Kelly Berger spent nearly a decade toiling in the U.S. women’s national teams program — a journey that started in 2005 and included three knee surgeries and a close call in 2009. She should have felt ecstatic about being named to the 2013 World Cup team in February. Only 18 players nationwide get that privilege.
As a junior at James Madison, Berger had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in her left knee. She recovered in time to enjoy her best season as a collegiate player with 59 goals, 34 assists and a first-team IWLCA All-American nod.
But then Berger tore her ACL in the same knee during the first practice of fall ball in September 2006. She balked even at the suggestion of redshirting. Three days later, she was on the operating table. Hours after surgery, she began her two-a-day rehabilitation program with Tom Kuster, James Madison’s director of sports medicine.
Five months later — a recovery time that would make Adrian Petersen blush — Berger played in the Dukes’ season opener against Notre Dame.
After another All-American campaign, Berger, who had a previous stint with the U.S. Developmental Team, qualified for the 2007-08 U.S. Elite team. In her first competition on the senior circuit, the October 2007 US Lacrosse Stars and Stripes weekend in Oregon, Berger felt a painfully familiar pop, this time in her right knee. “Same dodge, same way, no contact. Just a face dodge, a plant-and-go,” she said.
This time, Berger had to manage her own ACL rehab. It took nine months. But then-U.S. coach Sue Heether had seen enough out of Berger to take her to the Czech Republic for the 2008 Prague Cup — a prelude to the World Cup.
It was too soon. “I played horrible,” Berger said. She regretted that performance a year later when she was left off of the World Cup roster.
Berger’s emotional roller coaster continued when she received a late overture from Heether days before the event. Already overseas, the U.S. coach was worried Whitney Douthett would not be ready due to an injury. But Berger had just accepted a job as the coach at UMBC and was settling on a house when she got the surprise phone call. Begrudgingly, she declined.
Berger’s confidence stems not only from the way she looks, but also the way she trains. She works out six days a week, normally in the morning. She starts with interval training and ends with weights. On Sundays, she’ll let loose with a 10-mile run around Baltimore.
Once the youngest coach in Division I, Berger’s career came to a halt in 2012. She did not finish the season at UMBC and resigned in June. Due to settlement and severance agreements with the university, she could not comment on the circumstances of her departure.
One unexpected benefit of the life change: Berger could spend more time honing her craft as a lacrosse player and conditioning her body for the more physical international game. She has spent the last year observing Jay Dyer, the Johns Hopkins strength and conditioning coach who trains several pro players — including her fiancé, two time Major League Lacrosse MVP and 2010 FIL World Championship MVP Paul Rabil.