Nicole Burnie lives her life surrounded by small children.
The groundbreaking soccer ace was recently inducted into the Menomonee Falls Athletic Hall of Fame.
She came down from Bloomington, Minn., where she teaches fifth-graders, for the Sept. 21 ceremonies. In her off-time, she lives and breathes soccer, playing in competitive and recreational coed leagues as well as coaching 9- and 10-year-olds the way of the pitch.
She even did some coaching over the weekend when she got back to Minnesota ("We lost on Saturday, but we came back to win on Sunday," she said).
Burnie's madly in love with her adorable daughter, Laney, to whom she gave birth to four months ago and she has all the concerns of a first-time mother, but in her case, the concerns are amplified.
Two years ago, the healthy, vibrant, 28-year-old was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease of the central nervous system that strips nerves of their protective coating making them less and less effective as time goes on.
It hits people differently, but it can affect vision and ultimately puts a good proportion of its sufferers in wheelchairs, though some, like Ann Romney, the wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, can still function at a fairly high level for years and years.
Burnie first noticed her condition when she had a long stint of blurred vision, blind spots and headaches that was eventually diagnosed as optic neuritis. Burnie noted that about 80 percent of sufferers of optic neuritis have MS.
"Then the MRI confirmed it," she said. "I was stunned. I was just going in for an eye infection and to come (out) with a diagnosis of MS. Well, I'll just say that wasn't the direction that I was steered into.
"I was in heavy denial at first. You think of that, you think of people in wheelchairs."
But then the University of Minnesota graduate went to work researching her condition. She changed her diet (she is largely gluten-free right now and watches her intake of dairy and sugar). She takes the appropriate medications and watches for the telltale tingles in her arms and hands, the muscle weakness.
And she thinks about Laney.
"I talked to my doctor and asked 'What if she has it?' " she said, "and the doctors say it's not automatic that she will have it, too. They told me 'She may or may not have it, but there is nothing we can do about it now' (because the disease frequently manifests itself in young adulthood, just like in Burnie herself). But you worry yourself sick."
Burnie, however, is trying to remain the optimist, and she and Laney and her longtime boyfriend (Laney's father) are going to go on with their lives.
Just as she always has, because Burnie has always been a groundbreaker.
The Menomonee Falls boys and girls soccer programs are currently healthy and very competitive within the middle-upper ranks of state prep competition. Good work on the youth level and the tireless efforts of former Falls high school coach Mike Unger (Burnie's mentor) and current boys and girls varsity coach Scott Stein have helped get the program that far.
But it wasn't always that way.
Back when Burnie was a high-scoring senior forward in the spring of 2002, the glass ceiling was firmly in place. Falls had never beaten powers like DSHA, Brookfield Central or Brookfield East.
Until that fateful WIAA regional final against East, when the Indians hung on and then beat the Spartans, 3-2, in an overtime shootout.
"That was one of our greatest and most exciting moments ever," she said. "We had never, ever beaten them before. It's still so fresh in my mind."
That the Indians went on and lost to the dominant eventual state champion Brookfield Central in the sectional semifinal the following week mattered little. The die was cast and the Falls program has never looked back.
But that success didn't mean much when Burnie got to the University of Minnesota. She was not recruited and had to work her way onto the soccer team through an all-comers walk-on camp.
"I was actually surprised that I made it," she said, "but it was a change. Instead of being a big fish in a little pond, now I was a little fish in a big pond."
But not for long. She made such an impression, that she was put on partial scholarship her sophomore year having earned the team's most improved award her freshman year.
She made the radical change to being a defender ("That actually proved to be a better fit for me," she said) and she was so highly thought of on the team that she was actually named a captain in both her junior and senior seasons and was twice the team's defensive player of the year.
She was second-team All-Big 10 in 2005 and was named an academic scholar-athlete for three straight years (2002-2005). The Golden Gophers also made the semifinals of the Big 10 Tournament her senior year before she graduated with a degree in elementary education. She went back shortly thereafter for her masters in the same topic and landed her current job with the Bloomington School District.
"A lot of hard work went into that (her soccer success)," Burnie said, "because I knew I wasn't as talented as everyone else, so I had to put in that much more effort. It was a great decision to do it though. I couldn't see my life without having played soccer (in college). It opened so many doors for me."
And as noted, life moves on despite Burnie's disease. She loves Laney and her boyfriend more than life itself and thinks the world of her students. The school district in which she works has been very supportive of her situation, sponsoring a "Mud-run for MS".
She's also active in fundraising and educational efforts about her condition.
And, yes, she continues to worry, mostly about Laney and a lot about the people who care for her.
"To be honest, I try not to think about it a lot," she said. "I take my shots. I try to do the right things … but it is harder on the loved ones. My parents worry, my boyfriend worries, but I'm trying to live like nothing has ever changed.
"Live life in the moment and we'll cross the bridges when we get to them, I say. I still think I'm very lucky, very blessed."
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