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Arizona soccer: Tia Painilainen builds life ‘from zero’ in freshman season with Wildcats

The defender from Finland had to adjust to a new country, a new school, and a new team all while recovering from a devastating knee injury

Tia Painilainen (5) missed her freshman season with a torn ACL
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Like many students, Tia Painilainen wasn’t keen on staying close to home for college.

Or even in the same country.

Instead, the Finland native had her sights set on attending university in the United States.

Her vision was simple. She was seeking the best of both worlds — the ability to further her soccer career and obtain a business degree.

“Back home, it’s really hard,” said Painilainen, who hails from Espoo, Finland. “If I wanted to go to business school, first I’d need to choose what city I want to go (to) because there’s a big exam everyone takes to get in. You have to study eight hours a day for half a year to have even a chance to get in.”

And even if Painilainen were to get in, “you have to see if that city has a good soccer team,” she said.

And if it does, its practice schedule better not conflict with the university’s schedule.

“If you have night classes, that sucks because then you can’t go to practice,” Painilainen said. “They’re not combined. The universities don’t have sports.”

American universities do have sports, and high-level ones at that, making them an appealing option for international student-athletes like Painilainen.

And having been an exchange student in the US before, she was sure moving overseas was the right option for her.

Painilainen was unsure if she would find the right school, though. Two universities stuck out to her, but as the time came to visit them, she was more nervous than excited.

“What if I don’t like either of the schools?” Painilainen wondered. “What am I then going to do?”

There was no backup plan, but it turns out she wouldn’t need one.

She liked both schools.

“Our schedule is that we can take classes from this time to this time and then practice is here and then you have tutoring at night,” outlined Painilainen, now enrolled at the University of Arizona. “It’s very well put together. I like that a lot.”

Tucson or Louisville?

Once Painilainen was set on being a student-athlete in the US, she reached out to several universities to kick off the recruiting process.

“I was sending emails to different schools and telling them what I want, who I am and that kind of stuff,” she said.

As a member of the Finnish national team, Painilainen garnered plenty of interest – and probably more than she could handle.

Painilainen figured she wasn’t going to have enough time to visit several schools, so she narrowed her list down to two: Arizona and Louisville.

“(Assistant coach) Paul (Nagy) really opened the door to that,” Arizona head coach Tony Amato said. “We would speak with her through Skype sessions and we had a ton of video on her.

“Louisville was bringing her in at a certain time to have her do her official visit and the NCAA allows you to piggyback those together. So she was flying to Louisville, we then said ‘if you’re going to be in Louisville, you should fly here and combine the trip’.”

So she did. After touring Louisville, Painilainen ventured west to Tucson for the second leg of the trip.

It didn’t take long for Arizona to impress her.

“It was during winter,” Painilainen recounted, “and I landed at the airport and the sun was shining, it was warm, and I was like, ‘I like this place.’”

The UA’s campus, coaches, and improving soccer program sealed the deal.

“By that point it was trying to show her what we’re all about and hope that she would decide that this was a better fit for her than going [to Louisville],” Amato said.

“And it worked out that way.”

Predicting how freshmen will perform in their first year on campus is difficult, Amato says, so he usually refrains from placing expectations on them.

Painilainen was an exception.

“I actually wasn’t really looking at her as a freshman,” Amato said. “The foreigners usually come in and are a little older and are not quite as unsure. They just seem to be a little more ready.

“I felt like she was coming in as a 20-year-old who had played for the Finnish national team and that she was going to be good enough, mature enough, smart enough, and fit enough to play for us pretty quickly.”

Not the case

It turns out Painilainen wouldn’t play “pretty quickly” at Arizona in her freshman season. Or even at all.

In early August — a few weeks before Arizona’s regular season opener — Painilainen felt her left knee “pop” as she cleared a ball down field in UA’s annual Red-Blue intersquad game.

She tumbled to the ground and struggled to get up. Painilainen’s ACL was torn; her season was over.

“I was very sad,” she said. “It just happened. … There was no contact. You never know that it’s going to happen like that.”

It was the first time Painilainen had suffered a major injury, and as she watched the rest of her team compete throughout the 2016 season, she felt a sense of emptiness.

“The desire to play is so big,” she said. “I remember when we were driving to the games I was … happy for the team, but then I just have to watch. It was hard.”

Painilainen became a distant member of the team, quite literally.

When the rest of the Wildcats were weight training, Painilainen would be rehabbing on the other side of the room.

At practice and home games, Painilainen helplessly watched her team from the side. And road games? Painilainen had to stay in Tucson.

“The team was traveling and I wasn’t part of that,” she said. “I was a part of the team, but it’s hard. You’re always on the sidelines. It’s really annoying.”

On top of that, Painilainen was living 5,000-plus miles away from home and had to endure the arduous rehabilitation process, which could take up to a year to complete.

“I needed to learn how to walk again,” she said. “I remember the first couple weeks I was sitting on a chair and I needed to lift my leg up straight and even that was hard.”

But perhaps the worst part for Painilainen is she knew she could have been a difference maker on the field.

Consider: The Wildcats finished the season 9-9-1 and lost six games by one goal as they missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years.

Their backline, which Painilainen would have been a part of, was their thinnest position group and if it had prevented a couple goals here and there, Arizona wins one or two more games and possibly makes its third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

“Let’s say we’re losing 1-0,” Painilainen said. “I’m like ‘I can do this in this situation. In those moments it’s really hard to watch. I can make an impact being a supportive person on the bench, but I still can’t make the difference in the game.

