PORTLAND, Ore. – Thorns FC defender Rachel Van Hollebeke is trading in her soccer cleats for medical scrubs.
Van Hollebeke, a long-time defensive stalwart for both club and country, has announced her retirement from soccer after a remarkable career that saw her win two Olympic gold medals and a 2013 NWSL Championship with the Thorns.
As she begins the next chapter in her life at UC San Diego School of Medicine, Van Hollebeke admits that she will struggle to leave her soccer career behind.
“It will always be hard for me to walk away from playing soccer because I love it,” she said. “I love the feeling that I get when I'm playing and making tackles and am so in the moment. That's a very special feeling that I don't know that I'll ever be able to recreate.”
But Van Hollebeke has been prepared for this transition for almost as long as she can remember. When she was still finishing her undergraduate degree at Stanford University, Van Hollebeke had a hard time imagining herself as a professional soccer player.
“I didn't think I was going to play professional soccer,” she reflected. “I knew there was a chance, but there wasn't a league at that point.”
When she didn't make the World Cup squad in 2007, Van Hollebeke thought that she would take her MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) and start medical school as soon as she had finished her undergraduate studies. But when Pia Sundhage took over as coach of the U.S. Women in 2007, Van Hollebeke got another chance to solidify her place in the national team.
“I just kept getting brought in for camp, brought in for camp, then I was going to the Olympics,” Van Hollebeke remembered. “So then at that point med school was on the back burner a little bit.”
It was around this time that Van Hollebeke's soccer career really took off.
She first traveled with the national team to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics, where the U.S. Women defeated Brazil 1-0 in the gold medal game.
Then in 2009, Van Hollebeke joined FC Gold Pride of the nascent Women's Professional Soccer league (WPS), winning the league championship with the team in 2010.
The very next summer, Van Hollebeke played in the 2011 Women's World Cup, scoring in the USA's opening victory over North Korea, and in 2012 she added to her Olympic gold medal tally, starting in defense for the U.S. Women as they earned revenge for the previous year's World Cup, defeating Japan 2-1 in the final.
All told, Van Hollebeke appeared in 102 games for the U.S. Women's National Team, won two gold medals, scored in a World Cup match, and won several domestic club championships.
It's been a remarkable professional journey for someone who once thought that she might not have a future in the sport.
“I still love soccer and I'll always love soccer, but my excitement for this next phase just became stronger and stronger,” she said.
There was never any question, though, what that next phase in her life was going to bring.
“Med school's always been something I've wanted to do,” Van Hollebeke said, noting that she comes from a long line of doctors, including her father, a cardiothoracic surgeon. “I've always wanted to keep that route open and keep pursuing that dream as well.”
While Van Hollebeke has long known what her next step was going to be, she kept delaying the decision to go to medical school year after year, having first applied to the UC San Diego School of Medicine in 2011.
“Every year I kind of reevaluate where I am and what's going on,” she said. “I deferred for four years basically from medical school. This year just felt different. When UC San Diego were asking me this year, I could see the next step.”
Still, the decision was a difficult one. Van Hollebeke and her husband have spent the past three years living and working in Portland and they've grown to think of the Rose City as home.
“I love Portland. It's such an amazing city. I mean playing soccer here has been an absolute pleasure. The fans and the organization and just all of that experience is unlike anything I've ever had and that's so special.
“There's just such a great vibe to the city and we love it.”
She'll also miss the fans, the tifo – “There's two that really stick out in my mind as being like, 'Wow, our fans are so awesome,'” she said – and of course, her Thorns teammates.
“Just those moments on the field with that environment that will always live on in my memory. There's so many small moments with the team and the group of girls. It's such a cool group of people, a lot of great memories with them.”