Julia Zyla's comeback displays her incredible heart

Julia Zyla's comeback displays her incredible heart

ST. PAUL, Minn. – The St. Catherine University soccer team found itself in a familiar, pressure-packed situation on Tuesday, Oct. 11 – deadlocked in overtime in a crucial game against Bethel University.  The Royals entered the game unbeaten in conference play, and the Wildcats had just one Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) loss on their record, so the stakes were certainly high.

Then, in the 96th minute, senior midfielder Julia Zyla took possession of the ball, sent in a perfect cross, and teammate Hannah Okerstrom buried it in the back of the net to give the Wildcats a dramatic – and signature – victory.

Tuesday's triumph marked the second time that Zyla set up a game-winning, overtime goal in 2016, and her ability to rise to the occasion is impressive in its own right. But the fact she's back on the field at all is truly remarkable, considering just one year earlier she laid on an operating table, about to undergo open-heart surgery, her life forever changed.

Zyla's story certainly has a happy ending, with her recent late-game heroics fit for the climax of a classic Hollywood sports movie. However, her on-the-field success pales in comparison to what she's overcome off it. Zyla faced more in a year than any college junior should have to, more than some people will face in a lifetime. But her inspirational drive and determination – along with the unwavering support of her family, friends, teammates and coaches – led her full-circle, and helped her become stronger than ever.

"I had to get used to falling down and getting back up," Zyla said. "We always talk about it in soccer, falling down and getting back up, but I had never applied it to my life, and now I had to.

"I learned to be grateful for my life, and how to deal with things that are seemingly unfair. I learned from it, I grew from it and I am a better person for it, no matter how much it hurt. The term, 'Never give up,' really means something to me now."

Just one year ago, Zyla and her teammates took the field for their first game of the 2015 season. The team was ready for a season full of new challenges and obstacles, and Zyla was ready to continue building on her career's upward trajectory. However, no one could have predicted the much more serious challenges the start of the new season would present. Suddenly, she wasn't just battling for goals and wins and Playoff positioning.

She was fighting for her life.

St. Catherine traveled to Superior, Wis., to take on UW-Superior and start the 2015 season. Expectations were high, and the team got off to a great start, rolling to an eventual 7-0 win. Zyla started at her usual midfielder spot and helped the team build its lead. However, when she eventually checked out of the game, something was different. Something was wrong.

Julia Zyla  

"That day I came off [the field] and I knew something didn't feel right," Zyla said. "I was incredibly fatigued. I felt it a little in the preseason but didn't think anything of it, because it was hot and you're always tired during the preseason. But this time, I started shaking uncontrollably, my body temperature was rising and decreasing."

She was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where all her symptoms pointed to dehydration. She didn't feel any pain in her chest, and a precautionary EKG came back clean, so she was given some fluid and discharged the same day.

Just to be safe, Zyla and her parents – John and Debra – set up a follow-up appointment at Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. Her cardiologist conducted an echocardiogram and reported that something looked a little off and wanted to run some more scans. Zyla was still confident things were OK.

The scans told a different story. She had a coronary artery anomaly and needed surgery – open-heart surgery – and it had to happen soon.

"I got the phone call on the way home that same day," Zyla said. "I put my phone on speaker and [the doctor] said, 'You have a congenital heart defect.'"

The doctor explained it was extremely lucky – even miraculous – that they caught it at all. Zyla was young, in excellent health, and showed no symptoms that would have indicated something so serious. Now Zyla knows how fortunate she is that it was discovered but, in the moment, her mind went right to soccer.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "There were a lot of tears and I was so angry. When he said,  'Surgery,' I knew my season was over. That was all I could think about in the moment. I couldn't even appreciate the fact that my life had potentially had been saved, because I was so angry that this happened to me … It took a while to appreciate what they had found, and I was sort of forced into a new perspective regarding my health and my life."

Her coaches and teammates shared a similar reaction. St. Catherine Head Coach Chris Citowicki summed it up in one word. "Scared," he said. "Everybody was.

"We are a family program, and I treat them as if they're my own kids, so to hear someone has something like that scared the crap out of all of us. To find out it's something she could die from, it led to a lot of confused feelings."

Julia Zyla (10) chases down a ball for St. Kate's.
(Photo courtesy of St. Catherine Sports Information) 

"To be honest, I don't think anyone knew how to react with the news," added Okerstrom, her teammate and friend. "We were all feeling very mixed emotions and it took a while for anyone to fully understand how they were feeling about the situation. There was a creeping feeling of how unfair it was that she had to go through it and a little bit of anger I remember, but I think we were all trying to stay positive to show her that she could really lean on us if she needed too.

