Claire Buckey is literally the last line of defense for the Ohio field hockey team.
Buckey has played a crucial part for Ohio as a freshman, as she’s started every game of the season. She juggles where the ball is, where the opponent's attackers are and around her fellow defenders, all while the pace of the game may change at any second.
“She's a freshman starting in either midfield or backfield for us in the center of the field, that's a lot of responsibility,” coach Neil Macmillan said. “That's usually a seasoned position, so she's just got great awareness of the game to be able to just step in there and run around in the right areas.”
Most athletes worry an ankle injury could displace them from games, or knee surgery that could end their season. But, Buckey’s challenge on and off the field is called Crohn’s Disease.
Buckey was diagnosed in February 2016, but the abdominal pain from the inflammatory bowel disease did not progress until that summer. Buckey’s pain was visible to her family. They wanted to do anything to help her, though options were limited.
The pain she felt due to the disease did not stop her from playing field hockey in high school for Olentangy Liberty High School where she and her team reached the Ohio Field Hockey Final Four.
“I would have pains in my stomach and I … wouldn't feel well but I've kind of just … put that on the side and just kind of (kept) playing,” Buckey said.
Nothing was going to keep Buckey off the field, however, so she and her family waited to have surgery until the season ended in Nov. 2016.
“They said I've probably had it for a couple of years so like I didn't really know that I had it, so it was kind of normal to me,” Buckey said.
In high school, her “normal” was a two-hour nap after school, before field hockey and at least 10 hours of sleep per night.
After the season ended, Buckey underwent surgery which she hoped would not only help, but put her back on a schedule that worked for her.
As the year progressed into the fall, however, her intestines started closing up on themselves, so the pain continued to be greater and made playing field hockey very challenging.
"It was really difficult for all of us just because it hurt us to see her in pain,” Hannah Buckey, Claire’s twin sister who goes to Ohio State, said. “Just seeing her in a hospital bed instead of doing what she loves to do, but I mean she's really strong. She overcame it and she's still struggling, but doing a lot better job of it.”
Her surgery was not a cure, though. Crohn’s Disease cannot be cured, rather, the symptoms are treated so they don’t affect the person’s daily life. But her surgery did remove some of the digestive tract and reconnect the healthier parts.
Surgery only has temporary benefits, but the disease usually re-appears at some point near where the tract is reconnected.
Now in college, Claire trains everyday when there isn’t a game. She said her pain is “a world of difference.” Her energy is up.
She watches what she eats so she doesn’t have problems that affect her ability to play. She still has to take medicine every two weeks to reduce any flare-ups and symptoms, though. But that’s in the back of her mind. What she’s focused on is crafting her defense.
She tries to eat healthy all the time, but the extra motivation of wanting to be on the field for field hockey season makes her more determined to succeed.
“I have to make sure of eating a healthy diet and maintaining that so I don't feel crappy on the field and so I don't hurt my stomach with the Crohn’s,” Claire said.
That pain can come back at any time, though. The reason that the pain might return could be diet, stress, or timing. It’s a case-by-case basis on how much, and when, Crohn’s Disease comes back, but Claire will no problem finding help.
"We have a good athletic training staff who are aware of what she needs and her condition, so that's one of those things that I think they're going to look at,” Macmillan said.
If it ever did become a problem during a practice or a game, her team and coach is there to help her out.
“She's let us know a couple of things and if she just runs off the field because she needs to, … we're aware of that situation and we'll do what we need to," Macmillan said.
Claire’s family came together during difficult times, as both Claire and Hannah left for college. The family is not there for each other every day anymore, but Claire’s new family has taken her in.
"I think she misses her family, us, but she has a new family (in Athens),” her mom, Missy, said. “She's spending a lot of time with all the girls (in Athens), and she's made some good friends, and she's not alone.”
Not only is Claire not alone in Athens, she’s not alone in the sports world, either.
There are numerous athletes who are battling Crohn’s while playing their sport, including Larry Nance Jr. of the Los Angeles Lakers and former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard, in addition to the 1.6 million Americans the disease affects. Athletes, though, need to pay close attention for any symptoms.
Not only is there an adjustment needed to become a college student, let alone a college athlete, Claire has to make the transition with her disease.
She’s thrown in every game and is learning in real time, by making small improvements along the way. As a starter for every game, she’s learning on the fly. Since no one else is behind her except for the goalie, her mistakes affect the outcome of a game heavily.
Playing time was what the Buckey family was hoping for, something Claire exceeded immediately. The whole family from Powell tries to see as many of her games as possible, to see her doing what she loves after seeing her condition last year.
“She's played a lot, so we figure her coach thinks she's doing fine,” Missy said. “Yeah it’s very nerve wracking for us to watch, I think that's the same for every parent."
They can see how much field hockey has impacted her life and how much she wants to play.
“I'm so proud of her I can't put into words, it’s amazing,” Hannah said. “It warms my heart to see her, I see her and my heart smiles when she’s on the field, so it’s awesome.”
Correction: A previous version of this report misspelled Neil Macmillan's name. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.