By Andrew Kahn
It took just three hours for Sue Ryan to know Aisling Toolan ’08 was special. The longtime Stony Brook women’s soccer coach needed an extra worker at a camp in the summer of 2006 and one of her player’s recommended Toolan. On a hot July morning, Toolan’s energy and enthusiasm were on display. Toolan was the first to volunteer to lead several drills. A large group of nine-year-olds can be intimidating, especially for someone with no coaching experience, but Toolan had a commanding presence and a great personality. “In an environment that was new to her she put herself on the line right away,” Ryan said. “And she was good at it.”
Toolan won the 2013 Most Outstanding Alumni Award from the School of Health Technology and Management. She is a physical therapist at the Sports Rehabilitation and Performance Center in the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan and the physical therapist for the United States’ Under-17 women’s soccer team and credits her time at Stony Brook for helping her get there.
Growing up in Dublin, she played for several of the Irish national teams and graduated with a degree in physio-therapy before coming to the United States in 2006 to further pursue her soccer career. She fell in love with Stony Brook after meeting Ryan at the summer camp and learning about the school’s impressive physical therapy program.
She played midfield in the fall of 2007 for the Seawolves while earning her doctorate in physical therapy. That season, Stony Brook made it to the America East semifinals before losing in overtime. While the loss still bothers Toolan, the 2-1 win in the previous playoff game, at home against Maine, provides a happy memory, especially since her classmates and teachers supported her in the stands.
Toolan remembers some of the 17-year-old freshmen being a bit scared of the tall, 22-year-old foreigner, but Ryan spoke about Toolan’s “professional habits” rubbing off on the team. The first to arrive at practice and the last to leave, Toolan was friendly off of the field but serious on it. Her teammates followed her lead, getting warmed up before the coaches had to tell them to.
After a year away from campus to work full-time, she returned as a graduate assistant for one season. Players couldn’t complain about studying or lifting weights because Toolan had just gone through it, having started every game while maintaining a 4.0 GPA in a challenging major.
While a student-athlete at Stony Brook, she learned the importance of taking care of her body, a message she passes on to her patients. Just as athletes want to improve every day—whether on the field or in the weight room—she is always trying to get better at her job. Recently she has become more interested in the psychological aspect of recovery from injury. After any major injury, an important predictor of whether an athlete will return to play is their fear of re-injury. Identifying these fears early in the rehab process and referring the athlete to an appropriate professional can increase the likelihood of a return to play. “Successful rehabilitation involves looking at the person as a whole, not just as an injured body part,” she said.
Toolan attributes her professional success to figuring out what she wanted to do after getting her degree and never losing sight of that goal. She would love to be part of a soccer team’s medical staff at the World Cup or at the Olympics. “If there’s something you dream of achieving, nobody but yourself can stop you.”
Andrew Kahn is a freelance writer in New York City. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, and CBS Local, among others, and blogs at http://andrewjkahn.com/. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.