Carolyn Can: Finding Purpose on the Pitch

Story by Caroline Montierth, Video & Photo by Lauren Porter, and Audio by Laveni Vaka.


The snow is falling and their anxiety is rising. The first half of the NCAA women’s
soccer semifinals ends with the top-seeded BYU women’s soccer team trailing 3-0 at home
against the University of North Carolina, one of the most prominent programs in the nation.
Their hopes of advancing to the College Cup seem lost.

However, being down 3-0 doesn’t scare the Cougars.

Standing on the sideline that frigid November night is BYU soccer athletic trainer Carolyn
Billings. She knows exactly how it feels to be down 3-0 — in life. And she also knows how to
defy the odds and capture improbable victories — in life. In fact, she’s done it multiple times.
One thing about Billings is that she fights back hard, no matter the challenge. This endurance has
been an inspiration to her peers for years — especially her players.

The team was ready to fight back, just like Billings, and they proved that to be the case as they
fought back hard. BYU rallied to score four goals in the second half to seal an epic 4-3 victory.
The win marked the biggest comeback in the NCAA women’s soccer quarterfinals since 2003.
The Cougars’ improbable win was emblematic of Billings’ indomitable spirit.


Billings graduated BYU with her bachelor of science in Athletic Training in 1993 while also
being named the Athletic Training Student of the Year. She earned her master’s degree in athletic
training in 1995 and finished as valedictorian of her class. Following graduation, Carolyn was
asked to stay at BYU to be an assistant athletic trainer. After a lot of hard work, Billings was
named clinical instructor of the year in 2008. Two years later, she was named director of sports
medicine at the university.

But amid all those personal accomplishments and accolades, Billings dealt with a slew of
unimaginable setbacks that have figuratively put her down 3-0.

Photos courtesy of Carolyn Billings

When Billings was nine years old, she was diagnosed with bone cancer for the first time. This
was back in the 70s, when cancer was viewed as a death sentence.

“I remember being more afraid of the look on my parents’ face,” Billings recalled. “That stress
they felt and the fear.”

At a young age, Billings’ resilience helped her beat bone cancer. Cancer didn’t stop her, but
instead, motivated her to work hard on her goals.

Despite being down 3-0 in life at a young age, Billings kept fighting and came back stronger.

An important goal and passion for Billings included basketball. She connected with basketball at
a young age and brought that same fight against cancer into her athletic pursuits. She was offered a
scholarship and a position on the San Diego State women’s basketball team.

But as things started to pick back up for Billings after a difficult childhood, her collegiate
basketball career was cut short only days before her first game.

Billings left class one day and realized she needed to stop at home before going to practice to
grab a homework assignment. She hopped on her bike and headed for her apartment. On the way,
she was struck head-on in an intersection after the driver ran a red light.

The collision knocked her off her bike, flipped her through the air, and she landed face-down on
the cement which ultimately knocked her out.

After being rushed to the hospital, Billings was told by her surgeon that she would never be able
to run, much less play basketball, ever again.

Once again, Billings was down big after her tragic accident. She may have been down again, but
she’s never out.

After eight months of rehab and recovery, Billings was able to walk, jump, and run again. She
was unable to get back to where she was physically before the accident, but something better
came from the experience.

Billings worked closely with an athletic trainer during this time and found the profession to be
something she wanted to pursue. Without further hesitation, she researched athletic training
programs and discovered BYU had one of the top programs in the country. If it hadn’t been for
basketball initially, BYU was Billings’ top school of choice. So, naturally, she transferred and
moved to Provo to start the next chapter of her life.

Not too long after moving to Provo, Billings found someone she wanted to spend the rest of
eternity with. As she put it, someone who was willing to put up with her for eternity.

However, this chapter of her life ended almost as quickly as her basketball career did when her
fiancé was killed by a drunk driver three weeks before the wedding.

Billings was devastated.

Tragedy struck again soon after when she learned that her bone cancer
had returned for a second time.

This diagnosis was a little bit different from the first as medicine had advanced and the chance of
beating the cancer increased drastically. Billings approached the second time around differently
than she had before with her athlete mentality backing her up.

“I can beat this. I’m an athlete,” Billings said.


At this point in Billings’ life, being down 3-0 was par for the course. Something that should have
destroyed her, motivated her to beat it. She committed to becoming better than she was before.

