Redshirt junior forward Civana Kuhlmann, after tearing her ACL and having to recover during the COVID-19 pandemic, is currently one of the top goal-scorers for Stanford women’s soccer and a prominent leader on the team. The Daily’s Jenna Ruzekowicz sat down with Kuhlmann to discuss her history with the game, her injury and her future aspirations.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): We’d like to start right from the beginning. Can you give us a little insight of what got you started with soccer in the first place?
Civana Kuhlmann (CK): I feel like it’s typical that every little kid played soccer. I feel like it’s the first thing your parents throw you in. So that’s basically how I started. I’ve been playing since I was four years old. I started as a young kid and never really stopped from there, but I will say my parents threw me into it because I just came from a very athletic family. Neither of my parents actually played soccer, my grandpa did on my dad’s side, but my parents were huge basketball players, and my dad did about everything. So when they threw me into soccer, my dad said, “I think she actually might be pretty good at this.” And my mom thought he was just being annoying and too optimistic. He was like, “No, seriously, I think she actually could be pretty good at this.” But my mom didn’t really think he knew what he was talking about because neither of them actually played soccer.
TSD: Obviously you did turn out to be an incredible soccer player. At the age of 14 you received your first call up to play with the U-17 team for the U.S., and you went on to become the youngest player to ever score at the U-17 level. What was it like being so young and so talented competing at that level where you had players that were three years older than you?
CK: Sometimes it’s weird to flash back to those moments. I grew up even before the actual national team camp started. We had other sorts of camps and tournaments so we all knew each other. When I got called up to that first U-14 camp it was exciting, and I was hoping that it would come. But then I went to a showcase after my first U-14 camp. I think that’s where the U-17 coach saw me play. I kind of just expected to keep going with the U-14 team, and building up my way as I went. I didn’t expect it to be one day U-14, the next U-17. Then I went into that camp, a long 10-day camp in Ohio, and it wasn’t the most fun honestly. I went into that camp pretty timid. The age group I was going into had Mallory Pugh and Madison Haley. Obviously I knew who they were and how good they were, so I definitely went into that camp timid.
Right after that camp, there was a trip to England, and I didn’t make that roster. I did fine at the camp, but [I] was playing scared. Then the coach brought me back into the camp after the England trip, and at that point I had nothing to lose. I realized I was good enough to be there, and they’re great players, but so am I. I came into the following camp with a completely different mentality and that’s when I made the roster to go to the U-17 World Cup qualifiers. That trip ended with some disappointment because we didn’t qualify for the World Cup, but overall it was just a really great experience for me at such a young age to learn what it was like to be the youngest and be at the bottom of the food chain playing in those environments. But the role that I played as a 14-year-old playing on the U-17 team is no different from coming into a college team as a freshman. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s something that you’ll go through in your career, so the fact that I got to experience it so young, so early on, was very helpful.
TSD: In 2017 you graduated from high school as the No. 2 ranked recruit, and you chose Stanford. Why Stanford? What led you to the Farm?
CK: I remember being in middle school and telling people that I was going to Stanford. I didn’t even know where Stanford was. And I can’t completely tell you where that even came from. In 2011, my mom, one of my best friends from home [and I], we started this thing where we go to the Final Four in the College Cup every year together. The first year we did this was when it was in Kennesaw, Georgia, when Stanford won its first national championship. I think that’s what started it. It was the typical seeing a team win as a young girl and that’s something you cling on to. That’s definitely what happened to me, and I’m lucky that it was Stanford that weekend because who knows if it was anyone else what might be.
I made a sign before [Stanford] won, and I have a picture of me with the sign at that college tournament that says “Future Stanford player” on it. I was so young, I didn’t really even know where Stanford was. I just knew it was the best at soccer, and it was the best at academics. Coming from such a competitive family, that’s something I clung on to as well. My visit was unreal. I was a sophomore in high school and I came with my dad. When we left, I just remember him being like, “I think you have to go here.” Not in a forceful or bad way at all, but I was young and probably naive and didn’t understand the significance of it. But my dad understood. I left my visit at Stanford pretty sure that I wanted to go here, but then it was coming down to UCLA, Florida State and Stanford. I did visit UCLA, and it basically came down to UCLA and Stanford. UCLA is obviously a great school and soccer program as well, but to me after I visited, there was just no comparison. I think when you have the opportunity to go to Stanford, academics and athletics-wise you have to take it. You don’t pass up the opportunity to go to Stanford.
