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A leap of faith The trip to Greece that changed Chrissy Conley's life, and led her to Springfield College

By Hayden Choate

Chrissy Conley lays on the floor of her University of Massachuetsetts-Lowell dorm room.

Its a snowy November day.

She sits there, just staring at the bricks on her wall.

Looking for answers.

Why isn’t she playing soccer, a game she has been in love with since she was four years old?

Why does her stomach hurt – a lot? Why is she in a very toxic relationship with a boy that she was once in love with?

The answer she gets is a question.

What do I do?

Finally she came to a realization. It was time to get away.

By spending a semester abroad in Greece. Seeking an experience that would change her life.

***

Conley began playing soccer at a very young age and loved it, she loved the aspect of always having fun, trying your best and making friends.

In high school, Conley had a coach named Martin Yarumian that inspired her by putting the words of Jim Valvano during his famous 1993 ESPYS speech, “Don’t give up; Don’t ever give up!”A mentality that she kept in mind when she worked to try to get recruited by colleges and still lives by.

Yarumian also taught Conley a lesson of mind over matter on the first day of tryouts her freshman year. Due to Lyme disease, he needed to have a tube put in from his arm to his heart and was given the option to be put under and miss tryouts or stay awake then go to the tryouts in excruciating pain.

“I was that high school athlete that, you know, couldn’t do things because I always had soccer,” Conley said.

Conley worked hard to reach her goal to get a full Division I scholarship to give back to her parents. Getting to the next level meant sometimes having to miss hanging out with friends for games or practices.

During her sophomore year of high school she verbally committed to Bryant University in her home state of Rhode Island.

A coaching change at Bryant meant Conley’s commitment went void, she began to get nervous until she stumbled across another Division I school with interest.

Now in her senior year of high school, Conley committed to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, another Division I school, on a scholarship. At first, it was a perfect match.

Conley toured the school, liked the coaches and liked the team and another recruit who she is still great friends with to this day and was feeling hopeful about her future.

In her first-year at Umass-Lowell, it was a great fit. Conley came in as a freshman and flourished, playing in every game of the 2016 season and starting most of them, while making a group of some very close friends she still keeps in touch with.

Despite an impressive first fall season for Conley her future at Umass-Lowell was in question. The River-Hawks brought in a new coach.

With three weeks left of class in her freshman year, as the spring season was ending, the coach brought Conley into his office and told her her scholarship was being taken away.

The new coach wanted to change things up by replacing the starting lineup with new players from around the world, which did not include Conley.

Conley admits going from being an everyday player to sitting on the bench was not easy.

“It was really hard. It took a lot for me to be able to admit that to people and to say hey look somebody came up to me and told me I wasn’t enough,” Conley said.

Despite the frustration of having her starting role taken away, Conley wanted to keep a team-first mentality. However, due to the team revoking her scholarship she stepped down from the team.

The reality of the situation pulled Conley away from her passion, but it did not really hit her until her sophomore year, when the season began without her.

“I was this little girl that loved the game and I went my entire life that was the only thing I knew. And then I had that sophomore year fall season and I wasn't playing anymore,” Conley said.

Conley was a Psychology major at UMass-Lowell, and had many great friends on campus but was not the same without soccer.

“she had given up soccer….she had basically made the determination that she did not want to play soccer anymore that she was done and that was a very sad experience for her, for all of us,” Pat Conley, Chrissy’s father said.

But Chrissy tried to stay optimistic, trying to find the positives in a tough situation.

“I thought I could keep that student non-athlete vibe going but my heart just wanted to play,” she said. “I keep trying to tell people I’m not upset about this but inside I was itching to touch the ball...I didn't have closure to the sport and I was lost.”

Things for Conley did not get any better.. She was separated from mostly everyone she associated with and she couldn’t escape her relationship with her then boyfriend..

Conley had gone to an all-girls school from kindergarten thru 12th grade where female empowerment is very important to being a very hard relationship for her.

