Michelle Maemone tore her ACL as a 15-year-old sophomore in high school. In a snap, she lost soccer, the game she loved and had played since she was a little girl, for the first time — and for a full year.
In just her fourth club game back during her senior season, she tore her ACL again. Same knee, same type of play, another year on the sidelines.
Maemone’s return to soccer wouldn’t come until college at Pepperdine University. She eventually was drafted by the Utah Royals FC and is now entering her second year in the National Women’s Soccer League.
During those two years without soccer, she felt lost at times.
“Soccer, for me, had been so much more than just something that I do,” Maemone said. “It was something that was a huge stress reliever for me, something that I found a lot of joy in.”
But she also found a new passion. A new stress reliever. A new source of joy. And in a way, it was in front of her the whole time.
Maemone’s brother, David, is a touring musician. Because of that, music has always been a part of her life on some level. So she decided to teach herself how to play guitar. And it didn’t take long for her to feel something similar to what she felt about soccer. The feeling was “immediate,” she said.
“In that time, music became something that really changed my life and became something so much more to me than I think I ever thought it was going to,” Maemone said.
Before she arrived at Pepperdine, Maemone kept her music mostly to herself. She didn’t write songs or perform in front of people regularly. She sang, but didn’t consider herself a singer.
That all changed when some of her friends recommended Maemone to the team chaplain as someone who could lead worship at the athlete chapel.
“I was so mad at them because I never sang in front of people and I didn’t want to,” Maemone said. “I was frightened because I think it was something that meant so much to me and was special and kind of private that, if people thought it wasn’t good or people didn’t like it, then it would kind of take away the specialness of it.”
Maemone agreed to lead chapel, but initially wore a hat to block her view of the audience. It eventually became the favorite thing she did every week — partly because her performances encouraged people to attend chapel, but mostly because it taught her that there’s more to life than what someone does or is pursuing.
These days, Maemone, 23, plays guitar and sings every day, often for hours. Raisa Strom-Okimoto, her teammate and current roommate, described her singing and playing as “beautiful” and “creative.”
Strom-Okimoto plays guitar, too — because Maemone has been teaching her. A native of Hawaii, Strom-Okimoto grew up playing ukulele. But it was Maemone that got her interested in guitar.
“It kind of bonds us in a different way,” Strom-Okimoto said.
Maemone has also introduced other teammates to guitar. She taught Maddie Nolf how to play last season when the two were roommates. Mallory Weber and Taylor Leach have also expressed interest in learning how to play from Maemone. Weber and Leach have recently reached out to her for advice on what kind of guitar to buy.
Nolf is a self-described music lover, so she thought the pairing of her and Maemone as roommates last season went swimmingly. The two would play worship music and other songs together, and often sing in harmony.
“Normally, your sport is your play,” Nolf said. “And it certainly can be play, but you need something outside of it. So music — we both really enjoyed that and shared that.”
Nolf first became interested in learning guitar when she suffered a hip injury last year that kept her out for several months of her rookie season. That’s when Maemone took her to a guitar store to purchase her first instrument.
Strom-Okimoto said Maemone’s patience and encouragement makes her a good guitar teacher. Nolf, on the other hand, said she would describe herself as a “terrible” teacher because she has the tendency to want to actually play guitar.
Maemone acknowledged she sometimes can make the instrument seem more simple than it is, causing her students some frustration. Nonetheless, both Nolf and Strom-Okimoto gave her positive reviews.
“I wouldn’t say she’s the one you want to hire for guitar lessons,” Nolf said. “But I think she is seriously the most gifted musician I’ve ever been around. … If she put all her time and effort and resources in that, I think she could actually make it in the industry.”
Several Royals players said there might be an outside chance of forming a band in the future. Aside from Maemone, Strom-Okimoto and Nolf, both Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir and draft pick Kate Del Fava play piano.
“It’s very, very likely that it’s going to happen,” Strom-Okimoto said. Nolf added: “Honestly, we should because it seems like we have a lot of talented people on our team. Maybe we will do some silly little things.”
Maemone was less committal. But music isn’t something she does for even just a glimmer of limelight. It means more to her than that. And while it’s impossible to say whether she would be playing music had she not torn her ACL in consecutive years, she thinks staying healthy would have put music on a potentially lower pedestal than where it sits now.
“It would not nearly have the same meaning as it does in my life today,” Maemone said. “And for that reason alone, I am thankful for what happened to me.”