TSD: All three of your goals this season have been marked as game-winning because they’ve been the goal that the team needed to push through into the end. What helps you get the job done when the game is on the line? What helps you keep calm under pressure?
CK: I feel like there’s a lot of different answers to this but I guess it’s been a crazy past two years for me. So, part of it I would say is trying to just step in and lead in the role that I knew I could have been part of back in 2019, which got taken away. Three goals in a season and the way the season is going is still not our standard and not my standard, but I have helped the team win some certain games, and I think it’s weird that this is happening after the past two years and everything that I’ve gone through. I feel more than anything, it comes down to one thing, which is belief in myself. I was coming off a second surgery in March of 2020, going into a pandemic and couldn’t even get [physical therapy]. There’s not many people outside of myself or my family that would say, “We really believe in this girl to have a strong comeback right now.” You’re not betting on the girl coming off two surgeries, who can’t even run.
There were some uncertain times in 2020 where I didn’t know if I was ever gonna play a soccer game again. I was so nervous coming back to the game. My brain was not moving at the speed it needed to and still isn’t. I’m still not my confident self out there. But I’ve been telling myself, and I told myself in the beginning, if you can believe in yourself after a second knee surgery that wasn’t supposed to happen, after not getting PT in the middle of a pandemic when you don’t know if you can play soccer again, then you can believe in yourself right now. You’ve done the work, and now here you have the opportunity to play. I think it comes down to belief in myself. That’s something that my injury taught me. I had to believe in myself in times when it felt like I couldn’t at all and that’s why I’ve been lucky enough to score some goals for us this season, but there have been more games that I haven’t than [games that] I have. That’s been really hard.
After our first away trip in Oregon, when we lost to Oregon and Oregon State, for the first times in my career, I talked to Coach Paul [Ratcliffe]. When we returned from those trips, I said, “I know it’s been a crazy year for me with injury and everything, and maybe it’s hard for a coach to look at their player the same after that, but I just want you to know how much I believe in myself.” I told him, “I only say that because I want you to be able to believe in me too and, if there are times when we’re tired or losing, I want to be our player, our person that can make a difference.” I just had to go to him and say that with confidence. I think I believed it. I hope I believed it. I was just fortunate that the following weekend against Colorado, I was able to get the goal that got us the win.
TSD: If you want to, talk us through a little bit what that recovery was like. What kept you motivated? Can you give us a timeline of how everything went down for you, especially with quarantine?
CK: Yeah, so it’s August of 2019 and we come into preseason, and I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. Probably the best I’ve ever felt physically and mentally soccer-wise. I knew how good I felt and how good I was playing, and my coaches knew it too. Then our exhibition game against Missouri comes up, only four days in a preseason, which is earlier than usual. I think I scored two goals in that, then I went off in the second half. Then I’m going to go back on for the last 10 minutes. I was pretty sure I said something like, “Yeah, let me get my hat trick.”
That’s when I tore my ACL and lateral medial meniscus in an unfortunate play that I’ve done 1,000 times before. I knew right away. I’ve never torn my ACL before, but I knew right away what was going on. My mom was luckily there. I was like, “If this isn’t tearing your ACL, then I don’t know what it is,” so we knew right away, and we just tried to think forward. An hour later at the tailgate, we were already talking about taking a fifth year. I got surgery, and Tierna Davidson and her family were nice enough to let me stay at their house through surgery. I lived there for about three weeks, which was really great because we were on the third floor of Donner with no elevator, so I needed a place to stay with no stairs.
