Since the soccer careers of Jaime O’Gara and Noelle Papenhausen began at Minnesota, the two have eerily echoed one another.
They started playing together in 1995 with a win at the Big Ten soccer championship.
Both spent 1996 in rehabilitation — Papenhausen with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and O’Gara with a stress fracture.
They returned in 1997 to win their second Big Ten title.
O’Gara spent 1998 back in rehab with a torn ACL, while Papenhausen missed the offseason when she tore her other ACL.
This season Papenhausen and O’Gara are both captains.
At least for now.
“The biggest thing about those two is they have hearts of giants,” Gophers coach Sue Montagne said. “You feel more sad and terrible for them than anything. Noelle’s got this ACL again after she battled and worked so hard to come back. How flukey is it for it to happen to her again?
“With Jaime, she already had the stress fracture and now she’s got this (ACL) and you’re like ‘God, when is it going to end?’ But neither of them had that attitude. They met their injuries head on.”
It’s their determination and attitude that has landed both of them back to where they are now. Papenhausen, a defender, tore her left ACL in the summer of ’96 and spent the following season watching and working.
A close friend of Papenhausen had previously torn her ACL and had told her what the injury was like. She didn’t know that she was eventually going to need such graphic details.
“When I was going down I kind of instinctively knew what it was from her description of it,” Papenhausen said. “So I think I was more worried not knowing what the rehab was going to be like and what the future was going to hold. I didn’t know how to handle it at the time.”
Hour upon hour of physical and mental recovery engulfed Papenhausen’s life in ’96. She returned in time for the ’97 season and helped anchor a defense that held its foes to 30 goals in 23 games, including 10 shutouts.
Her ’98 campaign was injury-free, but not this past offseason. After blowing out her left knee in ’96, Papenhausen had to equalize the ratio of injuries to her right side.
This past April she was playing soccer in the Gibson-Nigurski football complex when she shattered her right knee.
“This summer I was in the training room at least four hours a day every day of the week,” she said. “I think coming back from it is much more mentally tough, but once you’ve done it once, it’s easier.”
Two reconstructed knees in four years didn’t stop Washington running back Terry Allen from playing football, and the fear of a third time around won’t stop Papenhausen from playing soccer.
“I don’t think about it happening again. I’m very secure and I wouldn’t be worried if it did happen again. I know I can get through whatever happens. I don’t think there is anything that I can’t handle.”
On the other side of the injury bug is O’Gara. Unlike Papenhausen, whose recovery was under pressure so she could play this year, O’Gara had the luxury of over a year to recover.
“With Jaime we had time and didn’t push her as hard,” team trainer Natalie Sanderson said. “She was redshirted that year (’98) so we didn’t have to have her back for spring practice.”
O’Gara suffered a stress fracture in her left foot in the third game of the 1996 season. She was out for the rest of the season. Her rehab got her back for the 1997 season, where she started at midfield all 23 games and had two goals and five assists for nine points.
Those two goals were both game-winners against Baylor and Indiana on her way to Minnesota’s second conference title.
But it wasn’t far into 1998 before O’Gara was back on the shelf for the rest of the year.
It was O’Gara’s second time through a ringer that made her a skilled veteran of pain.
“The whole mentality part helps because the more injuries you go through, the stronger you become,” O’Gara said. “I think I’ve become more mentally tough just because your good days and bad days with an ACL is not like a sprained ankle.”
The pair is healthy again, playing together for the first time since ’97, and the team they lead is in need of a lift. The Gophers lost games against Penn State and Ohio State last weekend to drop their record to 5-5 overall, 3-3 in the Big Ten.
Luckily, both Papenhausen and O’Gara know a knee or two about rising to the occasion.
“When you’re doing rehab four hours a day, you’re going to have a good day where you feel like you can run five miles, and the next day you feel like crap again,” O’Gara said. “That part makes you mentally tough and I think you need to be mentally tough to be a captain or a leader of any team.”
Mark Heller covers soccer and welcomes comments at [email protected]