With her bone cancer dormant for the second time, Billings worked hard to integrate herself back
into real life and to achieve her goal of becoming an athletic trainer. As she finished her
bachelor’s degree at BYU, she was accepted to her top five physical therapy schools of
choice.

After contemplating where she wanted to go, Billings decided that a master’s in athletic training
was more on track for what she wanted out of her career. So, she continued with her education
in a master’s program at BYU.

“I love BYU,” she said. “I am blue through and through.”

Universe Sports

With her career in athletic training taking off, Billings appeared to have overcome the worst
thrown her way. She wasn’t just surviving, she was thriving.

Every time things seemed to calm down for Billings, new trials were always on the horizon for
her to combat. Her cancer returned three more times and she is currently battling the long fight.
With so much heartache, pain, misfortune, grief, loss, and suffering, why does Carolyn Billings
continue to fight?

The answers, she says, lie within two simple things: her relationship with the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints and her relationship with the players.

“My testimony of the gospel helped me see the bigger picture.”

Through her testimony and faith in Jesus Christ, Billings has found the strength to fight day in
and day out.

“How you handle it, how you manage your anger and your disappointment, your frustration, I
think is really different, and the Gospel has really helped me try to stay positive with it.”


Instead of focusing on how difficult everything was, she realized that she needed to zero in on
the concept of what was meant to be learned from these difficult situations.

“The Lord was giving me a chance to change and become more like he wanted me to be,” she
said.

As for her relationships with the players, these women are no longer just athletes to her. They are
her family. She jokes around with them, helps them, inspires them, heals them, leads them, and
loves them as her own.

“I think I always knew Carolyn’s best interest was with our players,” women’s soccer head coach
Jennifer Rockwood said.

Universe Sports

She may never have had children on her own, but Billings has found a family within the athletic
community at BYU. Her players have become her reason and her motivation to continue the
long, hard fight. Her reason to keep fighting after getting down big.

When Billings’ cancer came back for the fourth time, she was forced to share these health
burdens with her coworkers and players. This was one of the first times she had to share her
story with others.

Billings found this vulnerability daunting and scary. She is not one for attention and also doesn’t
like to be put on a pedestal. Yes, she knows she’s been dealt a difficult card in life and has been
strong enough to fight for it for as long as she has. Like everyone, she gets sad, frustrated, angry,
and even wants to give up from time to time. Sharing her story has not only helped her become
stronger, but it has helped so many other people find strength of their own.

“She still fights even from the position that she’s in and she’s just taught me to just continue and
don’t give up,” said clinical intern, and close friend, Diana Clark.

“She has a different view on life,” BYU women’s soccer defender Kendell Peterson said.

“She just continues to feel like there’s a need for her here and I’m glad she does because she’s
impacted so many athletes.”

This was when the women’s soccer team approached head coach Rockwood and presented the
idea of “Carolyn Can” to her. Without telling Billings ahead of time, the team made shirts and
wrote a poem to share with her.

“It was just overwhelming the support that I had from the team.”

This campaign meant a lot to Billings. Not only did it show the love her team has for her, but it
gave her just another reason to continue the fight.

“It really helped me realize that the Lord didn’t want me to be done, that He still wanted me to
fight and do my job and help these athletes enjoy their careers and go on and impact their lives so
that they go on and do good things.”

Universe Sports


Billings believes the Lord will throw you “curveballs” in life. In her position as an athletic
trainer, she works with student-athletes who get injured and can’t play a few games, for the rest of
the season, or worse, ever again. Billings likes to use her story and remind them that, even if you
are doing everything that you are supposed to be doing in life, difficult things will come your
way. Trials are not a punishment. They are just an opportunity for a comeback.

Billings’ experience has allowed her the priceless opportunity to connect with her players and help them in a way that can inspire them.

“I just hope I can do what the Lord needs me to do,” Billings said. “I think that is helping these athletes and helping them work through the struggles of figuring out life in your 20s.”

Carolyn Billings has spent her whole life down big. Every time she gets knocked down, she fights
on. Just like the soccer team on that cold, November night in 2023, her fighting spirit prevailed.
Down 3-0 in a huge playoff game with a shot at a national title on the line? That’s nothing for
Billings and her athletes. If anyone could inspire that kind of comeback….Carolyn can.

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