National Women's Soccer League's Toni Pressley is a woman of true grit and unyielding strength. This is her story.
“My whole athletic career I walked around thinking I was untouchable to illness.”
Professional soccer player and breast cancer survivor, Toni is a woman of true grit and unyielding strength. Conversation with her is warm and although she is built for the spotlight, Toni revels in her downtime- a self-proclaimed homebody. She wants women to know, no matter how healthy you think you are, no matter what caliber of athlete, or how big of a stadium you command, you are not untouchable. Honor your body. Get checked. This is her story.
Toni Pressley grew up in Melbourne, Florida. She knew from a very young age that soccer would bring her great things. Toni’s mom had her in cleats at age five and by the time she was in 7th grade, she was playing for the varsity High School team.
“My mom was a single parent. We both realized early on that I was good at soccer and I wanted to see how far it could take me.”
Toni knew she was going to use soccer as a vehicle to get into college, she knew what she wanted and her mom wasn’t going to stand in the way of that.
“Oh God this might sound terrible to say but school was never a huge interest for me, it was always about sports. I made a lot of sacrifices with friends and with my social life.”
Luckily, most of Toni’s friends growing up also played soccer, which made it easier to maintain a social circle while playing at a high level. Today, just as it was then, soccer is still her number one priority. If Toni I can’t go somewhere because she has a game the next day, she doesn’t go.
“Once I got to college it became more of a balance. I started realizing that I needed to actually study to pass my classes.”
Toni ended up being recruited by Florida State, a Division I school, on a full scholarship.
“Playing Division I in college really prepares you for the professional world. You need to hold yourself to a high standard and even though the environment is intense, I was well adjusted to enter into a professional career.”
There was never one ‘aha!’ moment where Toni knew soccer would be her career, she just always knew that becoming a professional athlete was the path soccer was taking her down. Her body withstanding, it never crossed her mind that should would ever be doing anything else- there was no plan B.
I wondered if being athletic effected Toni’s body image compared to her peers throughout High School and College?
“In High School I really didn’t pay much attention to nutrition. I didn’t have the knowledge yet to know what the proper fuel was to perform at a high level.”
Once Toni got to college she was introduced to a world of resources with a nutritionist and sports scientist at her finger tips. It was then she really began to understand how to focus her nutrition to get the best out of her body for performance and recovery.
“Today, there is a really fine line with women and the language you use in regards to nutrition can really have a profound effect on someone. Our staff [at college] did a really good job of saying this is where we want you to be in the safest way possible, so that we weren’t insecure or broken.”
Toni is grateful to have lived an adolescence without social media. She contributes her positive body image and positive relationship with food to a lack of exposure to images that promote comparison and conformity at a young age.
Toni uses her social platforms to engage in conversations about causes that are important to her such as Breast Cancer Awareness or educating her followers about social injustices.
“I haven’t done much with body positivity [on her social platforms] but now thinking about it, it’s something I can do more. The social world out there where we compare ourselves to other people can be really harmful. I want to be part of spreading the word that you’re unique, you’re your own, and that’s something to be really proud of.”
Toni has intimate ties to Breast Cancer Awareness month, which lasts throughout October. In 2018 she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late 20’s. The diagnosis came as a complete shock.
“My whole athletic career I walked around thinking I was untouchable to illness so that was a huge crossroads in my life.”
“The biggest thing I want people to know coming out of this is being aware of your body no matter how healthy you think you are. Be safe, rather than sorry. Go to the doctor and get checked.”
Toni found a small lump in her right breast that had felt tender and achy for quite a while. She thought it was just a normal part of being a woman, her hormones, and going through her menstrual cycle every month.
“It’s scary that my symptoms are often times considered ‘normal’ and they don’t phase a lot of women, so they don’t go to get them checked out.”
It was Toni’s sports nutritionist who came in to talk to her team who was extremely healthy and fit. She told the athletes that she had just had breast cancer. As Toni sat in the audience connecting the dots, she decided then and there to go to the doctor to get some peace of mind.
“If I have it, I’m going to know and if I don’t, I’m going to be happy I went.”
Toni had a double mastectomy on August 2, 2019. All of her breast tissue was removed and she should not be able to get breast cancer again. Toni needs to take medication for the next five years and did not have to undergo chemo or radiation.
Happy to be on the road to recovery Toni could not wait to get back on the field and training again.
“At first, I didn’t even know what it would look like but I wanted to be in that environment again even if it was just watching.”
Not needing chemo or radiation really helped speed up Toni’s recovery. In entirety, she was out for less than two months. For that, she was extremely grateful.
“Giving myself time to heal was hard because I was so active and used to doing things for myself. When I couldn’t, it was really hard. I wasn’t supposed to reach for things but I remember just doing it secretly sometimes to feel normal.”
After playing briefly in Russia, Toni was picked up by the NWSL and headed back to the United States. She played for two years in DC, was traded to Western New York, then to Houston, and finally was picked up by Orlando, where she has been the last five years.
“Maintaining relationships throughout all the moving has been hard, but I’ve gotten used to it. Having the stability and putting down roots in one place has been really nice.”
For most professional athletes there is a shelf life. Where does Toni see her career going as she enters her early thirties?
“Good question. I feel like I don’t really know the shelf life. I don’t have anything tying me down right now taking me away from it. I see myself playing for the next couple of years.”
What was life like during the pandemic with everything coming to a standstill?
“It was really hard. Soccer came to a complete halt. For someone who is so used to routine and schedule it was pretty tough to be left to my own devices to figure out how to fill my day and stay fit. I needed to be ready, but I didn’t know when or what to be ready for.”
In that time, Toni listened to how she felt in the moment in order to combat some of the stress. If she woke up and didn’t feel like doing anything, she didn’t.
“I would also find ways to keep my mind busy. I took up cycling and got into painting again, I also really love to cook. It was hard for a lot of reasons, but it was also cool because it led me back to things I had forgotten about.”
Toni has a special place in her heart for female-founded companies considering the powerhouse and brand she has built through her athletic career.
“First and foremost, I love the product [The Chestee]. I’ve never seen anything like it. But really, Nicole [the owner and founder of The Chestee] is such a force and such a great personality. I could feel some of her energy over the phone and through email, but when you meet her in person it really gets you. I felt like we were already family and friends.”
The fact that The Chestee is woman owned just makes it that much more special. Like Toni and Nicole, we need more strong women to stand up and do their thing.
Interview and Article by The Chestee® Blog Editor, Genevieve Gyulavary
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