For redshirt sophomore Lauren Haivala, coming to the University of Oklahoma and playing soccer was a lifelong dream.
Born in South Dakota, Haivala’s family moved to Oklahoma when she was a year old and have been Sooner fans ever since.
“It’s just always felt like home to me and I like the fact that I can go home, and my family can come to all my home games. I’ve always been around OU; I grew up coming to football games. But, just really being around the soccer atmosphere, I knew this is where I belonged.”
In the spring of 2016, Haivala signed her National Letter of Intent to play soccer for OU. Two days before the team was to report for summer workouts and classes, Haivala was playing in a Women’s Premiere Soccer League game. During the game, Haivala suffered a season ending injury before even stepping on the field as a Sooner.
“I got tackled and tore my ACL,” she said. “I was devastated. I was heartbroken. I felt good coming into my freshman year and I thought ‘o.k. this season could go really well for me’ and then just having it taken away from me just like that was hard.”
Instead of bonding with her new teammates during early morning conditioning and summer practices, she would spend her time rehabbing and preparing to come back for the 2017 season.
“Honestly, I couldn’t have done it without my trainers and my coaches and friends,” she said. “They were all so supportive and it was a very hard time for me, but it was so easy to get through because I just had the constant support and love from trainers, friends, teammates, all that.”
After spending a year watching from the sidelines and going through rehab, Haivala went through her first preseason with the team ahead of the 2017 season. A highly-touted recruit, it was expected that Haivala would be a contributor and potentially even a starter in her return.
Two weeks into preseason and two days before the Sooners’ exhibition game, Haivala was tackled in practice. As she went down, she had the immediate feeling that she had once again torn the same ACL.
“It was two days before our exhibition game,” she said. “So, another two-day thing – I don’t know what’s up with that. I got tackled again and I felt it and just know right away that I tore my ACL again. (Preseason) was so exciting and it was so fun, and I just felt free and like I could play again. I got the love for the game back. I had it all there and it was finally going well for me again and just like that, it was gone.”
Haivala’s roommate, junior Kristina O’Donnell, was standing off to the side of the field during that practice. When she heard a crash come from the players on the field, her heart dropped as she realized it was Haivala who had been the injured player.
“We looked over and she was on the ground yelling ‘my knee’ and honestly my heart dropped,” O’Donnell said “I cried. I felt so bad because she is a strong person that loves the game and gets it taken away from them for another season, it’s just unfair.
“I knew she was such a strong girl and would get through it,” O’Donnell continued. She is someone I will always look up to. One ACL, let alone two, would take a toll on a person, but she’s come out here and she’s put so much effort into what she does.”
Just 14 months removed from her first injury, Haivala went into her second year of rehab with a new perspective.
“I think it was easier honestly, just because I knew what happened next,” Haivala said. “I knew the rehab process, so I just took it day by day. I honestly felt like this second time was easier than the first time.
“It was a blessing because I think sitting on the sidelines and watching my team play for two years, I got to learn the expectations of the team and grow as a player from just watching and being on the side cheering my time on, but also seeing a different perspective of everything,” she said.
With two surgeries behind her, Haivala came into the 2018 preseason ready for her first opportunity to step foot on the field. This time, there was no “two-day” curse as she made it through both summer and preseason without injury.
On Aug. 16, the Sooners took the field against Nebraska for the season opener. In the starting lineup right next to O’Donnell was Haivala.
“I remember waking up and yelling throughout the house ‘It’s gameday’ and she was so excited,” O’Donnell said. “A little bit nervous obviously, but she gets to step on the field and work toward something we’ve been training for for two years and it was a great feeling. She usually plays on my side, so talking to her on the field, we just had that connection which is cool.”
For Haivala, it was like freshman year all over again. Though an upperclassman who had been through two seasons, the day of the game was nerve-wracking.
“I tried to stay as calm as I could during the day, but it was hard,” she said. “I had first-game jitters throughout the game, but I tried to control them the best that I could. I wish that the result would’ve been better, but it was just so fun to be out there with my team. I was waiting for two years to do that. Just being out there with my team, I kind of felt a little anxious throughout the game but it was an awesome feeling.”
Haivala has appeared in 10 games this year for the Sooners, starting in all 10 appearances. The Sooners have begun to find their stride this season, defeating a ranked opponent for the first time since 2016 when they beat No. 12 OSU this past Sunday. OU sits in second place in the Big 12 currently and has already doubled its win total from 2017.
“This season has been awesome,” Haivala said. “It’s been everything that I’ve ever wanted. I think we have so much potential as a group and it’s really fun going through practices and games and seeing how far we could go.”
Regardless of how her team finishes this year, Haivala has built a legacy for her dedication to get back to the game she loves and the team she’s always dreamed of being a part of.
“It’s admirable,” O’Donnell said. “It’s something that I think she found out about herself in the process, she has the heart for the game and is so strong. I wouldn’t choose anyone else to tear their ACL twice because not many people can come back from it. She’s someone I will admire for the rest of my life.”