Rachel Van Hollebeke’s days start early and end late. Although sometimes it’s the other way around. She’s in the middle of her residency program – that grueling rite of passage for new doctors that involves 80-hour workweeks, sleep deprivation and steep learning curves, all under the 24-hour glare of fluorescent hospital lights. It’s a career’s worth of medical knowledge and practice condensed into the high-speed blur of a few years.
This isn’t the typical retirement plan for most people, much less a world-class athlete who earned 113 international caps for the US women’s national team and played for five different clubs. The list of World Cup-level footballers who went on to become doctors is surely small: Socrates, Brazil’s midfield general and captain in 1982, is a rare example. But for Van Hollebeke, who played much of her career under her maiden name Buehler, the afterlife of her playing career was never going to involve simply putting her feet up.
As a defender, she tenaciously patrolled and enforced the back line of the national team for the greater part of a decade. Her talent as a bone-rattling slide-tackle machine earned her the nickname “the Buehldozer”, along with two Olympic golds and a runner-up medal at the 2011 World Cup. She even scored on her 100th appearance.
Before discovering football, she’d been exposed to medicine her whole life: Her father was a renowned surgeon in the San Diego area. Van Hollebeke’s sister is also a doctor – as were the siblings’ grandfather and great-grandfather, the latter of whom rode on a horse to visit patients at their home.
“I honestly grew up watching heart surgery videos on the floor with my dad,” Van Hollebeke explains in a phone conversation one afternoon in April, during some rare time off. “I had no idea what it was – I was little – but I was totally intrigued by it all.”
Even with this kind of lineage, though, Van Hollebeke says there was no pressure to go into medicine. She simply became interested from an early age, absorbing her father’s enthusiasm for it. While in college at Stanford, she began to pave her own road to medicine, finding the pre-med coursework enjoyable.
But medicine would be put on hold when another type of dynasty – the US women’s national team – came calling in 2008. That one carries serious expectations and no small amount of pressure. Van Hollebeke lights up as she reflects on the team, especially prior generations, who organized and boycotted in order to receive any pay at all, and for everything they did to promote women’s sports.
That is also to say there’s a lot riding on the shoulders of every player in such a perennially dominant squad. But therein lies one of the secrets of the team’s sustained success, according to Van Hollebeke: she says the mentality required of everyone is almost otherworldly.
“To be part of that team that always somehow figured out a way to fight and get that win – it really just seems to go on from generation to generation,” she says. “There were some games where we weren’t necessarily the better team, but we had such a will to win that we dug it out and fought it out, and no matter what happened, we got it done.
“So being part of a team where the team is the focus, that’s such a powerful feeling. It really means a lot to be on the national team in so many ways.”
Medicine wasn’t totally tucked away for later during her playing career, though. Van Hollebeke would study for the MCat, the medical school admissions test, while on national team duty. Abby Wambach loved to grab Van Hollebeke’s flash cards and quiz her, which they laugh about to this day. And Van Hollebeke would shadow the team doctor.
The rarity of the path from football pitch to medicine inevitably raises the question: why don’t more professional athletes aim quite as high after retirement? She considers it for a moment.
“Being a professional athlete is also all-consuming, and I think in certain ways I sacrificed sleep and other things,” she says. “Not that it wasn’t good for my career – I needed the balance and it was something I wanted to do. But when you’re a professional athlete there’s plenty to be focusing on and keeping you busy.
“But I do think there are more people than you realize,” she offers. “Maybe not always the biggest names, but there are definitely women in the NWSL and when it was the WPS that went on to various professional careers.”
It was only after a series of injuries caught up to her and she didn’t make the 2015 World Cup squad that Van Hollebeke decided to retire from both the Portland Thorns of the NWSL and from football altogether. She’d already been accepted to UC San Diego School of Medicine, which had allowed her to defer her enrollment for several years.
It’s been said that, unlike most everyone else, a professional athlete dies twice, the first time when they retire. There’s an uncertain liminal space between sport and the next thing – whatever that may be – that athletes often find psychologically crippling and difficult to negotiate. The game, their teammates, and much of their identity to that point is suddenly forever in the rear-view mirror. However, Van Hollebeke didn’t allow herself time to stare into this void; she announced her retirement, played her last game a few days later, then flew to San Diego the very next morning to attend medical school orientation.
“Retiring from soccer is hard, and that’s always a big decision, and I didn’t really have time at that point to miss it,” she says. “But in certain ways I think it did make it easier because I got really invested in the next thing, and I translated my passion from the one thing to the next.”
Five years later she’s a family medicine resident at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista, just south of San Diego. Van Hollebeke loves the work there and at another clinic nearer the US-Mexico border. She appreciates the chance to provide care for a traditionally underserved population.
“You feel like you’re able to do a lot for people,” she says.
That meant doing even more last winter, when she was on the front lines of Covid amid the region’s hardest hit population.
“It was really powerful to see Covid firsthand and be able to contribute and see the impact it had on so many patients’ lives,” she says.
It’s obviously been tempting to ask this whole time: does being a footballer have anything in common with being a doctor? In the thick of her residency, Van Hollebeke says the parallels are obvious to her.
“It’s that same mental approach for sure,” she says. “In soccer I really had to work at a lot of things – I was not the most skilled player. But I had that work ethic of constantly trying to improve; I do that in medicine all the time, learning more about this thing, or improving this skill.”
Then there’s the team aspect. In fact, this is her favorite part of medicine. “The team environment translates very strongly into medicine because you’re never acting alone. You’re working with other doctors, nursing staff, administrators, your medical assistant – whoever it is, it’s always a team environment. A lot of times I think of myself as my patient’s teammate and that I’m encouraging them, or trying to help set them up for success,” she explains.
That Van Hollebeke was able to pull her favorite element from her previous career and apply it to her current one is certainly admirable. But the longer she’s away from football, the more she misses it. And she misses the unique locker-room energy felt before and after matches, which is nearly impossible to find in most any other walk of life.
However, Van Hollebeke has found ways to reconnect with the game. She has a small ownership stake in Angel City FC, the women’s expansion football club in Los Angeles, alongside numerous retired legends like Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm, and the actors Natalie Portman and Eva Longoria.
And though medicine has taken center stage in her life for the past several years, she’ll get a chance to properly reflect on her playing career in May when she’ll be named to San Diego’s sports hall of fame, joining the likes of skateboarder Tony Hawk.
But what really invigorates Van Hollebeke these days is passing the football with her two-year-old daughter at home. She’s excited to see her skills develop already, and looks forward to the future. I ask if she can foresee starting another family dynasty – this one around football, and involving not heart-surgery videos but World Cup matches.
She laughs. “We’ll see, we’ll see,” she says. It’s probably an idea best considered sometime later. After all, she is a bit busy these days.
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