began to get to know each other and the way we like to interact during training sessions. Especially with the adjustment to college life and the volume and intensity that we trained, we both needed to make trainings as fun as possible to maintain our sanity. She never took anything too seriously and we were able to joke around and laugh during training while still being able to focus when we needed to. Freshman year, we dragged each other across the line to pass our fitness tests, and sophomore year Tai taught us how to count in “Hawaiian,” with the hopes that she would be better equipped to count her repetitions correctly. It didn’t work and I found myself calling her out for losing count every single practice until we graduated.
Our freshman and sophomore years, there was an older goalkeeper that started most of the games. When she got hurt my freshman year, I stepped in and played six games, and when she got hurt my sophomore year, Tai was the one who received playing time. From my perspective, our freshman year, Tai was nothing but supportive to me when I was the one to receive the nod. However, as much as I wanted to be nothing but supportive when Tai stepped in, I still felt devastated. It is so easy to get lost in the hours of work and the emotional demand of collegiate sports and forget all the principles I held so close to my heart. Even though I had been in this situation in high school, it is always hard, and I tried my best to remind myself of the mistakes I had made in the past. After a few days to adjust, I shifted my mindset again, cheered a little louder from the sidelines, and tried to show her all of the support that she had shown me.
When junior year rolled around and Tai and I began to split time exclusively, we were closer than ever. We spent every day training together, and began to love sharing time on the field together. I could feel us both pushing each other to be better every day. Whenever I watched her on the field, I never wished for her to fail, and I know she never wanted me to either. About halfway through the season, the decision was made to stop splitting time, and I started playing exclusively. I cannot even imagine how bad this hurt her, because I know how bad it hurt me.
With every year that passed, our hearts were invested more and more, we grew even closer and wanted to see each other succeed, and decisions like these stung even more. She came to me for support because, after all, I was the only one that could understand how she was feeling. We trained together every day and I could see all of her work and improvements just as she could see mine, and neither of us wanted to see the other person in that position. As hard as this time was for her emotionally, she never turned her feelings to anger or jealously towards me. She supported me and became my biggest fan as we finished out the season, and I will always be grateful for having her support.
From start to finish our senior year, Tai and I split games with me handling the first half, and her closing out every single game. We walked side-by-side on our senior night, simultaneously in awe that we had survived to that point and shocked that it was all somehow nearly over. She brought us leis from Hawaii, and we cried as we read our scrapbooks and reminisced on all of the amazing memories we shared.
As many challenges as there were in the latter half of our collegiate careers, there were also more laughs than I will ever be able to count. There was the time that Tai and I should have went viral on Twitter for a video of her rolling across ten soccer balls on her stomach. There was the time I got my hair stuck in the net and needed to stop practice to untangle it. There were many instances where Tai trained with her coat, cold gear, and pants on while I wore shorts and a t-shirt. There was the time we both sprained our MCL’s during the same drill and had to do rehab together, and there were many, many times that Tai got hit in the face with the ball, and after checking she was okay, it was always funny.
At one point or another, we were both pushed to our breaking points. We both had days where school, relationships or life were simply too much, and soccer became less of the escape it normally was and more of a chore. It was on these days that her and I needed each other the most. We picked each other up through hard trainings, bad days, and failed exams. We laughed off insane drills and days when we could barely move because we were so sore. I know to many, the relationship we formed seems somewhat of an anomaly, but to me it was always simpler than that. Both Tai and I set out to be our best every day, and that includes being both a competitor and a good teammate. All any of us can do is the best we can, and then support each other if your teammate’s best was better than your own. I know that I can look back on our relationship on the field and be thankful that we pushed each other to be better soccer players than we would have become alone, but this is not what I will remember. I know that I look back now and will in 20 years, and I will remember all of the laughs we had, that she had my back no matter what, and the unique and life-long relationship we ultimately created.
I love you always, #00.
Lauren Demarchi #1