"We wanted to show her that we had the strength to support her."

A lot can happen in just three weeks.

When September of 2015 started, Zyla's main concerns were the start of the 2015 soccer season and the continued pursuit of her Biology degree. But just 24 days after she first felt fatigued in the win over UW-Superior, Zyla was on the operating table to undergo open-heart surgery so doctors could try to correct the defect, and save her life.

"It was a very short turnaround time," Zyla said. "I was grateful because it didn't allow me much time to dwell on it or get too afraid of it, but I also didn't have the time to process everything properly.

"I was super worried that I would never be the same again. Would I be able to run? Will I be as fast? The cardiologist said the more fit you are, the healthier you are, the better chance you have of making it through the surgery and making a full recovery. But he also told me he's had athletes in the past that didn't get back to their full potential. That was my biggest fear. I was terrified."

Fortunately, the surgery was an unquestioned success. The surgeons were able to repair her heart defect and came away confident she'd make a full recovery – or at least very close to it. She spent about six days in the hospital recovering from the procedure, and had some inspirational visitors stop by during her initial recovery period.

"When she came out of surgery, we went to the hospital and were there for her," Citowicki said. "It wasn't about trying to fix it because I couldn't fix it, I had to just be there. I had no control, one of the few times in my life I've been in a situation like that.

"It is one of the most difficult things I've gone through. The stuff off-the-field is most difficult. You can watch film and correct on-the-field things, but to see someone's life in the balance, with no control, is so frightening."

Zyla awoke from surgery with a fully-repaired heart, but that wasn't the only major change in her world. First, she had to re-learn how to breathe, and even had a device that assisted her with deep breaths at first. It took her a while to be able to remember the events of a full day. She had to learn to walk again. The surgeons had to cut through her sternum, which zapped her upper-body strength and mobility. She couldn't drive. She couldn't even lift her backpack. For someone as active as Zyla, her whole world was upside-down.

"It was very difficult to go from 60 to zero," she said, explaining how she had to throttle herself down to her new limitations. "I wasn't prepared for that. I'm constantly going. I felt very tired and very weak. Even walking up a few stairs was very difficult."

After her six days in the hospital, she continued her recovery at her parent's house in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., about 13 miles from St. Catherine's campus in St. Paul, Minn. After two weeks of slow but steady progress, Zyla was adamant about returning to school. Since her sternum was still healing and her strength had a long way to go, her mother took her to classes every day and carried her books as she took her first steps back toward her old life. And all the while, she was constantly thinking of her team.

"She wanted us to keep moving forward and keep playing as well as we could," Citowicki said. "She has her close friends on the team who were there for her every step of the way, and for the rest of us it was keep working as hard as we can and think of her the whole way."

Her team did more than that. Not only did they honor her ultimate wish by having an unforgettable season. St. Catherine earned a spot in the six-team MIAC Playoffs for the first time in school history. The team finished 12-6-1 overall and 7-4 in conference play to finish fifth in the conference standings, and was just one game behind MIAC champ St. Thomas in the win column.

And though Zyla wasn't on the field with her team, her presence remained constant. The Wildcats played every game with Zyla on their minds, in their hearts, and even on their hands.

The St. Catherine women's soccer team honored Julia Zyla by
writing messages on their hands during the 2015 season.
(Photo courtesy of Hannah Okerstrom) 

"Even though [Zyla] couldn't be with us physically we made sure she was there with us somehow," Okerstrom said. "We had a saying before every game, 'Play for J.' We wrote [her number] 10 on our hands along with a capital 'J' in permanent marker. We sent her pictures of our hands, and texts saying we were there for her and we were going to give it our all on the field for her.

"We just wanted her to know that we were going to play our hearts out for her while she was getting her heart fixed."

"It meant everything to me," Zyla said of her team's support. "People didn't know how to respond to me, but the team, they just knew they had to be there for me. Even though I couldn't always be there, they were always thinking of me. That helped me get through it and get beyond the anger that my season was over. Everyone was there for me and made sure to check in and they kept telling me I'd be stronger for it and it will all be ok."

Their encouragement – and their success – made a difference in her recovery. A few weeks after returning to school, Zyla was strong enough to move back to campus and start living on her own again. Her short walks turned into longer walks and, eventually, she reached a major milestone in her recovery – she got back on a treadmill and ran. 

"That first run was so invigorating," Zyla said. "It felt so good."

It was starting to become clear. She learned to walk again. She learned to run again. She was on her way.

