Editor's note: The following is a profile of a UNC women's soccer player, Taylor Otto, written by one of her teammates, first-year goalkeeper Marz Josephson, for a creative sportswriting class.
When you walk in, the smell of Lysol pierces your nostrils instantly. It takes a few minutes for your body to adjust and get used to the smell. It is hard for your eyes to gaze anywhere without seeing posters of the inner workings of the knee – a reminder of the harsh reality of the current situation. Aside from the sanitary paper rustling with each movement, the room was silent.
Unlike most people, this experience didn’t faze Taylor Otto, a redshirt junior midfielder for the North Carolina women’s soccer team – she had torn her ACL twice before. However, there was more at stake this time. Her worst fears were confirmed: she had suffered a torn meniscus – an injury that typically takes four months to recover from – just six weeks before the US National Team sent off for the U20 World Cup.
Finally, Otto broke the silence.
“Just take it out,” she told the doctor. “I am not missing this World Cup.”
Going into her first year at Chapel Hill, things were finally looking up for Otto. After suffering through not one, but two ACL tears, she was getting ready to represent her country at one of the biggest stages, the U-20 World Cup. However, kicking a ball around at camp for the national team, all that changed.
“It was so weird,” Otto recalled. “I hit a ball with the outside of my foot and I just fell down.”
Shortly after, she was on a flight back home to North Carolina from California, only to have her fears confirmed — she had torn her meniscus. She was understandably frustrated.
“It’s just hard because you feel so good, and then something happens and you’re just questioning why it happened,” Otto recalls.
Determined not to let her injury shatter her dream of representing her country, Otto prioritized a speedy recovery over long-term health, choosing to have her meniscus removed completely as opposed to having it repaired.
Otto went on not only to play in the U-20 World Cup but to thrive there. She played every minute of every game, helping her team reach the semifinals.
Even at her current role at UNC, Otto has been a game changer. Last year she was a first-team All-ACC selection, and head coach Anson Dorrance went as far to say that Otto is “one of the top three players on our roster.”
Given the success that Otto has had despite her injuries, one may think that she always had stellar character – but if you did, you would be dead wrong.
Sean Nahas, who has known Taylor since she was 12 years old, coached her at both the youth and the National Team level and had a firsthand view of her evolution.
In reference to her injuries, Nahas stated, “if you were to ask me five to 10 years ago, I would have told you that I thought she would have quit.”
The first ACL tear came in a fun 5v5 scrimmage at the end of practice. Nahas called for the girls to stop, but being the competitor that she is, Otto, then a high school first-year, kept playing.
Trying to save the ball from rolling out of bounds, Otto raced over, stuck out her leg awkwardly and felt a pop.
“I really didn’t know at the time how serious it was,” she recalled. “So, I thought it would be OK.”
Once the reality of the situation finally set in, Otto struggled.
“I would show up to practices and start crying because I wanted to play,” Otto remembered.
Nahas, never being one to sugarcoat things, pulled her aside.
“You have to stop being such a baby,” Otto recalled Nahas telling her. “It is what it is. You need to figure out what you need to do and start doing it.”
The harsh but honest words shook Otto’s perspective.
“It was good that he said that to me so early on,” she explained. “Ever since, when I’ve gotten injuries, I just figure out what I need to do and do it.”
The second time Otto tore her ACL, at the start of her junior year, was more serious. She had also suffered a torn MCL and cracked a bone in her right leg. But through it all, Nahas’ words rang through her head.
About two years later, when she tore her meniscus, her attitude remained the same.
Greg Gatz, the strength and conditioning coach for Olympic sports at UNC, can attest to Otto’s resilience and drive.
“She has been a really good role model for the rest of the younger athletes on the team,” Gatz said.
Never missing a rehab session, never missing a treatment session — Otto’s discipline is what allowed her to return to the field so quickly. Otto didn’t just overcome her injuries, she used them to transform her character.
According to Gatz, Otto’s tribulations were what prepared her for “the leadership role that we are looking for with our upperclassmen.”
And although she won’t admit it herself, Otto has been a big part of the program’s recent success.
Last year, the Tar Heels went 10-0 in ACC play, a feat they hadn’t accomplished since 2006. They also made it to both the ACC and NCAA title games, falling just short of victory both times to Florida State.
“Last season we had a wonderful run,” Dorrance said. “And I attribute a lot of that to her.”
Otto’s biggest impact doesn’t stem from her technical or tactical ability — although those are both world class. Instead it has to do with her leadership skills.
Galvanizing – one of 13 Core Values that Dorrance tries to ingrain into each of his players by the time they leave college. There’s a quote by Carl Sandburg about Abraham Lincoln that goes alongside it, noted as one of Dorrance’s favorites:
“Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is as hard as rock and soft as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect."
Dorrance notes how, especially in the women’s game, leaders are hard to find.
“If you have any leadership qualities, everyone on the team is going to think you are a bitch,” he said. “As a result, very few girls are willing to lead.”
Otto, however, is one of the few.
“Taylor has figured out that perfect balance of having an excellent leadership voice that doesn’t alienate a soul,” Dorrance continued. “She always says the right thing at the right time to the right player, and everyone loves her.”
Maggie Pierce, a first-year midfielder, has already gotten a sense of Otto’s impact on the team.
“She has the natural gift of leading on the field by her words and actions,” Pierce explained. “(She) truly brings each individual on the team into the UNC soccer family with love and a smile on her face.”
Otto and her teammates were ranked No. 2 in the country in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll. Now that she’s fully healthy, she will be a galvanizing force for a Tar Heel team looking for redemption in 2019.
And she may never have gotten here without the injuries, the setbacks that helped make her who she is.
When the stakes are at their highest, Otto is at her most calm. She’s a stern, fierce competitor on the pitch who’s as friendly as can be outside of the game. She will be the first person to yell at you when you are slacking and the first person to pick you up when you are struggling. She is the calm and the storm.
Taylor Otto – the perfect paradox.
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