By Jonathan Okanes, Cal Athletic Communications
There was a part of Kathleen Messinger that she didn’t know existed – not until the one she did know was torn down due to factors out of her control.
Messinger was considered a top goalie prospect when she committed to Cal in 2010. But a couple of significant injuries prevented her from ever developing into the elite student-athlete she so passionately wanted to become.
Looking back on it now, Messinger is thankful for the hardships she experienced as an athlete because it allowed her to realize her identity wasn’t limited to the soccer pitch.
“Things didn’t really work out athletically for me the last couple years, which I’m really grateful for,” said Messinger, who was one of three Cal student-athletes to be awarded an Oscar Geballe Postgraduate Scholarship in the spring. “Having not been injured, I would have never been forced to find a different identity. I think too often we feel like we have to have one identity or the other. You can have both. You can be both a student and an athlete.”
Messinger has indeed discovered a new identity and embraced it with the same work ethic, passion and dedication she did as a soccer goalie. The Dana Point, Calif., native has immersed herself in the world of reproductive justice, a movement focused on the many social and political issues associated with a woman’s rights, particularly in underprivileged communities.
After being inspired by a book she read for a class about sex trafficking in Cambodia, Messinger secured an internship at the Boalt Law School’s Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice. She now plans on using her postgraduate scholarship to attend law school and pursue a career in public interest law.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” Messinger said. “I didn’t really know that this was going to be something that turned into most likely a career.”
Four years ago, Messinger didn’t know much else but soccer. With lofty ambitions such as qualifying for the U.S. National Team someday, Messinger was driven to come to Cal and make an immediate impact.
But while playing in a pickup flag football game on the last day of her senior year at Aliso Niguel High School, Messinger made a cut to avoid having her flag pulled.
“It felt like someone took a knife and stabbed it through my foot,” Messinger said.
It turned out she fractured the lisfranc ligament in her foot. Doctors told her surgery was an option but not necessary, and Messinger decided to forgo an operation and try to be ready for her freshman season in Berkeley.
She wasn’t, even though it took awhile for her to admit it. So focused on earning a starting role, Messinger attempted to practice through the pain. Near the end of the season, she finally came to grips with the reality that she wasn’t healthy enough to continue.
“It hurt a lot but I didn’t care,” Messinger said. “I wanted to play. Some days it was just intolerable. November came and I got out of bed one morning for practice and I just decided that I was done. When you wake up in the morning without even walking and your foot is already throbbing, you know something is wrong.
“I went to see my trainer and said, ‘I’ve been lying this entire time. My foot is in an outrageous amount of pain and I can’t do this anymore.’”
By the time Messinger’s sophomore season came around, Emily Kruger was established as the starting goalie. But Messinger decided she would make a push to unseat Kruger as a junior, and renewed her focus on her craft. She played for a club team in the Bay Area before the season and got herself into extraordinary physical shape.
Messinger said she could tell Cal’s coaches were noticing her when training camp began that season, but one day during practice as she turned for a ball on a routine play, she collapsed amid a rush of searing pain. Messinger tore the three major ligaments in her left knee and broke her leg.
That, in essence, ended her dream of ever becoming a college star.
“People told me it was a bloodcurdling scream that they have never heard before and they never wanted to hear again,” Messinger said. “I remember trying to crawl away from the lower half of my body. I thought this has to be what death feels like.”
While devastated and depressed after her initial foot injury out of high school, this time Messinger was able to deal with the injury with a little more perspective. As soon as trainers were carting her off the field at Edwards Stadium, Messinger knew that was probably the end of her dream of ever playing soccer again at an elite level.
“I had this moment. I’m done,” she said. “When they were carting me off the field I was like, ‘So when do I get my handicap sticker?’ At that point, I was jadedly making sarcastic comments.”
And it was that moment that marked the beginning of Messinger’s identity transformation. That semester, she took a class called “The Politics of Southeast Asia: Crisis, Conflict and Reform.” An assigned reading was the book, “The Road of Lost Innocence,” about a girl sold into sex slavery in Cambodia who later started her own foundation to work with hospitals and clinics on reproductive issues.
Messinger ended up writing a term paper titled “The Legal Disconnect,” about sex trafficking in Cambodia. When the next summer came around, she decided she wanted to find an internship related to the reproductive rights movement.
“I was really upset after taking the class,” Messinger said. “On one hand it’s funny because I loved the class even though it’s about a topic that’s horrendous. I was ready to fight all the injustices in the world. It brought it home a little bit to go work for the Center.”
At the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice, Messinger helped organize the center’s virtual library and did administrative work for what is going to be the first ever casebook on reproductive rights and justice, hopefully to be published by the end of the summer.
“I’ve worked with some very competent and high-achieving law students and graduates, so I’m accustomed to high-achievers. But Kat stood out even among the crowd,” said Jill Adams, the executive director for the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice. “Her being a student-athlete was a great benefit in the way she worked with other people. She’s very accustomed to being part of a team. She’s willing to share ideas and help other students on their work. She also takes direction and feedback very well.
“She has the passion, the heart and also the intellect that will take her anywhere she wants to go.”
After battling her for playing time, Kruger eventually became Messinger’s best friend. Kruger ended up becoming the Bears’ all-time saves leader, but also one of Messinger’s No. 1 supporters.
“She is such a passionate person, and it manifests in this competitiveness,” Kruger said. “That will launch her into success whichever way she decides to take it. It would be great for her to go into a field where that kind of fire is needed.”