By Christmas 2015, Zyla had made excellent progress. However, she received another incredible boost of motivation thanks to an extremely thoughtful aunt, and a touching gesture from her soccer hero.

Zyla's favorite soccer player is Lionel Messi, star of the Argentina national team and FC Barcelona. Just prior to the holidays, her aunt reached out to Barcelona and shared her niece's story and asked if they do anything to lift the spirits of a big fan, and a fellow member of the soccer community.

At the family Christmas get-together, Zyla's aunt pulled her aside and told her she had a special gift for her. She opened it – a book – and thanked her aunt for the thoughtful gift. That's when her aunt told her to look inside the book for something extra … and there she found a personalized, autographed photo from Messi himself.

"I was like, 'This cannot be real,'" Zyla said, "He's like my idol. He's amazing. She looked at me and said, 'It's real.' I just broke down. It was so touching and compassionate … I really don't have the words to describe it. To get something from your idol is very cool.

"It felt like the whole soccer community was behind me a little bit."

January of 2016 brought another huge milestone in Zyla's recovery via a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She had enrolled in a J-term study abroad trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Island with an evolutionary biology and philosophy class, and had made enough progress in her recovery to get the all-clear to proceed with the trip.

"It was perfect timing," Zyla said of the study abroad trip. "I was healthy enough to [go] and I felt much better than the first few months. I needed to get away at that point and it was phenomenal. I enjoyed every second."

In addition to seeing a new part of the world and taking her academic experience to a new level, the trip served as an excellent barometer of just how far she had come. There was significant hiking – at least a few hours – every day. One whole day was spent scaling a volcano. The class went snorkeling and zip lining and each step, each activity, Zyla felt herself getting stronger – physically, mentally and emotionally.

"I felt great," she said, "every step I took. It was a big part of my recovery. It was therapy for me, it helped me clear my head."

However, the trip held one other extremely significant moment that helped Zyla realize her return to soccer was possible.

"One day in the middle of the trip we had a day off, and we found a soccer field in one of the towns and played a pick-up game," she said. "It was the first time I had played in a game [since Sept. 1, 2015]. It was such a cool place to be and to play my first game … it felt amazing."

She returned to the U.S. and to St. Kate's reinvigorated and ready to finish her journey back to the life she knew before.

"[Zyla] needed that trip," Citowicki said. "When she came back she was more peppy, and she just kept working, working, working, working. It hasn't been easy for her, but she knows just has to move through it and keep going."

Julia Zyla returned to the field for St. Catherine in 2016.
(Photo courtesy of St. Catherine Sports Information)

St. Catherine kicked off its 2016 season at the University of Minnesota-Morris on Sept. 1, exactly one year to the day she subbed out with complications and took her first ambulance ride. And when the team took the field, No. 10 was no longer only on their hands and in their hearts, she was back in the starting lineup at her midfielder position.

The Wildcats won 5-1 that day, but even greater than that, Zyla completed her comeback and returned to the field, to her team, and to the sport she loved.

She enjoyed another milestone just two days later, as St. Kate's hosted its 2016 home opener against Transylvania on Sept. 3. The team had gotten new home white jerseys in 2015, but because Zyla's season was cut short following the first road game, this was the first home-game action for that new, white No. 10 jersey.

"[My jersey] was brand new and to pull that on, I was like, 'Wow, this is mine,'" Zyla said. "'This is my number. I own this.' That felt pretty good. It was sort of a silent, personal moment, and I just enjoyed it."

Her team has enjoyed having her back just as much.

"It's amazing to have her back on the field," Okerstrom said of her fellow senior. "The passion and determination you see in her playing on the field is great to have back. It was always there, but you can really see how much it has grown since her experience with her heart surgery. She doesn't take a second on the field for granted."

SEPT. 25, 2016 – 'FULL CIRCLE'
Though Zyla wears No. 10 on her back on the soccer field, the number 25 also took on great significance during her recovery. Sept. 25, 2015, was the date of her surgery, so the 25th of each ensuing month was a milestone of sorts. Every 25 on the calendar meant she was one month further removed from the procedure, and one month closer to being her full self again.

As each month passed, she looked ahead to Sept. 25, 2016, the one-year anniversary of her open-heart surgery. That date started to hold extra significance. Zyla's "New Year" was no longer Jan. 1 – it was Sept. 25. That date marked a whole year of a fully-repaired heart, a full year of recovery, a full year of struggle, and a full year of redemption.

