June 24, 2013

Look Good, Feel Good, Play Good

by Matt DaSilva | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Kelly Berger will finally have a chance to play with the senior national team next month in Ontario. 
© John Strohsacker 

The following article originally appeared in the print edition of the June issue of Lacrosse Magazine, an exclusive benefit for the more than 400,000 members of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse now to help support the positive development of the sport, and receive Lacrosse Magazine delivered right to your mailbox.

Kelly Berger spent nearly a decade toiling in the U.S. women’s national teams program — a journey that started in 2005 and included three knee surgeries and a close call in 2009. She should have felt ecstatic about being named to the 2013 World Cup team in February. Only 18 players nationwide get that privilege.

But rather than bask in her moment of catharsis, Berger immediately contacted two players — Danielle Spencer and Michelle Tumolo — who did not make the final selection.

“The first thing that came to my mind when I got the call when I made it was, ‘Who didn’t?’ You grow these friendships and these personalities with each other,” Berger said. “It just hurts your heart a little bit that they won’t be there with you.”

Berger loved playing with Spencer, the 6-foot-2 midfielder who could drop draws on a dime, and sympathized with her as she struggled through a hip injury in 2012. She also enjoyed Tumolo’s outlandishness. Berger’s message to both young stars: “You know you’re one of the best. And this shouldn’t take away from what we believe you can be. Don’t let it stop your path.”

That Berger’s first instinct was to console her former teammates says a lot about her maturation as a player and why the U.S. coaching staff sees her having a significant presence on the field and in the locker room at the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) Women’s World Cup in Canada this summer.

***

As a junior at James Madison, Berger had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in her left knee. She recovered in time to enjoy her best season as a collegiate player with 59 goals, 34 assists and a first-team IWLCA All-American nod.

But then Berger tore her ACL in the same knee during the first practice of fall ball in September 2006. She balked even at the suggestion of redshirting. Three days later, she was on the operating table. Hours after surgery, she began her two-a-day rehabilitation program with Tom Kuster, James Madison’s director of sports medicine.

Five months later — a recovery time that would make Adrian Petersen blush — Berger played in the Dukes’ season opener against Notre Dame.

After another All-American campaign, Berger, who had a previous stint with the U.S. Developmental Team, qualified for the 2007-08 U.S. Elite team. In her first competition on the senior circuit, the October 2007 US Lacrosse Stars and Stripes weekend in Oregon, Berger felt a painfully familiar pop, this time in her right knee. “Same dodge, same way, no contact. Just a face dodge, a plant-and-go,” she said.

This time, Berger had to manage her own ACL rehab. It took nine months. But then-U.S. coach Sue Heether had seen enough  out of Berger to take her to the Czech Republic for the 2008 Prague Cup — a prelude to the World Cup.

It was too soon. “I played horrible,” Berger said. She regretted that performance a year later when she was left off of the World Cup roster.

Berger’s emotional roller coaster continued when she received a late overture from Heether days before the event. Already overseas, the U.S. coach was worried Whitney Douthett would not be ready due to an injury. But Berger had just accepted a job as the coach at UMBC and was settling on a house when she got the surprise phone call. Begrudgingly, she declined.

Katrina Dowd flew to Prague instead, and Douthett wound up playing as Team USA beat Australia for the gold medal.

***

Back in the U.S., Berger wondered what went wrong. Is someone telling me something? Am I not meant for this?

On the field, she became isolated. “I had that lull of feeling bad for myself,” she said. “I got kind of mean.”

Berger briefly considered retiring. She credited the U.S. coaches for convincing her otherwise and snapping her out of a pattern of self pity.

A kinder, chattier Berger has emerged over the last four years. She said she learned a lot from recently retired Team USA star Acacia Walker about the value of having a friend on the field.

“I nicknamed her Kelly Fierce,” U.S. defender Holly McGarvie Reilly said. “She’s so committed to her training. That has inspired me. For our display to the outside world, she’s a great deBeer poster girl as well. That’s helped us pick up a few little laxers who have seen beautiful Kelly Berger on the posters.”

Berger laughed at that last comment. Can you be both fierce and beautiful?

“I mean, I still wear a bow in my hair when I play, and that’s because I think it’s cute. I refuse to wear eye black because I don’t want to get it on my jersey,” she said. “To each her own, right?”

Berger competed in dance through high school in addition to playing lacrosse, basketball and soccer. She attends fashion shows and reads InStyle Magazine. Whereas recent high-profile female athletes like soccer’s Alex Morgan and track and field’s Lolo Jones have encountered criticism for being too sexy, Berger believes it’s OK to embrace the girl in the athlete.

“You don’t have to act like a boy to be an athlete or act like a girl to be a dancer. You can be whoever you want to be. And that’s where I believe our national teams set an example,” she said. “Look good, feel good, play good. Whatever it takes for you to feel confident, do it for you.”

***

Berger’s confidence stems not only from the way she looks, but also the way she trains. She works out six days a week, normally in the morning. She starts with interval training and ends with weights. On Sundays, she’ll let loose with a 10-mile run around Baltimore.

Once the youngest coach in Division I, Berger’s career came to a halt in 2012. She did not finish the season at UMBC and resigned in June. Due to settlement and severance agreements with the university, she could not comment on the circumstances of her departure.

One unexpected benefit of the life change: Berger could spend more time honing her craft as a lacrosse player and conditioning her body for the more physical international game. She has spent the last year observing Jay Dyer, the Johns Hopkins strength and conditioning coach who trains several pro players — including her fiancé, two time Major League Lacrosse MVP and 2010 FIL World Championship MVP Paul Rabil.

Berger, now a certified personal trainer, also teaches spinning classes at Merritt Athletic Clubs. Rabil occasionally shows up.

“I kind of joke with Paul. ‘It’s like what you’re doing. I’m a professional athlete right now,’” she said.

Lacrosse’s resident power couple plans to get married someday. They will exchange vows and rings. If Berger has her way, she’ll have the bling around her neck to match his too.


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