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Head Strong: WNT Defender Lori Chalupny Returns to U.S. Lineup

If it’s possible, Lori Chalupny actually picked a good time to get kicked in the head. After being sidelined for four months to recover from a series of concussions, the U.S. midfielder turned defender missed only the Algarve Cup and two games in Japan before being pronounced fit for the USA’s domestic slate of matches. The soft-spoken Chalupny, known as “Chalupa” to her teammates, and well, everyone but her mom, endured months of inactivity to get back into a U.S. jersey, but she is once again showing signs of becoming one of the best attacking flank defenders in the world.

On January 22, 2006, Lori Chalupny was sprinting to the end line to deny a cross against France in Guangzhou, China at the Four Nations Tournament. She actually won the ball before it went over the end line and was shielding it from a French player, who then gave her a hard shove to the back. As Chalupny went down face first, the French player tried to cross the ball, but swung and missed, instead nailing the falling Chalupny in the side of the head.

Stunned for a few moments, she slowly shook it off and jogged back to her position. If a direct kick to the cranium wasn’t bad enough, with just minutes left in the game, Chalupny went up for a head ball and bashed heads with another French player, breaking her nose.

Chalupny had suffered several concussions during her college season the previous fall and to put it in complicated medical terms, the two blows to the noggin’ against France put her over the edge. The doctors ordered her to take three months off.

Chalupny was not allowed to exercise from Jan. 22 until early April. That was not just a moratorium of her soccer playing. It was no running, no jogging, no lifting weights, no sit-ups, no exercise bike, and hey, don’t even run up those steps too fast. In other words, try really hard not to sweat. Playing soccer was not even on the radar. She put her cleats in the closest.

For a young player trying to earn a starting spot on the National Team, it was devastating news. At the time of the injury, Chalupny was starting to solidify herself as a starter at outside back, a position she is still learning after playing midfield all her life.

“Chalupa has the potential to be an incredible attacking fullback,” said U.S. head coach Greg Ryan. “She has all the attacking skills from playing in the midfield, she can score goals and shoot from outside. Her crossing is extremely accurate and consistent. She has an incredible engine, which you have to have as a wing defender, and her composure and skill on the ball make her a great wingback.”

There were times when Chalupny, who is known for her even temperament, thought she just might go stir crazy before being cleared to play again. But she knew it was a serious injury, that she was just 22 years old, and she had to be smart. Despite losing some brain cells in China, this much she knew: you just don’t mess with head injuries.

“My road to recovery did feel very long and at times, it was extremely frustrating,” said Chalupny. “Most days I felt fine and didn’t understand why I couldn’t get back out on the field, but deep down I knew that I had to give my head time to rest and recuperate.”

So Chalupny went about occupying her time with everything BUT soccer, a difficult lifestyle for a person used to planning her life AROUND soccer.

“I spent a lot of time catching up on movies and watching TV,” said Chalupny, who was told not to spend too much time reading or on the computer. “I really don’t know what I did. I guess I sat around a lot.”

Chalupny asked to come in Residency Training Camp at the beginning of April, even though she was not yet cleared to play. While it might have seemed even more difficult to be around soccer and not playing, just being at practices and with teammates gave her the extra push she needed to survive that last few weeks before she could get on the field.

“As hard as it was, I understood the seriousness of my injury and did what the doctors ordered,” said Chalupny, who is not known as a rebel to begin with. “I felt confident in my doctors and knew that by doing what they prescribed, I would get back on the field feeling 100%. Fortunately, I was able to join the team for the beginning of Residency so I could watch practice and learn all I could from the sidelines.”

Chalupny began light exercise in early April and gradually increased the intensity over a period of about a month. By May, she was cleared and ready to jump into training, but even did that gradually, first just doing some crossing and eventually working her way up to contact drills.

“It has never felt so good to put cleats on and jog around a little,” said Chalupny. “It was great being around the team for much of my recovery. Everyone was so supportive, cheering me on and keeping my spirits up. I couldn’t have made it without the support of the players and coaches.”

Chalupny didn’t return to full training until late May, and didn’t see her first game action until the final 10 minutes of the USA’s match against Sweden on July 15. She was on the field when the teams combined for three goals in the final four minutes. She started and played the full 90 minutes a week later against Ireland, setting up Abby Wambach’s diving header with a pinpoint cross from the left flank.

She was back, finally. Being able to sweat and run felt like Christmas morning to Chalupny, even with the blazing temperatures the USA has encountered this month.

“Chalupa will never say anything, but there were times when she thought she was getting close to getting on the field, and then she wasn’t allowed, you could tell she was very disappointed,” said Ryan. “She’s handled it well and she’s really just really starting to get back on her game.”