“ I was put down a lot... he totally put a blind fold over my eyes. I forgot who I was,” Conley said.

In addition to the tough times she was having, Conley also had very bad stomach issues.

What started in her senior year of high school and puzzled many doctors had turned into “excruciating” stomach pain during that fall.

***

Now Conley was laying on her dorm room floor looking at those bricks, beginning to hate who she was.

“I just was very lost and all of a sudden I thought, ‘hey I need to get out of here I need to go see the world’ because I’ve always loved traveling,” Conley said.

Being so dedicated to soccer, Conley was able to travel to play in Spain and Italy for the Region One Olympic development soccer team during her junior and senior years of high school.

Conley saw a poster for a study abroad program where students would spend a semester in Greece.

Studying abroad had never crossed her mind because of soccer, especially at the Division I level where there are two seasons, fall and the spring.

Though unexpected because of how last-minute the decision was, Conley’s parents were proud of her for participating to get away from everything.

“It was an absolute perfect fit for her, we weren’t surprised, very pleased, it got her off of campus, out of the day-to-day interactions with her friends, who were very good friends but were still on the team,” Pat said.

Before she left, she broke up with her boyfriend and finally got her stomach issues resolved. Turns out she needed her gallbladder removed.

***

Greece was beautiful.

More importantly, Conley was able to gain perspective when she stepped into uncharted waters.

“I was away from everything and when you can see things from above, it's way easier to fix, because you can move pieces into place rather than being in the middle where you don't know where to look or to start,” Conley said.

A connection from her advisor allowed Conley to rekindle her relationship with soccer. Not only was she able to play again, but playing on a Greek team with a language barrier was an eye-opening experience for her.

“It was all Greek, I watched their movements, I watched how their passing patterns went, I literally learned by example, and I had no idea what they were saying to me, I tried to figure it out with hand gestures but I couldn't,” Conley said. “They would smile, they would laugh because they knew I was trying and that made me feel so good.”

She would practice with the Greek team two to three times a week and travel on the metro by herself, 90 minutes there and 90 minutes back.

Conley also did a lot of volunteer work while she was in Greece, working at a refugee ministry and an orphanage.

“It was so amazing to be able to help people,” Conley said.

While in Greece, things were starting to change for her. She was able to play soccer again, find the right foods for her stomach, help out in the orphanage and refugee ministry and able to meet so many new people and develop life-long friendships.

She realized a life-long dream.

Since she was six-years old she had dreamed of seeing the sunset over Oia in Santorini. Now for spring break she got to live that dream.

Seeing the sunset made Conley reflect on her entire journey to get where she was.

“I looked at my friends next to me and we all just had tears in our eyes because it was the most beautiful thing we had ever seen,” Conley said.

Conley knew she was ready for a brand new start once she returned from Greece, determined to play soccer again.

***

She decided she wanted to go into Occupational Therapy so she began by googling programs that eventually led her to Springfield College.

Conley sent in her application and received an email from the head coach of the women’s soccer team, John Gibson, asking for her to send him some of her game film.

“She was high energy, very articulate, intelligent,” Gibson said.

In the fall of 2018, Conley stepped foot on Alden Street for the first time as a student. She was instantly impressed with her new soccer teammates.

“I was a little quiet at first because I was really scared, but the team changed my life, the coaching staff changed my life,” Conley said.

Shannon Anfuso, one of Conley’s best friends and roommates had just lost her best friend who had best away and remembers Chrissy was one of the first people there for her despite only knowing each other for a short amount of time.

“She was one of the first people to look me in the face and say ‘That really sucks, I’m so sorry that happened to you’ she was devastated for me,” Anfuso said.

The two became very close and again Conley had made a close friend through the game she loved.

Despite her pedigree in high school, Conley knew nothing was guaranteed and worked as hard as she possibly could during that pre-season to ensure she would make the team.

“Whenever she's on the field, she's working hard, she's quick and she's strong,” Gibson said.

