Havana Solaun lost everything she had worked for in just two seconds. All it took was a twist, a tug and a tear and everything was gone. Her season. Her opportunity to train with the Canadian National Soccer Team. And her chance to lead Florida to its second national title.
And there was nothing she could do.
Havana had only experienced three games in an NCAA tournament.
Coming into the 2013 season, she trained for the long haul – she wanted to go far in the postseason.
But during the Southeastern Conference tournament, the junior midfielder was brought to the ground and wouldn’t make it back onto the field for at least another year.
Havana’s mother, Sandra Brower, can’t remember a time when Havana wasn’t playing soccer.
Brower, who played professional tennis at age 23, pushed Havana to pursue the sport she knew best.
Never in her wildest dreams did she expect Havana to fall in love with a sport that has only ever been seriously popular in European countries.
"Havana came about soccer on her own," Brower said. "She was in second grade, but she always walked around with a soccer ball in her hand. She joined a three v. three team and she literally just always walked around with a soccer ball in her hand, juggled, did hacky-sacks, just every minute she had she was doing something soccer-related."
Her hunger for the game pushed her to play for every team she could. If it meant playing with the boys, then that’s what she did.
"She was 10 – maybe 11 – she played on a boys team," Brower said. "And it was so funny because it was like ‘Oh my God she’s a girl. Really?’ Then they actually grew to respect her."
Brower said she believes it’s what made her the player she is today: quiet, tough and precise.
At age 9, she led her team to a U.S. under-10 national title, a feat her mother thought was too much for a child.
"What do you look forward to after that?" Brower joked.
It was the fuel Havana needed.
She began practicing nonstop. Focusing on her passing and dribbling, putting into place the talent that has intrigued nationals teams like Canada and the U.S.
It’s what taught her how to pull defenders attention from her teammates to herself.
How to be unstoppable when shooting.
And, most importantly, how to find a way to win.
It was a cool Sunday afternoon. In Alabama, the end of November marks the beginning of winter, something Floridians don’t see until late December. The air was crisp and the wind whipped mothers’ hair into a matted mess.
It was the event of the weekend. The final game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, and the Florida soccer team was 15 minutes into the first half against Texas A&M. Florida forward Savannah Jordan was pushing through Texas A&M’s backline positioning herself to score, and Havana was pulling up the midfield trying to give her the ball.
It went like this for 23 minutes — a tug of war between Florida’s offense and Texas A&M’s defense.
Havana would juggle the ball and pass to Jordan, doing everything she could to pull defenders away from her teammate.
She knew the team — knew Texas A&M didn’t have the speed to keep up with Florida’s offense — and she was more than ready to give the Aggies the final shot to the head that would end their season.
She danced up and down the field with the ball using footwork that would make a ballerina jealous.
Havana was leading her team.
But as she turned to save a ball from a Texas A&M defender, she fell.
It wasn’t graceful, and it wasn’t soft. But it was definitely the end. The end of a great season. Of an even bigger year. And of the biggest opportunity she’d received – a chance to play for a national soccer team.
The result: a torn ACL.
Havana was officially out for the season, and even the year.
Most athletes know how to keep from injuring themselves. It is almost always in freak accidents that injuries happen. Havana’s injury was one of those.
During the summer of 2013 and even into the first four weeks of the soccer season, Havana trained hard.
She focused on her hamstrings outside of practice because the heavy quad training can make athletes more vulnerable to ACL injuries.
Once the season progressed and practices became more frequent, Havana wore down.
The exhaustion held her back. Working out on her own became an afterthought. She began to focus less on strengthening and more on preparing for a tough SEC schedule.
"Right when I went down I kinda knew," Havana said. "I mean, they always say that when you tear your ACL you just know, and unless you have, it’s kind of hard to understand, but literally as I was laying on the field I just knew."
When she hit the ground on that cold afternoon in Alabama, she pounded her fist into the grass and dirt – not from pain, but from anger.
Havana already blamed herself.
"I could have prevented this," was the mantra running through her head as she sat on the trainer’s table for the last 66 minutes of the match and watched her teammates fall to a Texas A&M team that they’d beat just two weeks earlier.
She wasn’t alone, though.
Brower sat beside her daughter knowing no words in the world would be able to heal her broken dreams. So instead of talking, Brower wrapped her arms around Havana and hoped that she could somehow offer just a little bit of comfort.
"I think the guilt of, ‘Oh my gosh; I probably could have avoided this,’ was as traumatic as the injury," Brower said. "My heart just broke. She had just been called up by the Canadian National Team and I knew when she went down everything was flooding through her head. At that time, nothing you say is going to make it all right."
Coming back from an ACL tear is no small feat. It wrecks players.
Not just their physical abilities, but their psyche.
"It’s not just coming back from a physical injury; it’s coming back from a psychological injury, too," UF coach Becky Burleigh said.
The thing they always had, that they were always good at, is yanked from them and they are left to deal with the repercussions.
For many, they never make it back to the level they were at before it happened.
But Havana doesn’t intend for that to be the case.
"You can come back after eight months, but I don’t think you’re back for another year and a half," Havana said.
By June, she was back on the soccer field. Physically, she was ready to play, but mentally she was still recovering.
The 21-year-old received advice from her mother that would resonate with her when she stepped back on the field on Sept. 22: Don’t get back on the field until she felt she could walk on it without ever feeling like she got hurt.
"It was a long haul for her because she set goals for herself," Brower said. "But they were gone in five seconds."
After going into surgery on Nov. 25, Havana made it back on the field in less than a year.
Every day is a battle, whether it’s mental or physical, she’s fighting to come back.
And so far, she’s been successful.
In 15 games, Havana is tied for second on the team with four goals and second outright with five assists — it’s not as high or as profoundly strong as last season’s double scoring game in the season-opener against Florida Gulf Coast University or her support in the 2012 NCAA Tournament for her senior counterpart Erika Tymrak.
But Havana’s back and she’s not going anywhere.
At least, not until she graduates.
"Havana has really looked at it as building resilience," Burleigh said. "This caused her to really dig deep and create resilience she might not have had."
Follow Eden Otero on Twitter @Edenotero_l