Going into that season, I just wanted to be a part of it, and I knew my team needed good energy coming from an injured person who has leadership and influence on the team. I kept the best mindset and outlook I possibly could during that season. I tried to never let my teammates see me without a smile on my face or encouraging them. I can say that wasn’t how it actually was, but I just saved it for when I was more so on my own. When we won the national championship that season I genuinely felt like I was a part of it. Even though I hadn’t stepped on the field in a real game that season for a minute, I felt like I was a part of it, and I was proud of myself. I felt like I was still playing a leadership role that season. So that’s in December, and I’m running, but I don’t feel great. I’ve been mentioning something to my PT and trainers that I feel fine but not great, there’s still some pain or something in my knee. We go home for winter break, and I’m not really feeling great. We come back, and I’m just supposed to continue my learning progression. It just hurts, and I’m just doing it because I’m being told that this is where I’m at in my recovery and this is where I should be. So I just kept doing it all through January.
Finally, in February I went for a run one day that I was supposed to do, and afterward, I was finally like, “Okay, this is not right, I think something’s wrong.” I asked to get an MRI, and we sent it to my surgeon. Within that week we had another second surgery scheduled because my meniscus was still torn. We think one of my stitches for my first surgery just didn’t heal all the way. It wasn’t as long of a recovery, but right after that is when we got sent home for COVID. I got sent home to Colorado and since my surgery wasn’t there, I wasn’t an emergency patient, so I couldn’t get into PT anywhere. I was trying to recover from my second surgery at home with no actual PT. I just did the best that I could. I trained all summer for what I thought would be a fall season.
We came out here in August, and we were put in the Sheraton [Palo Alto], still not knowing if we were having a season. Then on August 11th, they cancel the season. August 11th is the day I tore my ACL a year before, and then a year later my season got canceled, so it’s weird, I was like, “What’s wrong with August 11th?” I ended up at home in fall quarter and got connected with a great PT and a great ACL specialist. I worked with them all quarter to actually feel more like myself. Finally, in November 2020, I was cleared by my PT and ACL specialist in Denver. We were told we were reporting December 28th, three days after Christmas, which was crazy. Then it got pushed to January 4th. At that point I had been cleared, but I still hadn’t been into any team training sessions yet, had barely played contact and hadn’t played anything like 11 v. 11. We had to manage my body a little, but every week came, and I could do more. That led me up to the first game against Pepperdine, and I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m playing the game tomorrow.” That was surreal because you go through so much rehab, and you spend so much time rehabbing. Then all of a sudden the moment is here.
TSD: Where do you see yourself when your Stanford career does end?
CK: The time is coming up quicker than I would ever have imagined. My time at Stanford has flown by. I definitely don’t feel like my time at Stanford is over, especially with the COVID season. I would love to go out with a somewhat normal season, and give us time, or give this team more time to just develop and be the team I think we can be. Maybe looking at 2022, probably going pro. When I talk about it with my family and my brother-in-law, we say it’s going to be whatever best opportunity is presented to me. If that’s overseas, then that’s overseas. It’s too early for me to make that decision or say where exactly I will be. Since I was young, I always said I wanted to play overseas. It’s a big transition, but it’s also partly a life experience and a career experience that I would definitely love to have. Maybe I’ll be drafted to one of the NWSL cities and take that opportunity, I’m not sure yet. What I am sure about is that I’m going to pursue my dream and goal of becoming a pro, and hopefully be the best I can in whatever league I end up in. If that’s overseas to start, then I do definitely see myself coming back to the NWSL. The game is growing in America as well. There’s been a lot of change, and women have done so much to help grow the game for us. I want to be a part of that as well, because the only reason I have the opportunity to even sit here talking about pursuing a dream or a goal of going pro is because of the women before me who have broken so many barriers. I would love to inspire younger girls and give them a platform as well.
Kuhlmann and Stanford women’s soccer (5-6-2, 4-4-1 Pac-12) will take on Bay Area rival Cal (5-6-1, 3-5-0 Pac-12) for the Cardinal’s final regular season match on Friday at 4 p.m. PT. The game can be watched on the Pac-12 Network.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.