Throw in the Towel? Try the Javelin

Former Soccer Standout Gets Second Shot as College Athlete
by Karen Shih ’09 | photo by John T. Consoli No wonder Jill Maloney M.P.P. ’17 believed her athletic dreams were over: She’d battled months of numbness and pain before being diagnosed with a spinal condition that ended her competitive soccer career, then she landed in the hospital again for heart surgery. But less than two years later, the former University of Georgia (UGA) and Irish national team goalie has traded her gloves and ball for a more than 7-foot-long pole, competing in javelin for the Terps’ track and field team. “I’m really proud I’ve made it back,” says Maloney. “To get here and have a team… it was very surreal. I kept crying because I was so happy.” The Alpharetta, Ga., native was a U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program standout in high school. When a hand injury caused the U.S. to lose interest in her, she headed to Ireland (where her grandfather was born) and played throughout Europe and in the 2010 U-17 Women’s World Cup. Heavily recruited by colleges, Maloney arrived at UGA in spring 2013 after graduating early from high school. But one day after a routine practice dive, she recalls, “I felt a pop in my neck and my back hurt.” The discomfort persisted until a few weeks later, when she awoke in the middle of the night with her hands and feet completely numb. Instead of competing with the Bulldogs, she spent her first year at UGA undergoing MRIs, EKGs and nerve testing as doctors weighed diagnoses from multiple sclerosis to a tumor. They finally settled on spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the space in the spine that puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. It has no treatment or cure, and any future attempts to block a ball could potentially paralyze her, so she was medically disqualified in May 2014. To console Maloney, her father suggested she try the javelin, since a family friend could help train her. After just a few weeks of throwing, she signed up for her first meet and was thrilled to be back on the field, even if she placed last. Her body betrayed her again, however, as her heart began to pound erratically. She spent a summer undergoing testing, unable to practice, before having surgery for irregular arrhythmia. When she was cleared to compete, she hit her best-ever distance—36.65 meters, or about 120 feet—the walk-on standard for many schools. Determined to use her last two years of eligibility, she completed her undergraduate degree in just 2.5 years, then applied to graduate programs at colleges with track and field programs. Her perseverance won over Assistant Coach Roland Desonier, who says she’s always early to practice and a great influence on her teammates. “If you’re a good athlete with a good attitude, I can help you make something happen.” At Maryland, Maloney balances training with policy classes and research, including many trips to Washington, D.C., to visit embassies and agencies. She hopes to work in nuclear nonproliferation. For now, being on the field with new teammates is all she needs. “When they gave us all that stuff that said, ‘Maryland,’ I was like,‘I made it,’” she says. “Probably the best day of the year.”


Leave a Reply

* indicates a required field