The interview for this article with former Stanford women’s soccer standout Civana Kuhlmann was conducted on January 28th, 2022. On March 1st, Katie Meyer, a teammate of Kuhlmann’s and soccer goalie at Stanford, passed away by suicide. One of the goals of this series is to help reduce the stigma associated with mental health in athletics. Kuhlmann was brave enough to share her mental health journey before Meyer passed, and she is courageous for doing so after the news of Meyer’s death came to light as well.
Audiences love comeback stories, especially those that arc in a triumphalist narrative: an underdog squeaks out a win despite all odds, a less skilled team outworks the more talented opponent, or an athlete overcomes an injury to win the championship. Civana Kuhlmann’s story may well be one of those, but it’s still a work in progress.
A Young Phenom
Kuhlmann was a rising soccer star from an early age. The Centennial, Colo. native began playing soccer when she was just four years old. Her parents were basketball players, and they encouraged her to participate in athletics from the beginning. Her dad saw potential in Kuhlmann’s soccer abilities, and she took it and ran.
Although she excelled throughout her youth in the sport, the 5-foot-6-inch forward’s first big break came when she was 14. At that age, she made the United States U-17 World Cup Qualifiers team composed of the best players in the U.S. in that age group.
In high school, Kuhlmann’s success rose further. She was tabbed as a top-five recruit in the nation. The high schooler’s talent caught the eye of many college coaches, and ultimately, Kuhlmann committed to play soccer at Stanford University.
When Kuhlmann was first breaking into the soccer scene, she doesn’t recall having to manage external pressures extensively. But with success comes pressure.
“When I made that U-17 team when I was 14, I didn't feel pressure,” Kuhlmann said. “That felt like I had nothing to lose. Once you do that, when you're 14, then everything after that is something to lose.”
After gaining attention from scouts and players and being named a top-five recruit though, the pressure mounted for Kuhlmann. Reaching such high levels of success and recognition at an early age comes with a lot of expectations to live up to.
“It [being a top-five recruit] didn't need to add additional pressure, but for me personally, it did,” Kuhlmann said.
In order to manage pressure effectively, athletes must develop a plethora of mental skills and fortitude. Kuhlmann was up for the task.
"When I was younger... I was told that my mentality was one of my biggest strengths"
“When I was younger… I was told that my mentality was one of my biggest strengths,” Kuhlmann said. “It's just something I felt that I had, and I held it close because I knew it was a strength.”
However, when Kuhlmann started to experience mental health challenges, that strength began to diminish. These struggles began for Kuhlmann in her first year at Stanford. Kuhlmann, like many collegiate student-athletes, struggled to adjust to her new life as a first-year at an elite university on an elite team.
“It wasn't just hard because I was facing challenges. It was also extremely challenging because I felt like I'd lost a strength of mine,” Kuhlmann added. “Just that alone feeling like I didn't have one of my biggest strengths in my corner affected my performance and how I felt on the field drastically.”
Kuhlmann strongly identified with her capabilities to manage the mental side of the game. When these mental capabilities began to crack, both her game and her mental well-being suffered.
“I lost what made me good,” Kuhlmann said. “I lost my ‘it’ factor.”
A Different Path than Expected
The Cardinal are typically nationally competitive, and in Kuhlmann’s first year with the squad, the team won a national championship and Kuhlmann earned a spot on the 2017 Pac-12 All-freshman team.
From an outside perspective, it looks like an ideal first year for Kuhlmann at Stanford; however, there’s more to the story than what meets the eye. Kuhlmann’s new role on the team was one of a talented first-year who can contribute to the team’s success on the field, but she was no longer the outright star of the team logging the minutes she was used to. She is extremely grateful for the opportunities that she had to play as a first-year, but similar to a lot of first-year student-athletes, the adjustment to her new role was a challenging one.
Not playing as much as Kuhlmann was accustomed to after years of knowing her role on the team negatively impacted both her sense of self-worth and mental health despite how it appeared on the surface.
Kuhlmann is candid about her experience managing that transition to the next level. She says that while she did her best to respond positively, it was challenging and something that she had to work on.
“I don’t know if I did manage it…I suppressed a lot my freshman year. I think no matter how good you are, that transition, it's a transition for everyone.” Kuhlmann said.
Adversity, Adversity, and Still More Adversity
Little did Kuhlmann know at the time, but her mental fortitude would continue to be tested throughout the next few years.
Towards the end of her first year as a Cardinal, Kuhlmann suffered from a stress reaction in her shin that prevented her from going to the World Cup before her sophomore year. Despite how devastating this was for Kuhlmann, unfortunately, this was the first of a long series of injuries for her.