As it turned out, Zyla got quite the "New Year's" party. Fittingly, the Wildcats had a game on that date, at home, against Elmurst. Just playing on that date was a celebration in itself, but no one could have scripted how it actually went down. The two teams were deadlocked 1-1 after regulation and the first overtime period, and it appeared they were headed for a tie in the final minute of the second overtime.

That's when Zyla and teammate Marissa Janssen set up Iryna Talkachova, who kicked home the game-winning goal with just 24 seconds left on the clock. St. Kate's was a 2-1 winner and, exactly one year after she was under the knife, Zyla was one of the heroes.

"To have that game on Sept. 25, to actually play on that date, that was full circle," Zyla said. "To set up the assist to that goal that was really cool."

A little more than a year removed from her procedure, both Zyla and the Wildcats are thriving. She's started 11 games and played in all 12 and helped St. Kate's compile an outstanding 9-2-1 overall record. The team is 4-1-1 in conference play with 13 points in the standings, just two points out of second and three points out of third. The team is eyeing another trip to the MIAC Playoffs and still has hopes of capturing its first conference title. She had three assists – two of them on overtime game-winners, and continues climbing the team's career assists leader board.

Zyla's play has certainly been a factor in the team's success, as has her leadership. Prior to her heart surgery, Zyla was already one of the most-respected players on the team, but her coach said that has gone to a whole new level after everything she's done to get back on the field.

"We do a leadership questionnaire," Citowicki said. "I have everyone full out a survey about each teammate. I total up the scores and let each player know where they're doing well and where they need improvement. [Zyla] had almost a perfect score. She already had everyone's respect, but this takes it to the next level. Anytime someone thinks about complaining they think about her. A kid that had open heart surgery, has a perfect GPA, she's still out here working. She's an inspiration to everybody - coaches included."

"I think Julia's comeback shows everyone how far you can come in a year," Okerstrom said. "It shows people that with the right mindset and determination you can get through anything.

"This situation was not easy for Julia, there were many times that she felt vulnerable and that is never a comfortable feeling. But seeing the strength she has today because of the vulnerability she felt months ago is amazing. I think she's a great role model for the younger girls on the team to overcome adversity and grow as an individual."

As the Wildcats enter the crucial home-stretch of the 2016 season, the outcome of each game certainly carries a lot of weight as the team tries to continue ascending to new heights. But because of the journey of one of its seniors, the game now means so much more than the final score.

"I've just realized how much soccer means to me and how much I enjoy it," Zyla said. "I enjoy every moment no matter how sore or painful or tired I am. There's this love and addiction I have to feeling tired and feeling sore and working hard. It's just been an absolute blast. Every single triumph and failure we've experienced – it's just been amazing."

"I hope people understand that soccer is more than just soccer," Okerstrom added. "Julia will tell you that soccer saved her life. I hope people really appreciate every minute they have on the field because they never know when it could be their last."

Whenever the Wildcats' 2016 season comes to an end, Zyla will be able to look back with no regrets and an immense amount of pride. She made it back, and finished her career on her terms. Thanks to her determination and spirit, the extremely difficult hand she was dealt weren't the final cards in the deck.

After she graduates from St. Kate's, Zyla hopes to carry forward what she's learned throughout college into her everyday life. The Biology major hopes to continue her education in grad school, likely in conservation biology. She's interested in endangered species conservation and has already had some outstanding research opportunities at the Como Zoo, Minnesota Zoo, and the University of Minnesota's veterinary medicine department. She can see herself teaching someday. But she never wants to stop learning.

"I can't wait to get out there and learn as much as I can," Zyla said. "That's what I love about [biology], you're always learning. I love being a student, and I want to be a student for life as a biologist."

Going forward, she also wants to share her experience in the hopes that it could help someone else. Her situation was so unique and so rare for a young, fit athlete, and anyone facing that type of adversity can always use a helping hand.

"You're going to fall down a lot before you get back up, but genuinely you really need to find others and accept others help," Zyla said. "That was the hardest part for what I have – it was so rare and I'm so young – there were very few people to talk to who had been through something like this. I could have used that. Find your support system. I had my soccer team. You're allowed to feel frustrated and low; you have to remember those moments and recognize them, but you're not allowed to wallow in them. You need other people to help pick you up.

"I'm incredibly grateful for where I am now, and grateful for those who helped me along the way. It's great to share my experience and I hope others learn from it. I hope it will help another athlete someday."

She'll be happy to know her story is already starting to make an impact.

"My daughter – she's about to turn 3 – I can't wait to introduce her to Julia," Citowicki said. "She's gone through someone most people haven't, and I want her to listen to the story and be inspired by it."

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