“That’s really hard (to deal with). I always want to help.”

Goals of another kind

Shortly after tearing her ACL, Painilainen walked into Amato’s office on the east side of McKale Center, unzipped her backpack, pulled out her laptop, and opened a file.

She turned her computer so Amato could see what was on the screen.

It was a list of goals Painilainen wants to accomplish at Arizona from “a soccer standpoint, an academic standpoint, and an achievement standpoint.”

“That’s who she is,” Amato said. “Her attitude with that has been great. When you get hurt it stinks, but her approach was the right mentality and right discipline to get back.”

The list was extensive — Amato said he has never had a player with such a detailed agenda — but ultimately Painilainen’s end goal is to play in a World Cup with the Finnish national team.

“And she was on the doorstep of that when she came here,” Amato said. “She was being called into the full Finnish national team camp. She was behind someone at her position, but she was still in the full camp. That’s what her ultimate goal was and obviously in order to do that she has to have a good career here.”

Thus, in order to be full-go when the 2017 season begins in the fall, one of Painilainen’s short-term goals was to play in Arizona’s final spring game on April 23, roughly eight months after her injury.

“I needed something to aim for,” she said.

But was it feasible? After all, ACL tears can take up to a year to fully heal.

Painilainen was convinced she could be back in time.

“If my knee hadn’t felt good, of course I wouldn’t have gone for that goal,” she said. “But it was possible.”

Eight months of strenuous rehab later — roughly two weeks before UA’s spring season finale — Painilainen was cleared for full contact, a sign that she was inching closer to returning to game action.

But she was noticeably a step slower than her teammates, so she was eased into training.

“Anytime someone is coming back from an injury like that, they feel like ‘I’m ready, I’m my old self. I should be training with the team,’” Amato said.

“But I tried to explain that we are driving at 75 miles per hour on the highway and you’re doing like 55. So I get that the doctors are saying that you can do more, but you’re not at the speed limit yet.”

As such, Painilainen was paired with Jillienne Aguilera, who was also recovering from a torn ACL, when it was time for one-vs-one drills.

And in one of Painilainen’s very first full-contact practices, her surgically-repaired knee was put to the test.

Aguilera tackled Painilainen, who lost her balance and flew backward. Amato, a little shaken himself, turned and looked at the team’s trainer.

“Uh, is this OK?” he asked.

It was, and Painilainen was unscathed.

“So it was like, welcome back, Tia,” Amato said.

“Let’s do this.”

The return

It’s a scorching April morning in Tucson when Painilainen pulls up to Mulcahy Stadium on 15th and Plumer.

The well-manicured field is empty, but soon Arizona will be hosting New Mexico State in its spring season finale.

It’s the 23rd day of the month — the day Painilainen planned to return to game action.

But kickoff is drawing near and she’s unsure if it will happen. An illness forced her to miss a couple practices during the week.

“If we would be losing, I wouldn’t be the first option to go on the field,” Painilainen is told.

The whistle blows and the game begins. Painilainen spends the first 80 minutes or so in her usual spot on the sideline. It’s an eerily familiar feeling.

But after Arizona tacks on another goal in what turns out to be a 7-0 win, Amato approaches Painilainen.

“Do you still want to go in?” he says with roughly 10 minutes left in the match.

“Yeah, of course I want to go,” Painilainen responded.

After a brief warmup, she darts onto the field, her face was beaming with joy.

“I was just smiling,” Painilainen said. “And then my teammates were like ‘oh my God, she’s so happy.’ And I was. I felt great. ... I really love soccer and I feel like this injury has made me appreciate (it).”

Which is why, even though the game was lop-sided, Painilainen soaked in every moment. She was no longer a spectator and the only visible remnant of her injury was a black brace that wrapped tightly around her left knee.

“At first... I was like ‘no, I don’t want to wear a brace,’” she said. “But I wasn’t paying attention to that. I was just so excited to come back.”

And relieved. A major step in her recovery had been made, perhaps the most important one of all.

“I’m glad we were able to get her out there and help her get over that hurdle and mentally start working her way back to playing,” Amato said. “I think it was an important thing to do.”

Next chapter

It’s early May and the UA’s normally bustling campus is quiet.

Finals week has arrived and there’s one last mental hurdle for Painilainen to clear to complete a turbulent freshman year.

This time it’s in the classroom — an MIS exam is all that stands between her and summer break.

Painilainen works through the online test, submits it, and immediately calls her parents after exiting the testing room.

“I was really happy,” said Painilainen, a pre-business major who plans to attend the Eller College of Management. “I was comparing the semesters. Both semesters there were good things and I learned a lot in both, but [fall] semester was mentally harder, because everything is new. You have to start building your life from zero.

“The soccer part is the same, but you have to get adjusted to the school and it’s a lot of work, especially in a different language. You meet new people and sometimes in the beginning it was hard for me … but I feel like, in all aspects, I’ve grown a lot. This whole year has been a good learning process.”

And, after filing that last MIS test, it’s behind her now. Painilainen’s focus has shifted to her sophomore year.

She will head home to Finland for the summer where she will re-join her club team, PK-35 Vantaa, and continue to work her way back to full speed on the field.

Painilainen plans to return to the UA in July for Summer II, and in August she hopes to make her regular season debut with the Wildcats.

Finally.

“I’m really excited about that,” she said.I can’t wait for fall because I was ready to go last year.”

She pauses and smiles.

“But stuff happens.”