Despite four surgeries, UNC women’s lacrosse player stays ‘spunky and fun’

By Lindsey Ware 

Blue and white confetti surrounded Katie Thompson as she cried and smiled so hard that it gave her a headache. Chills ran up her arms in a moment that, even then, she knew would forever be ingrained in her memory.

UNC women’s lacrosse completed an undefeated 2022 season with a slim 12-11 national championship win over Boston College, and junior midfielder Thompson got to be a part of it.

“Be where your feet are,” Thompson reminded herself. North Carolina head coach Jenny Levy told the team this often to encourage them to be in the moment, and this was a moment that Thompson wanted to be fully present for.

Thompson said the national championship win was the happiest day of her life and got 2022 tattooed in Roman numerals on her ribs to commemorate the accomplishment. Everyone on the team was dedicated to the greater good that postseason. The championship title was not only the cherry on top of a perfect season, but it was also well-deserved.

Thompson didn’t appear in the national championship game due to constant knee pain that originated from an ACL tear. Thompson’s original injury has continued to haunt her and has forced her to hang up her cleats earlier than she ever expected or hoped.

A tattoo in black Roman numerals spelling out "MMXXII" signifying the year “2022” is shown on Katie Thompson’s ribs.
Thompson shows off the tattoo on her ribs, which serves as a reminder of the national championship win.

‘No, I’m Going to Carolina’

Thompson was raised in Ellicott City, Maryland, the youngest of three daughters. Her oldest sister, Tori, played lacrosse at the University of Connecticut.

At first, Thompson was not a fan of lacrosse and preferred her time on the soccer field, but she was determined to learn to love the sport so that she could be like her big sister.

She eventually learned to love it and had a plan of where she wanted to play from day one — North Carolina.

“I told my coach I wanted to go to Carolina, and she said, ‘They usually recruit tall, blonde people, so pick somewhere else,” Thompson said. “I was like, ‘No, I’m going to Carolina.’”

Thompson, a brunette, stands at a mere 5’2 — or 5’3 in her cleats. Her club coach Tierney Ahearn called North Carolina “a reach school” but was proven wrong in the weeks leading up to Thompson’s first year of high school.

It was Thompson’s lucky day when she found a $5 bill on the walk back to her car after a club lacrosse tournament. While admiring her luck, she received a call from Ahearn, despite having seen her just moments earlier.

Ahearn told her that UNC coaches were at the game she had just played and would be in contact soon. By October, Thompson had committed to North Carolina before ever playing a high school lacrosse game or even trying out for the high school team.

Two and a half years later, tragedy struck.

Katie Thompson is looking at Dorrance Field in Chapel Hill wearing her blue UNC lacrosse jersey while holding her pair of blue and neon yellow Nike cleats over her shoulder.
Thompson carries her cleats over her shoulder as she looks out over Dorrance Field. Her time on the field has been limited due to injuries.

‘I would come home and just cry’

It was May 14, 2018, Thompson’s 17th birthday and the saddest day of her life. She was playing attacker in a quarterfinal lacrosse game for Marriotts Ridge High School. The junior was thriving in her birthday performance, racking up three goals. She was told to defend an opponent, as she was the only one who could keep up with her speed. Thompson jogged over, slipped, and tore her ACL.

“It happened,” she called out in between her screams.

Up to 200,000 Americans tear their ACL each year, many while playing a sport. In a life centered around athletics, Thompson wasn’t shocked that it had happened to her.

After surgery and a year of recovery, Thompson was cleared to return to lacrosse soon before arriving at UNC, but she didn’t stay healthy long.

During a midseason practice in her first year of college, Thompson jumped to grab a poorly-thrown ball, and when she landed, her knee did not feel right. Ignoring the feeling, she turned around to keep running but realized she couldn’t.

The surgeon who repaired Thompson’s ACL assured her that even though she had now torn her PCL and ACL and would need another surgery, it would strengthen her knee, so there was no need to worry.

Thompson’s freshman year was cut short due to the pandemic, but it awarded her time to heal and an extra year of athletic eligibility at UNC.

“When I found out I had a COVID year, I was like, ‘I’m staying,’” Thompson said. “We have an extra year of college. That’s everyone’s dream.”

Now, her mentality has changed. Thompson will graduate this May instead of remaining at North Carolina for the extra year of eligibility. She has no choice, she said. She physically can’t play another year. In fact, she might not physically be able to play this year.

Thompson’s second surgery resulted in minimal pain during her sophomore year which elevated to daily pain junior year.

“I would come home from practice and just cry a lot of times because I was in so much pain,” Thompson said. “I was scared to acknowledge it.”

By the fall of 2022, Thompson could no longer straighten her leg due to a golf ball-sized cyst in her knee. In a third surgery, she got the cyst removed and was determined to be ready for the spring season.

Then, after winter break, something popped while she was walking. An MRI confirmed that Thompson had popped off cartilage in her knee, which caused her bones to hit together.

She would need a fourth surgery.

Deep scars from multiple knee injuries can be seen on the knee of UNC women's lacrosse player Katie Thompson.
Thompson’s surgery scars are evident on her knee, which is swollen more often than not. Up to 200,000 Americans tear their ACL each year, many while playing a sport.

‘There’s more to life than lacrosse’

Thompson has yet to get the fourth surgery and has yet to play this season as a result of the injury. Despite her lack of playing time, Thompson’s impact on her team does not go unnoticed.

Her teammates describe her as spunky and fun, even on hard rehab days. It speaks volumes to them that she continues to show up every day and motivate her team. Through her injury, Thompson has taught her teammates to find an identity outside of lacrosse but also to value what lacrosse has given them.

“You have to realize that the lacrosse aspect might not be there anymore, but she’s taught me that’s not what everything’s about and that’s not your identity,” teammate Elizabeth Hillman said. “She’s the farthest thing from weak. She’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met.”

Thompson, Levy, and UNC women’s lacrosse athletic trainer Shannon Murphy have discussed the possibility of Thompson medically retiring this year. In her nine years as an athletic trainer, Murphy has had to help at least one athlete a year make the decision to retire due to repeated injury.

Murphy has aided Thompson in her physical and mental healing as they work to determine what her life will look like after lacrosse. Thompson might medically retire midseason and returning for her extra year of eligibility is already completely off the table, but it has not been an easy decision.

“I was thinking I’m not gonna watch myself, I’m not gonna prepare for film anymore, I’m not gonna play,” Thompson said. “It kind of broke my heart.”

Even with the heartbreak of leaving her athletic career behind, Thompson knows that she does not want to spend the rest of her life in pain. She hopes to be able to play lacrosse with her future children and go on walks without pain.

For both her physical and mental health, Thompson cannot return for her extra year of eligibility. However, she secretly holds out hope that she will be able to hit the field this season to say farewell to the sport before retiring and getting a fourth surgery.

“It’s made me realize that there’s more to life than lacrosse, but it’s definitely been hard,” Thompson said. “I take it day by day and search for the positive parts and try to be where my feet are.”

Katie Thompson is in the UNC women’s lacrosse locker room amongst a row of white lockers smiling and laughing during a conversation with her teammate Bailey Horne, who is unseen in the photo.
Thompson laughs during a conversation with teammate Bailey Horne. Thompson’s teammates describe her as spunky and fun, even on hard rehab days.

Edited by Noah Monroe and Harrison Clark