Growing up, Robin Hayes used her feet for just about everything.
They were most important, however, on the soccer field, where Hayes spent much of her childhood training them to maneuver around defenders in pursuit of a goal. And it was well worth it. She sent goal after goal past the outstretched fingertips of goalies, burying balls in the back of the net with comparative ease.
And as her stats piled up, she began to dream. About a career in professional soccer. About a future playing the sport she worked so hard to perfect.
But what happens when all of that is taken away?
Some of Hayes’ first memories involve a soccer ball and a grassy field. The Aurora, Colorado, native found her passion early in life, playing recreationally beginning at age 4.
When she was 11, Hayes made the ‘A’ team for the Aurora Sting club program, and from there, her career took off.
“From then on, I was just very competitive,” she said.
She was the star of the Rangeview High School team that appeared in the state semifinals, earning first-team all-league and all-conference honors. She also played basketball for the Raiders, but gave it up after high school to pursue soccer.
In her short-lived track and field career, Hayes discovered why she was continuously drawn back to soccer.
“I liked the team aspect,” she said. “Also, just that it takes skill and practice. It wasn’t something that you could just walk out and do well that you didn’t have to work out.”
Armed with this knowledge, the forward elevated her game enough to attract the attention of several colleges, including Division II Colorado State University-Pueblo.
Hayes started all four years for the ThunderWolves, but especially shone during her senior season in 2007. She was the program’s first All-American, earning third-team honors, and was one of the top goal-scorers in Division II.
But according to her, the camaraderie was the most important part of the experience.
“It was more than just going to school,” she said. “You develop a lot of close friendships and you’re able to play and live with some of your closest friends.”
Following her graduation from CSU-Pueblo in 2008, Hayes wasn’t ready to hang up her cleats. She was dreaming of a career at the next level.
“It was something I definitely considered,” she said. “Then the whole foot thing happened.”
And just like that, she had to learn to let go.
‘The Whole Foot Thing’
After college, Hayes moved to San Diego, California, with one of her former college teammates and roommates. She had taken a small break from soccer to pursue a career in photography and still photo editing – she had received her degree in art from CSU-Pueblo.
It all started with flu-like symptoms. Assuming she had just come down with a virus, Hayes didn’t think much of them.
Until one day, she collapsed and her roommate took her to the emergency room.
It was in the hospital that Hayes’ life changed forever. The doctors told her she had toxic shock syndrome that had developed into septicemia (sepsis), but all she knew was that her hands and feet felt numb.
“It affects every part of your body, but my hands were numb, my feet were numb, then on top of that they ended up giving me a medication because my blood pressure was so low that also made my hands and feet numb,” she said. “My left foot just kind of shut down.”
Hayes’ left foot took the brunt of the infection, and remained numb for months following the initial reaction. Her toes curled in on themselves, forcing doctors to operate to straighten them. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to walk on the foot again, much less play soccer.
Physical therapy helped, but Hayes wasn’t making the strides she wanted. It was December 2010, she was a year and a half out of college, and she couldn’t walk.
Her foot, which had been so reliable on the soccer field for so many years and scored so many goals for her, was now failing her. And she didn’t know what to do.
“I kind of went through a phase where I was like ‘this is it. I won’t ever be able to do anything,’” she said. “I definitely went through a stage where I just kind of gave up.”
The Uphill Climb
Hayes moved back to Colorado to be close to family and friends, who provided her with the support that she needed to recover – and to change her mentality.
A year and a half after Hayes’ foot surgery, which occurred in October 2012, she forced herself to get back on her snowboard, another one of her childhood passions.
“I just thought, ‘if it works, great. If it doesn’t, at least you tried,’” she said. “I realized that ‘giving up’ mentally didn’t make any sense. I love to be active, I love to get out there and do things.”
Hayes got back on her snowboard. Then back on her bike. Then, she put on hiking boots and started climbing mountains again. She was – and still is – limited in what she could and could not do, but she rediscovered her passion for the outdoors.
“My toes just don’t have very much range of motion, so doing a lot of extreme running or jumping, they just can’t do it,” she said. “But I think when a person is that athletic their entire life, to completely just take it away is pretty rare and it’s hard.”
And she found soccer again. But it wasn’t for the same dream of becoming a pro. Initially, it was difficult for Hayes to let go of her competitive streak.
“That was probably the hardest part,” she said. “I had achieved so much in college with soccer and it was hard that I knew I would never be at that level again.”
Yes, acceptance was the most difficult part for Hayes. But over time, she learned to be grateful just to be on the field – or the trail, or the slope.
Compared to many cases, the lasting effects of Hayes’ septicemia were mild. Many lose limbs altogether from the infection, and some experience organ failure.
Hayes said she came to realize just how close she came to some of those more extreme situations.
“I felt fortunate that it wasn’t worse,” she said. “It’s just been, not rough, I don’t want to use the word rough because it could always be much worse. But it definitely took a toll on what I was able to do.”
The adult leagues that Hayes plays in now are nothing compared to the competition she faced as a collegiate player. But that doesn’t seem to matter to Hayes. She’s learned to let the game go. And in the process, she has learned to appreciate all that it has given her, both past and present.
“There just kind of came a time when I learned to love the game for what it is and just enjoy it,” she said. “Be thankful that I got to play at that level and be that good at it. Just accept it.”