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Senior signoff: Women’s soccer national champion Jackie Gilday reflects on journey of perseverance

Senior midfielder Jackie Gilday fends off a North Carolina player. Gilday recovered from numerous injuries to play her senior season and start in both College Cup games. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

By Jackie Gilday

June 11, 2023 8:21 p.m.

Looking back on my time at UCLA, I could not be more grateful for the experiences, people and opportunities I have had.

Growing up in Florida, I did not anticipate venturing out to the West Coast for school. However, when the No. 1-ranked UCLA women’s soccer team offered me a spot my sophomore year of high school, there was hardly a decision to be made. Arriving here as a freshman in 2019, I was filled with awe at the star-studded team I was now a part of and was honored to play alongside various national team members and World Cup players. I dove headfirst into the intensive but gratifying schedule of practice, classes and personal obligations. From leading the Los Angeles Women’s March to representing the USA at the 2019 World University Games in Naples, Italy, I began to get a sense of how special the program was.

My personal journey here was anything but smooth. Following a freshman season of limited minutes and nagging pains, I was hit by a plethora of injuries. Cartilage issues in my right knee kept me from being able to do anything but walk for most of 2020. I could hardly sit in a chair or take stairs. Following countless injections, an unsuccessful arthroscopy and months on a waiting list, I finally got a graft for a transplant at the end of the year. While recovery initially began smoothly, hopes of returning for my junior season were squandered when I found out I needed a hip labral surgery in 2021.

But here we are. In the 2022 season. And the focus has shifted to my senior year. Though unsure of how season might fare given my time away from soccer and the newly brought on coaching staff, I am purely happy to be back training.

I end up becoming an impactful player for the team. I play in every game I am healthy for. I score my first goal on senior day in front of all my family. My second is against a school from my home state that keeps us from getting knocked out in the tournament. I start both College Cup games and play over 90 minutes in the NCAA final against North Carolina. I become a national champion.

The only potential nagging thought was the news I received halfway through season – that if I played in the rest of the games, I may need the same cartilage replacement in my left knee that I got in my right. And I did need it.

But would I take it all back? Absolutely not.

Even without the national championship, my experience at UCLA as a student-athlete has been unforgettable. From the Olympians walking around you in Acosta to the high-level scholars in your classes, you are surrounded by a diverse group of exceptional people who motivate you to be your best self in every way. The UCLA athletic community as a whole provided me a strong support system. From my best days to my worst days, whether doing PT in Acosta or flying home from the national championship, I always had a variety of staff and athletes cheering me on. They made me excited to show up every single day.

I must thank my team for giving me a home these last four years. My teammates gave me daily laughs, shoulders to cry on, my closest friends and my lifelong sisters. It is a blessing and privilege to be surrounded by such a talented group of people that share the same passion as you. Each one of my teammates has given so much to their sport, so I was so proud to see all their hard work pay off this past season and can’t wait to see what more they accomplish. My team is made of a variety of strong female voices who showed me not only how to advocate for myself but for each other as well. They believed in me, encouraged me to take risks, challenged me and had my back on and off the field.

Another thank you to our coaching staff – Marg, Molly, and Gof – for guiding us through this last year, fostering an open and welcoming environment and listening to us as players. I am grateful to know I have you in my corner and know you will continue to lead this program in the right direction.

While I am sad to leave such a prestigious institution like UCLA, I know I will forever be left with the positive impact this school has had on me and the everlasting Bruin family. UCLA gave me not only a degree from the No. 1 public university, two Pac-12 Titles and a national championship title, but also the skills to tackle whatever I face in the next chapter of my life. I am grateful to be part of the legacy that is UCLA and UCLA women’s soccer, and I am honored to help leave the program right where it found me – at No. 1.

Gilday played for UCLA women’s soccer from 2019-2022.

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