The two-time defending state-champion Providence Day girls’ soccer team has won a lot of big games in the past two seasons.
One of the Chargers’ biggest victories, however, had little to do with soccer.
The big win came when junior Olivia Weidner showed up for tryouts Feb. 16, about two months after being diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer on Dec. 2 and enduring major surgery to remove her thyroid and affected lymph nodes Dec. 19.
While Weidner wasn’t 100 percent at the time – and still isn’t – she refused to let that keep her from the game she loves.
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“Just to have Olivia back on the field was huge for our team and a big relief to see her playing soccer again,” said Chargers coach Dan Dudley. “But I feel our girls really got a sense of what it’s all about.
“It’s not about state championships, it’s not about conference championships or national rankings. It’s about this group of girls being together.
“Our whole motto for this team the last few years has been, ‘Together we believe.’ Together, this group has proved that they can accomplish a lot. But what Olivia has overcome and done is so much bigger than any result we could have ever gotten on the field.”
Weidner, 17, was excited to be back.
“There were definitely times when I didn’t know if I’d be able to play this year, but I wanted to be a part of the team,” Weidner said. “I remember that first day of practice, everyone was telling me to take it easy. I was thinking, ‘I don’t really know what that means,’ because I was so excited just to be back out there.
“Obviously, I wasn’t 100 percent physically, but mentally I was ready to go. I’ve just had to learn to set new goals and then readjust my goals and expectations for myself as I go along.”
Weidner played her first regular-season game of the year during the Chargers annual trip to the beach to play Wilmington Hoggard, on March 16. Weidner played about eight minutes each half.
Her next games, after spring break, held even deeper meaning for her.
Horton, Dudley and parents from both schools had seeking a good cause to support. Charlotte Latin team mother Amy Nielsen suggested playing in honor of Weidner.
Proceeds from the event went to Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association (ThyCa), an organization dedicated to supporting and educating thyroid cancer survivors, their families and friends.
Weidner started both showcase games, against Marvin Ridge (a 2-1 loss) and Weddington (a 1-1 tie), playing about 10 minutes per half in each contest.
While Weidner initially was apprehensive about the attention, she said the support was overwhelming.
“The entire showcase meant a lot to me. To have all my teammates and other teams support me was really cool, motivating and inspiring,” said Weidner, adding that her father, Greg; mother, Julie; sister, Eliza; and brother, Griffin, have been her biggest supporters.
“It was also great to see the proceeds go to ThyCa, because I know there are a lot of other people fighting thyroid cancer,” she said. “It was a great feeling to be a part of something that might help others.”
Weidner said she has learned to remain positive through her surgery in December and radiation treatment in January. Her goal has always been “to get back to being as normal as possible,” without the stigma of being the “kid with cancer.”
As her health has improved, Weidner has seen more time on the field. She played about 20 minutes in wins against Charlotte Christian, Covenant Day and Cannon School.
The Chargers (5-2-4 through April 13), ranked No. 4 in the state coaches poll, is playing good soccer, getting a recent 1-1 result against No. 1 Charlotte Latin.
Weidner played in both the junior-varsity and varsity games against Cannon School on April 9, netting the game-winning goal in the second half of the J.V. game to give the Chargers a 1-0 win.
Dudley said he is cautious to not work Weidner too hard, but she is constantly pushing him to treat her like everyone else.
“Every time I do anything remotely different for her in practice, she just gives me this look and is constantly reminding me she doesn’t want to be singled out,” Dudley said. “I’ve never met a person that is so resilient. If you just met her and talked to her today, you’d never know all that she has been through.”
“If I didn’t sub her out of the game, she’d try to play every minute,” he said. “I’d have to drag her off the field.”
Weidner said her experiences will allow her to help others.
“Going through all of this has made me so much more aware of all the blessings I have in my life, especially my family and friends,” Weidner said. “After seeing all that people have done for me, I want to be able to help others who are going through the same type of struggles.”
Dudley said the way Weidner goes about her every day is a source of inspiration.
“This has been a life-changing experience for our entire team, and it really puts everything into perspective,” Dudley said. “To see all that Olivia has gone through to battle back and put the (Providence Day) jersey on is inspiring to all of us. Just seeing her walk back on the field is icing on the cake.
“Every game she plays in, every little success she has with this team is a victory. That is my state championship.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jay? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information about thyroid cancer is available from the Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association at www.thyca.org or 877-588-7904.