Patricia “PG” Gasparovicova, an international student from Slovakia, traveled to the United States last August expecting to begin her journey of playing soccer at Southern Miss. However, she has instead faced the toughest tests of her life.
Navigating the world through a global pandemic, suffering an injury that sidelined her for two seasons and adjusting to life itself 5,312 miles from her hometown of Pezinok, Slovakia, Gasparovicova has faced plenty of adversity. However, she has not backed down. Now, as she reflected on her first four semesters at Southern Miss, she said she wouldn’t change a thing.
“Easy is always an option, but never my choice,” Gasparovicova said.
Playing soccer was a childhood dream for Gasparovicova. She started playing the sport when she was nine years old, and always told people she wanted to play in Europe. Life took her a different route when she learned about opportunities to play in the United States.
“In my senior year of high school, I met a very good friend of mine and out of nowhere, she just mentioned that she got a scholarship to play in the U.S.,” Gasparovicova said.
Gasparovicova started researching colleges in the United States and yielded offers from multiple schools. While Southern Miss wasn’t initially at the top of her list, she felt welcomed by Southern Miss Head Coach Mohammed El-Zare and his message.
“From the first Zoom call we had, not only was he expecting me to ask questions, but he was the one that showed interest and kept reaching out and kept sending messages,” Gasparovicova said.
That connection would prove to be crucial in Gasparovicova’s time at Southern Miss. While she was excited about traveling to Hattiesburg, she knew there would be a new culture to learn and new people to meet, and expected difficulties in speaking English full time.
Gasparovicova said El-Zare, as a native from Cairo, Egypt, was the first person she would reach out to for help when she finally moved. El-Zare said Gasparovicova is like a “daughter” to him.
Gasparovicova also said that support from her friends, family and coaches helped her transition to the States a lot, including the team’s eight other international players. Still, she struggled at times, turning to her faith and hope to continue on.
“If I didn’t have God, I would probably already be home,” Gasparovicova said. “I went through some really hard times. I remember in the beginning of last semester calling my sister and out of nowhere, I started crying because it was just so hard for me. And many times, I was just stuck.”
Gasparovicova’s journey got even more difficult when she tore both her meniscus and her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in January. Because of the delayed COVID season, it not only ended her chance to play in the spring, but also the next season in the fall.
She had surgery in March and walked around campus on crutches for six weeks. Slowly but surely, she spent hours each week in rehab, working her way back to running and working with gym machinery.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked that hard than over the past [seven] months and that’s one of the reasons I’m in very good shape and condition[,] but it’s also been the mentally toughest months of my whole life. [I kept on] by God’s glory, because the strength I have had […] there’s no way that it wasn’t from Him,” Gasparovicova said.
Gasparovicova also went through her recovery process with another teammate, Samantha Stiglmair, who also tore her ACL.
“PG had her surgery a couple of months after me, but it’s been great to just have her because unless you’ve had that injury, you don’t really understand what it takes, you don’t understand what the person goes through,” Stiglmair said. “We’ve just been pushing each other, giving each other support and just been there for each other.”
And throughout injury rehab, they both have learned and grown together. Gasparovicova spent the entire season watching from the sidelines, supporting her team as the Golden Eagles put together one of their best seasons in program history, reaching the Conference USA Championship game for only the second time.
“I learned that nothing’s all about me. The team is about 22 players — it’s about everybody,” Gasparovicova said. “The thing I was going through, yes it was hard, but I did it because of my teammates and I know the same way I was putting in the hard work since I got injured, they saw it and they could learn from it.”
Stiglmair and Gasparovicova both spent their lives preparing to play their sport at this level. Because their injuries stripped that opportunity away from them, they began to explore their lives outside of soccer more.
Even though soccer is still an important part of her life, Gasparovicova proudly says she knows it’s not everything she has.
“Soccer is something I do and is not something I am,” Gasparovicova said. “Soccer is a huge part of my life. It helps me with expressing myself or just switching off sometimes, but it’s still not number one.”
Seven months post-surgery, she feels better than ever and is optimistic about her soon-to-be return.
“It’s going pretty good. I’m practicing full contact and I just decided to redshirt this season so I didn’t play any games,” Gasparovicova said. “I’ve missed two seasons and it’s not easy since I came here to play soccer, so I’m putting 110% to everything I’m doing right now to be ready for next season and also not just focusing on myself, but focusing on the whole team.”
Gasparovicova hopes to make her debut at Southern Miss this upcoming season.
“We’re excited that PG is coming back. She’s going to be soccer wise as a freshman, but she’s going to be more mature,” El-Zare said. “For us right now, it’s really [about] investing in the offseason in getting them [players] technically and physically to develop more, but also helping them read and understand the game at this level.”