Tamara Mills '16 needs knee surgery. She needs to play field hockey even more.
Mills, a midfielder for the Diplomats, tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee in mid-March while practicing with her club basketball team at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, where she was an exchange student.
Normally such an injury calls for surgery and a six- to nine-month rehabilitation, but she elected to put off the operation—it will now be performed in December by Dr. Matthew Provencher, medical director for the NFL's New England Patriots—and try to play this fall. Her playing time was limited, as was her practice time, but she appeared in 18 of the Diplomats' 19 regular-season games, scoring three goals. But her statistics were very much beside the point.
"It's amazing," says Missy Mariano, head coach of the nationally ranked Diplomats. "She brings such a good attitude about [the injury]. She could be totally down about the fact that she's not playing 70 minutes a game like she did last year. I think she's just so happy to be out there right now."
Mariano is just as happy to have her, seeing as Mills brings, in her words, "constant high energy" and is "a spark to the team."
"Honestly, I've said that to her: 'We need you on the field, but we also need you when you're off the field,'" Mariano said. "The team is always encouraged when they hear her voice and her enthusiasm drives them."
Mills, who has competed in field hockey since eighth grade and organized sports far longer than that, cannot imagine sitting out, especially her final season. The game, she says, occupies a special place in her heart. "It's pure enjoyment for me," she says. "It's a passion."
Mills had seven goals and eight assists in 2014, when she was named to the All-Centennial Conference second team and the All-South Region second team. She hadn't played organized basketball since eighth grade, but made her club team after traveling to Townsville, in northern Australia, in early February.
The injury occurred, she said, in a simple drill. The player she was guarding pushed off and Mills put her leg back to brace herself. She wound up on all fours, but didn't realize she was injured as severely as she was.
Subsequent tests revealed the ACL tear, and her parents, concerned, offered to travel from their home in Hopkinton, Mass., to look after her. She said she was fine, even though her room was on the third floor of a dorm—and there was no elevator. "I said, 'All the rugby boys carry me up. No big deal. I really don't care. It's absolutely fine,'" she said with a laugh.
She wears a brace whenever she plays or practices—one that has been decorated by the older of her two brothers, Matt—but feels no pain. Some days there is stiffness or swelling, but no pain.
"I've known other people who have played [with such an injury]," Mariano said. "It's usually a huge challenge and most can't succeed with an ACL tear. Tam is a very special student-athlete. Her fitness level and drive may be among the best I've ever seen. I think she's strong enough both physically and mentally to overcome any obstacle in her path."
Mills, who majors in business, organizations and society, hopes to get into athletic administration after she graduates next spring. She has given some thought to running the Boston Marathon, a race that begins every April in her hometown. Mariano has also suggested that she might want to compete in an Ironman Triathlon.
"I definitely don't say 'never,'" Mills said. "I don't think I could say 'never' and be doing this."
The Mills File
Hometown: Hopkinton, Mass.
Major: Business, Organizations and Society (Sociology minor)
Honors: All-Sportsmanship team in Centennial Conference (two times); All-Centennial Conference second team and the All-South Region second team (junior season)
Other campus activities: Executive Board for .08, Alpha Delta Pi, Athletic Communications
Interests: "Anything active. I love athletics, hiking and kayaking, but a good book is just as fine with me."