After her shin injury healed, in 2019 at Stanford, Kuhlmann was playing at the top of her game at the start of her junior year. Then, in an exhibition game, she tore her ACL — an injury notorious for nine-month or longer recovery timelines. The resilient forward received surgery to repair the torn ligament that August. Six months later, Kuhlmann knew something was still wrong.
The doctors determined that her medial meniscus was torn and that she would need yet another surgery. Trudging on, Kuhlmann underwent another surgery. The adversity started to pile up until the unthinkable happened.
Just a few weeks after the surgery on her medial meniscus, COVID-19 hit the United States. Everything began to shut down and that included physical therapy. Not only was she isolated from a large part of her support system in her team and friends, but Kuhlmann was also left in the dark recovering from her surgeries as best she could by herself in her home.
In the spring of 2021, Kuhlmann was finally cleared from her injuries to return to play in a makeup season due to COVID-19 restrictions limiting Stanford’s season the year prior.
However, Kuhlmann was fighting through pain once again during this season. In July of 2021, Kuhlmann found out that she had a torn labrum and microfracture in her right hip. Kuhlmann underwent surgery and embarked on an 8-month-long and grueling recovery process.
Fast forward to January 31st of this year, just three days after Kuhlmann was interviewed for this article. Kuhlmann found out she needed yet another operation, this time on her left hip. This meant another eight months out of the game.
But, against all odds, Kuhlmann continues to chase her dream of playing professional soccer. While she recovers from hip surgery, Kuhlmann has since graduated from Stanford and continues to navigate the recruiting process to play soccer professionally.
If anything, it’s indisputable that Kuhlmann can power through adversity. However, Kuhlmann is transparent when discussing her response to the numerous injuries. She emphasized the importance of validating her emotions during the incredible amount of setbacks she experienced especially during a pandemic.
“COVID compounded with my second knee surgery in 2020 was really, really tough,” Kuhlmann said. “And during the time, I don't think I gave myself enough credit for what we were all going through.”
"And during the time, I don't think I gave myself enough credit for what we were all going through."
Kuhlmann has felt a vast range of emotions during the past few years. From winning a national championship to overcoming injuries just to find out that she had to sit out again, she has felt the highs and lows of competitive sports deeply.
When she received the first hip diagnosis effectively ending her soccer career as a Cardinal despite coming back from previous injuries, Kuhlmann was understandably shaken. This unveiled a complex mix of emotions.
“I feel like this last recovery was just processing a lot of loss while also now trying to look forward to something that I don't even know what it is,” Kuhlmann said referring to approaching the next stage of her soccer career at the professional level.
A Work in Progress
One of the most challenging aspects of recovering from an injury for an athlete is regaining confidence after being away from the game for so long, and Kuhlmann is no exception. She’s honest in saying that while she has been through the recovery process many times, she is still figuring out how to regain that confidence and process her injuries mentally.
However, her game plan as of now is to recognize the negative thoughts that could affect her confidence and move on from them. She’s careful, though, to avoid the suppression that took place her first year at Stanford.
“It's not like acting like they're not there because they [negative thoughts] are,” Kuhlmann said. “It's being able to look at them and move forward despite them.”
Before her series of injuries, other people’s opinions and praise for Kuhlmann and her game on the pitch had an impact on her. And while it may still, she’s doing her best to minimize that impact.
“What other people are thinking about me or my journey, or what other people have either told me in my youth career or all throughout my life, honestly all those things don't help anymore,” Kuhlmann said. “If this accomplishment is going to happen, it purely has to come from me.”
"If this accomplishment is going to happen, it purely has to come from me."
Another struggle that athletes have in the face of injuries is that they have identified largely with their athletic success for so long, that when that is put on hold due to an injury or lack of playing time, things can become challenging. While Kuhlmann recognizes this obstacle, she remains confident in dedicating her life to the sport that she loves.
During her first injuries, Kuhlman tried to pick up other interests, and while she managed to lead a balanced life, her heart was still with soccer. She tried to force herself to fully separate her identity from the game and immerse herself in other interests, but to Kuhlmann, it felt unnatural.
“I think now looking back, it [trying to reinvent her identity] was just from straight fear of losing the ability to play sport,” Kuhlmann said. “Expanding your identity through more than just your sport is always good, and I'm not saying that it’s not, but I think I was convincing myself of wanting to do something that my heart wasn’t completely in.”
Kuhlmann now is more accepting of her desire to devote her life to soccer, despite the injuries impacting her identity.
“I feel like I've embraced my personal identity and just how I view myself as an athlete, and as a footballer, and I think I used to spite that early on in my injury journey,” Kuhlmann said.