COLUMBIA — Jess Gwin stood at midfield with her former teammates, whose numbers were painted in Missouri’s trademark black and gold on the grass field at Walton Stadium.
Gwin didn’t have a number. Her initials — “J.G.” — stuck out like a sore thumb amongst their numerical brethren. She wore No. 1 on her jersey only two seasons ago, but time moves quickly, and people forget.
So, the former starting goalkeeper for the Tigers walked out onto the field as her name was announced for senior day, then returned to her anonymous place on the sideline, a passing curiosity for fans ready to head home after a rough loss against Louisiana State.
Had she never been injured, Gwin probably would have been in net during Sunday’s match, but a severe concussion forced her off the field as a sophomore, ending her career.
The nutrition and fitness major from West Lafayette, Ind., could have transferred back home to Purdue University, where both of her parents work, but she continued her studies at Missouri, and found an unlikely way to stay in the soccer program: by counting heartbeats.
Heart-rate monitoring is an important science in athletics. The analysis can tell coaches and trainers if a player is being overworked in certain practice drills or how hard they are actually playing during various points of the match.
After her playing career ended prematurely, Gwin was added to the training staff to run the heart monitoring software.
This season, she’s helped reshape the way the Missouri coaches condition their players. Gwin uses an intricate system of numbers to determine a range in which players perform their best.
“I wouldn’t say she’s made more impact as a nonplayer, but it’s about as close as you can get,” Missouri coach Bryan Blitz said.
When players’ heartbeats signal that they are being overworked out of their range — usually the defenders, who typically play 90 minutes a game — Gwin communicates the information to the coaches, who then keep an eye on the players in question during the next practice or game.
Known as the “heart-rate monitor queen” by her former teammates, Gwin is a prime example of how someone can make a difference off the field when their playing days are over.
“A lot of times we define ourselves through soccer,” senior midfielder Kelsey Mulcahy said. “There’s so much more to Jess than soccer.”
Gwin the goalkeeper was a special talent. Highly recruited out of high school by Tennessee, Kansas and Purdue, she chose Missouri after visiting Columbia and made a quick impact, starting 12 games her freshman year.
She wore a helmet in net, a not-so-subtle reminder of the four concussions suffered in high school. The extra headgear couldn’t prevent what happened in a late-season game in 2010, however. Gwin collided with a breakaway Texas A&M forward and suffered whiplash.
The concussion lingered for much longer than her previous incidents, and a trip to see a University of Michigan sports neurologist confirmed the worst: Gwin would risk permanent damage if she continued to play the game she loved.
“It was in my best interest to quit,” Gwin said.
Mulcahy, Gwin’s best friend, was heartbroken to see her roommate in such an unthinkable position.
“It was really, really hard,” Mulcahy said. “You’re expecting to play for four years, and being told that you can’t is a scary thing.”
Gwin made the decision to stay on with the team as a volunteer, keeping her scholarship in the process. She will graduate in December 2013 and hopes to find a job in dietetics or nutrition. For now, she is busy counting heartbeats instead of blocking shots. She can live with it.
“I love the girls, and not being able to play doesn’t change that,” Gwin said.
Missouri’s final regular season game before next week’s Southeastern Conference tournament is Thursday night at Texas A&M.
Gwin won’t be on the field, but just like Sunday’s ceremony, she’ll be with her former teammates every step of the way.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.