“This is not supposed to happen … I’ve never seen this before.”
Rachel Butler was crying.
The Xavier University women’s soccer player was sitting in her coach’s office. Her tears were the result of a decision that would drastically change her life.
“I think over the first three years (at Xavier) I had three concussions,” said Butler. “I had one last (season) and just the lingering effects … I wasn’t passing my tests as fast as I should. I had side effects that were just not really worth it.”
Her coach knew it too. In April, three weeks after Butler’s concussion, she had her year-end meeting with Nate Lie.
“That’s when I started the conversation with her about the bigger picture,” said Lie, Xavier’s head soccer coach since 2017. “Is going back on the field the right thing to do? She’s very intelligent. She’s a great student. She has plans for the future. I was not feeling overly comfortable putting her back on the field. We’re talking about her brain, something you can’t reverse later on down the road.”
Butler sat with the idea for a few weeks. She talked with her mom, and the decision she knew she had to make weighed heavily on her.
“Coming back from that concussion was pretty bad and I know, in the long run, mental health is 100% more important … and I knew my decision was going to be that I’m not going to play anymore,” said Butler. “But it’s really hard to step away from something you’ve been playing your whole life. It was horrible.”
Butler still wanted to be a part of the team and she is. She’s still on the roster and she still attends games and practices when she can.
But even though she decided to walk away from soccer, Butler wasn’t ready to throw water on her competitive fire.
“(Lie) was like, ‘Why don’t you look into something that you’re pretty good at?” Butler said. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ And he’s like, ‘You’re a really good runner.'”
Lie told her, “I think cross country is realistic for you.”
Not far from Lie’s office is Sam Burroughs’ office, Xavier’s cross country and track and field coach.
Lie had already made Burroughs aware of Butler’s situation and told him that he might have a new runner for him.
“I was like, ‘Sam’s office is right over there … I mentioned this to him, if this is something you want to look into, I don’t care either way. It’s your call,'” Lie told Butler. “We marched over to coach Burroughs’ office and made an introduction.”
Butler said, “It was a life-changing decision at that moment and coach Burroughs came in, and I’m sitting there in tears like ‘I’m really sorry. I’m not normally like this.’
“(Burroughs) said, ‘We have a few extra spots, why not try it out?’ I had no idea what to expect.”
Pretty soon they were talking about running.
“How much are you running? She had been doing some jogging. I was trying to ascertain, how many miles a week is she doing? Did she have any idea what kind of pace she’s going?” Burroughs said. ” … She didn’t really know how many miles a week and she didn’t really have a good idea how fast she was. She referenced the half marathon that she did and she told me the pace that she ran and I’m like, OK, that’s kind of interesting. The fact that she was doing 13 miles, a half marathon, during a training run at seven something (minutes) per mile, that would fit in well.”
And just like that, Butler’s running career began. Over the summer, she kept in touch with Burroughs in regard to training. Butler studies exercise science and she has a practicum at Form+Function Movement Lab, where she helped develop a training routine tailored to distance running.
When summer ended and Butler’s senior year started, she officially joined the cross country team.
When the team started training the second week of August, Burroughs said he paired Butler with the second and third group of runners to see how she looks in the pack.
“Again, she had no idea what she was doing, she’s just following the group and she hung on pretty well,” said Burroughs.
Butler was nervous. She didn’t know what to expect from herself, but she decided to go for it.
“It’s my last year, there’s not a whole lot on the line – if I don’t do great, it’s fine; if I do great, that’s awesome,” she said.
Burroughs was cautious with her, collecting data points after each run.
“Every week that went by we kind of let her do a little bit more,” said Burroughs. “But as the weeks went by, this is only like two or three weeks, she looks good. She did a little bit more and she looked good, and a little bit more up to the point where it’s like she’s out there rolling with our top girls.”
Last Friday, on Sept. 3, not even a month into the season, the Musketeers ran their first race.
Maybe it was foreshadowing or just a shimmer of serendipity, but the name of the race was the Butler Twilight on the course at the Northview Church in Carmel, Indiana, the same course that will host the Big East Conference championship later this season.
“When we got to the competition last Friday, again, she’s never done a foot race. Ever,” said Burroughs. “She’s never done any high school track or high school cross country. She’s never run a road race in her life.”
Butler had a different way of describing it: horrifying.
“I was stressing out because we got stuck in traffic on the way there,” she said. “So we get there, we had to start warming up immediately. Oh my gosh, I need to get myself mentally ready for this.
“We got on the line … we’re kind of next to all of our competitors – this is horrifying. I’ve got to start in this pack of all these people. I’m going to get trampled.”
Burroughs and his coaching staff gave Butler the most simple advice they could. They told Butler she could hang with her teammates in the pack and see how she feels, or she could run with the leaders.
“I was talking with one of our assistant coaches, Abbie (Hetherington), at the start line and I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do,'” Butler said. “She was like, ‘Just go. Just go.’
“So, I shot out.”
For the first mile or so, Butler ran at the front with one other girl.
“I’m in the lead group, so I was freaking out a little bit during the run,” Butler laughed. “But after like a mile or so she started to kind of die off and I still felt pretty good, and I was like, ‘This is kind of exciting.’ It gave me a little bit of motivation. So I just kept digging.”
Butler’s teammates and coaches were scattered around the course, running to different points to cheer her on.
“I needed that,” she said. “Especially when I hit two miles, I was like, I don’t think I can do this. But they were there for me. It was awesome to see how supportive they were.”
Going into the race, Butler anticipated that she would have a decent kick at the end of the race.
“I’ve got pretty good endurance. I’m coming from soccer. I’m gonna be able to just kick at the end,” Butler said. “And one of my teammates, he was like, ‘If you don’t kick, you’re not gonna win.’ And I looked at him and I almost started crying. I’m like, ‘I don’t have a kick.’ I have nothing in me.”
Butler gave everything she had and she crossed the line first, winning the first foot race of her career with the second-fastest 5K time in school history (17:19.8).
“A lot of things just fell into place and everything became worth it,” she said. “I had had a pretty hard time like adjusting to not being on the (soccer) field. And it was really cool to see all my hard work pay off.”
Burroughs said it was a stunning moment.
“I’ve been coaching 21 years in the sport. I’ve never seen this before. Someone who’s been doing another sport, all their high school career, all their collegiate career, and then come out in a very short period of time in the first competition and transition to such a high level. This is not supposed to happen. It doesn’t happen,” said Burroughs. “Cincinnati coaches came up to me, the Butler coaches came up to me, they’re asking, ‘Who is this girl? I’ve never heard of her.’
“I’m like, ‘Exactly. Because she’s never run a race before.'”
Butler’s group text thread with the soccer team was instantly flooded with messages of support and congratulations.
“I talked to her right afterward,” said Lie, “and I was just so full of joy for her. I’m not an emotional person and I became emotional because I know what she’s been through. I know how hard it was for her to have her soccer career essentially end in that fashion. My wife and I had tears in our eyes and we were both just laughing at how ridiculous it is. Then we went off and started looking at other college’s times just to get a context of what she just accomplished. I just couldn’t be happier for her, she’s such a good person.”
Right after the race, Butler found Xavier strength coach Matt Jennings and she burst into tears. Jennings asked Butler what she was feeling.
“I said I’m proud. I just took adversity and I was able to capitalize on it … it was one of the most rewarding experiences ever. And though it may not have been something that I wanted initially, it’s really cool to see that whatever you commit yourself to there is potential to be successful there,” Butler said.