Preseason was winding down when the final roster came.

Conley’s name was on it.

“I was so happy, I realized wow I really did this,” Conley said.

Her first season, albeit some injuries and positional changes, was very successful. She earned NEWMAC first-team all-conference and United Coaches All-Region honors.

Aside from her personal achievements, Conley saw herself becoming a mentor to the underclassmen as well, even though she herself was new to campus. Having gone through the experience of being a newcomer Conley wanted to help the other first-year player adjust.

“I wanted to help other people too because I know how stressful it is to be a freshman,” Conley said.

Conley had made such an impact in her first year on the team she was voted as one of the captains the following year.

“I just started crying because I did not expect it and I was so happy and I never would have thought this would happen,” Conley said.

Conley continued to develop in her senior season.. Becoming an anchor to a terrific defense, she captured NEWMAC first-team and New England Women's Intercollegiate Soccer (NEWISA) All-Region First-Team honors.

Although Springfield had failed to escape the NEWMAC tournament, being eliminated by MIT

Pat had a unique perspective, watching the growth of his daughter from afar during an unusual four years of college. She ended her soccer career the way she wanted to, and for that the Conley’s have Gibson to thank.

“I shook (John’s) hand and I gave him a hug and I just said thank you for helping her love the game again,” Pat said.“He told me how much he loved her coming to the team and the difference she made.”

Soccer wasn’t the only way Conley became a part of the Springfield community; she got involved with many things around campus. By way of suggestion through a teammate, she stepped out of her comfort zone and auditioned for the Vagina Monologues.

“I said this school is incredible, these girls are awesome, I will definitely try it,” Conley said.

The Vagina Monologues is not an ordinary play. It is made up of stories from over 200 women that Eve Ensler interviewed about their bodies and sexuality. For Conley, having been in that very toxic relationship, she wanted to do something with female empowerment, again to help her fall back in love with herself.

“I fell in love with it, I had the most amazing monologue group...I was blessed with four amazing people in my monologue and they made me love it so much,” Conley said.

Conley showed such passion for her role in the play that she was nominated to be a director the following year.

Conley became one of the three directors for the 2020 performance of the Vagina Monologues at Springfield. Although it was a long-process, it was very rewarding for her to see it come together.

“When the show comes around it's literally the most magical thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Conley said.

The Monologues were not the only thing Conley got involved in during her first year as she attended the Leadership Training Conference (LTC) when she would discover a place that would be very special for her.

The weekend long conference ended with a dinner at Springfield College’s East Campus. Much like when she began playing soccer, Conley was instantly hooked.

“There were these beautiful canoes hanging over the Crane Lodge while we ate and it just made me want to find out more about the place. It seemed like a magical place, being 57 acres of woodland in the middle of a city and everyone who talked about it, absolutely raved about it. So I wanted to know more,” Conley said.

Conley ended up taking several classes on East Campus and during the summer after her junior year she worked at Camp Massasoit. A summer camp for kids held on East Campus.

“I encouraged campers to step outside of their comfort zones and fostered such special relationships with coworkers all through outdoor activities,” Conley said.

Working with kids on East Campus made Conley exactly what she wanted to do after she graduates in May.

“In the few short months that I spent there, I learned far more than I had in any classroom. This experience made me want to dive into the realm of adventure therapy,” Conley said.

Two and a half years later, Conley knows she made the right decision to go abroad and take back control of her life to help her fall in love with her sport again and herself.

If it weren’t for that poster inviting her to spend a semester in Greece, she never would have realized she needed to transfer. She never would have had the opportunity to play the sport she loved again, She never would have found the career path she wants to go down.

She never would have taken her life back. In the end, although it was tough, Conley knows things would not be the same if she didn’t go through everything she did.

“This whole thing to me is such a blessing and as crazy as it sounds I’m so glad it happened, because I would not be where I am today if it didn’t.”

Created By
Hayden Choate
Appreciate

Credits:

Springfield Athletics, Chrissy Conley