Unbreakable Spirit

Injuries And Insults Can’t Stop W.Va. Goalie From Achieving Her Goals
Tom Worgo

Freshman Willow Herman was literally and figuratively just a few steps away from her dream last October as she anxiously waited for the start of her first West Virginia University hockey practice at Morgantown Ice Arena with the American Collegiate Hockey League Division II club women's team. 

Herman had grown tired of playing on boys' teams where she never felt like she fit in and wasn't well received by either coaches or players.

Unfortunately, where she lived in Bunker Hill, W.Va., boys' teams were the only option. The nearest girls' teams were two hours away in Rockville, Md. 

"I was very excited to be at West Virginia for many different reasons, mostly because none of my past coaches believed I would play in college," she recalled. "I had a coach even look me in the face and tell me, 'I wouldn't play anywhere but in beer leagues.' It made me work 10 times harder."

The 5-foot-2 Herman never made it onto the ice for that first practice. Before she sat down to change near the bleachers (pandemic rules), a puck flew over the boards and hit her in the head. She suffered her fourth concussion and needed four stitches.

"I was thinking, 'This will only happen to me. It's just kind of my luck,'" said Herman, who started playing ice hockey in eighth grade. "By the time I got cleared to play [in mid-November], the rink closed because of Covid." 

Fortunately, she got over that setback and looks forward to being West Virginia's starting goalie this winter.

Throughout her hockey career, starting at age 5 when she began playing inline hockey, she faced another serious challenge: injuries. Actually, a staggering number of them.

The 19-year-old Herman suffers from a rare disorder, Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which is also called brittle bone disease.

"When I get an ankle x-rayed, you can't tell a new stress fracture from an old fracture because I have had so many," she said. "If the weather is bad, my joints and back hurt and my hip drives me insane. I will lay in bed for most of the morning until I absolutely have to get up. With my hip injury, I tore a muscle and when I sit in a chair, my leg falls asleep. It causes immense pain in my back. I have learned to deal with the pain."

Painkillers helped her deal with her beat-up body. She took Advil and a prescription medication frequently.

Her mother Amy, who works as an orthopedic technologist at a trauma center, said she lost count of her daugher's broken bones around 2012.

"I put it at 40 to 42," Amy estimated. "It's just kind of sad. Some coaches were afraid of her and treated her like glass because of all her injuries." 

They ran the gamut from a broken hip and four concussions to a fractured humerus bone, nine broken ankles and seven broken wrists.

That includes a broken hip that occurred during an inline game in 2018, which ended her participation in that sport. 

"I told her that was the last time I carrying her off the ice [actually playing surface]," Amy said.

Despite the agony, Herman continues to play for two reasons. She absolutely loves the sport and she said it helps her cope with the pain.

"If I didn't play I wouldn't have muscle strength," she said. "Walking would hurt more than it already does because my body wouldn't be used to it. Playing hockey helps my body stay young." 

Herman has fewer fractures nowadays because she's slowed and calmed down in life.

"She was making better decisions," Amy said. "She's not jumping out of trees or flying out of swings sets."

But Herman is so dedicated to hockey that she is willing to put up with the more recent issues of torn tendons and muscles. For example, she tore the medial collateral ligament in her knee in 2017, a ligament in her ankle the following year and sustained a torn muscle in her hip in 2019.

Besides the physical pain, she also had to put up with constant disrespect and belittlement during high school. 

"It was basically every single game or practice," she said of the insults. "Certain teammates didn't like me because I was the girl on the team. I would also get comments from players on other teams."

Herman had particular problems with two coaches, one from a West Virginia team and another one from a Maryland squad. She played three seasons with one high school team and quit it after a couple of practices during her senior year because of the coach's beer league comment.   

She played only one season for a travel team because the coach "never talked to me. He acted like I didn't exist. I was the last-resort goalie."

  Amy added: "That coach wouldn't even let her practice. He would make her sit and watch. People knew she was being discriminated against." 

Herman often came back from practice crying. 

Luckily, she finally found a coach, Frederick Victory coach Cheryl Church, who believed in her. Herman played two seasons for the western Maryland co-ed team.   

"She is a very good goalie," Church said. "She is very coachable and also good at directing her defense. She is better than some of the boy goalies on her teams. I have never come across someone with her determination in 15 years of coaching. She finished a game after breaking her foot."

After all she had been through, Herman wrote Bauer a four-page letter, detailing her story and praising the company's equipment that she knows very well.

Bauer was so impressed that they invited Herman to the Clarkson Cup in Toronto in 2019 as a guest of honor. She dropped the ceremonial puck before two professional teams, the Calgary Inferno and Les Canadiennes de Montreal, played for the Canadian Women's Hockey League championship.

The company produced a one-minute video about Herman's story and it's had nearly 90,000 views on Instagram.

"The Clarkson Cup meant a lot to me," Herman said. "I got to have breakfast with both teams. They really got to know me. I built strong relationships with female role models who have gone through the same experiences I have with the boys. 

"It showed me if you continue to have that determination, that you can achieve your goals." 



Tom Worgo is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md.




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