HARRISONBURG — Reflecting back to two years ago, Mikaela O’Fallon called it the darkest time of her athletic career.
O’Fallon, a 2019 Harrisonburg graduate, suffered a torn ACL in her right knee during her eighth grade year and then dealt with the same injury just seven months later as a freshman.
So when a third ACL tear in her left knee occurred during her sophomore year while playing basketball, a sport that wasn’t even her primary focus, she said it was like “hitting rock bottom.”
“I had gone through it so many times,” O’Fallon said. “It kind of made me feel depressed with all that was going on. It just put me in a not-so-good stage and it was hard to come back from.”
O’Fallon did come back, however, and arguably better than she ever was before as she opted to focus on playing soccer and building a résumé to play at the college level.
She did just that.
Recently, the former Blue Streaks standout was named to the United Soccer Coaches Association Scholar All-American team — a major award in the sport that comes from the same association that chooses the NCAA All-American teams — and will also play in the Virginia Soccer Coaches Association Senior Showcase game this weekend at Shellenberger Field at the University of Lynchburg.
“It really is an inspirational story of perseverance and unwavering pursuit of your dreams,” Harrisonburg coach Ray Ellington said. “She doesn’t really look at it that way, but I hope her teammates and anyone that has watched her play appreciates what she’s endured.”
Ellington struggled to come up with words to describe how impressive O’Fallon’s ability to come back from her injuries each time was, noting how hard it is for professional athletes to rebound from an ACL injury, but even more so for a high school kid that is still growing physically and emotionally.
He said that the emotional toll and the rehab she was forced to go through with each injury, especially at such a young age, could have made her give up the sport.
“No one would have blamed her, but she was determined to continue to play the sport she loved,” Ellington said. “She doesn’t accept anything less than the best from herself and it drove her to get back playing at a high level.”
Even though she was the Valley District and Region 5D South Player of the Year and will continue her career next year at Mary Washington — a Division III school in Fredericksburg — it isn’t just soccer that O’Fallon strives to be elite in.
O’Fallon boosted a 4.25 GPA when she graduated in June, Ellington said, and was a two-year captain for the Streaks despite missing her entire sophomore season due to her injury.
“I’m definitely a vocal leader,” O’Fallon said. “I’ve had captains that when someone needed help or they messed up, they didn’t have a problem telling them. They were very straight up and nice about it. I think that’s the better way to do things so that’s how I tried to be a leader.”
At one point early in the season, the first under Ellington, Harrisonburg struggled with injuries and other misfortunes and started 1-2-1 in Valley District play.
Then, while playing against Broadway, Ellington said O’Fallon gave her teammates a halftime speech propelling them to a 7-2 victory that night and also a nine-game game winning streak to close out the regular season.
Harrisonburg finished as the district’s co-champions with the Gobblers for the regular season and eventually fell to Class 5 power Mountain View in the Region 5D semifinals.
“We were just a really close team this year,” O’Fallon said. “It really made me feel great to lead a team that really came together and worked as a team. That was perfect.”
O’Fallon, who teammates refer to as ”lighthearted and fun,” has a different persona when she takes the field, despite three knee surgeries in the back of her mind.
She admitted that it is tough not to think about those injuries, especially when opposing players go low, but she said her aggression and determination is what sets her apart.
“Her teammates and the coaching staff love her for the very reason that she keeps everything balanced,” Ellington said. “When it's time to practice or play, it's to be done at a high level and as hard as you can go, but off the field she wants to get the team together and have fun.”
O’Fallon said the last two years have undoubtedly been the most fun for her as she’s been able to play at full health and with the physicality she lacked before.
“It was hard,” O’Fallon said. “You can always physically come ready to play, but when you are focused mentally, that’s when you’re at your best. You can’t be afraid to play or you’ll hurt yourself again. I had to go a few months longer because I wasn’t mentally ready. When I got mentally ready, I was stronger, both physically and mentally, than I was before.
"It was easier to come and get back into it. There are times that I do get afraid if I get hit a certain way and my knee starts to hurt, but I never play in constant fear.”
As she prepares to head to Mary Washington in the fall, she said she hopes to get there and earn a starting job early, but also has big plans in the classroom as well.
She said she’ll study biology and plan to become a physician’s assistant after graduation.
Because when she thought back to that dark, depressing three-year span that consisted of three ACL surgeries, she said it motivated her to help future athletes as well.
“I want to help people like I was helped,” O’Fallon said. “I just want to be the best I can be.”