Hello all, and welcome back to Husky History, a new column focusing on an accomplished UConn athlete each week. Each article should detail the athlete’s accolades at Connecticut, as well as their ability to take their games to the professional level.
While it’s hard to follow arguably the greatest UConn athlete of all time in Walt Dropo, this week’s Husky legend has quite the resume of her own. Sara Hess, formerly known as Sara Whalen, is one of the greatest soccer players to ever grace Storrs, Connecticut. Alongside Tara Buckley’s No. 5, Whalen’s No. 8 is the only retired number in the UConn women’s soccer program, a testament to her excellence in the ‘90s.
While born in Natick, Massachusetts, Whalen grew up in Greenlawn, New York, on Long Island. She went to nearby Harborfields High School, where she excelled in three different sports: Soccer, basketball and track. While she was successful in all three, Whalen’s collegiate decision came down to two schools — she could sprint at the University of Pennsylvania or play soccer at the University of Connecticut.
A prospective psychology major at the time, Whalen picked UConn for the sport and the program, living up to the definition of a student athlete.
“[UConn] had a pretty good school of psychology and research department, and I sought out the top professors, the hardest, the best,” she said. “I wanted to be the best psychologist.”
In terms of her athletics, Whalen noted, “When I chose UConn, I decided, let’s blow this soccer thing out. Let’s see what I can do.”
The entire nation watched as Whalen made quite an impact early on for a historically successful women’s soccer program. Her freshman year, she earned a significant role as an outside back, helping her team to the national semifinal. Whalen’s efforts in her rookie season alone were enough to grab the attention of United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) head coach Tony Dicicco, who called for her services at the end of that year. While that stint with the national team would prove to be unfruitful, Whalen would be back later on in her career, after cementing more of a legacy in college.
Her next two years at UConn were nothing short of impressive. Whalen earned Big East Defensive Player of the Year in both 1995 and 1996, and was named to the All-American team each of those seasons as well. The team saw continued success as well, as the Huskies not only qualified for the NCAA Tournament each year, but reached the quarterfinals both times.
Her senior year, Whalen really showcased her versatility when the team needed some extra scoring help by taking her talents to the front line, a position she hadn’t played since high school. While it had been some time since she had been up top, there certainly wasn’t any rust, as Whalen finished her final season in Storrs with 21 goals and 22 assists, and was named to the All-American team once again. What’s more, she earned the Honda Sports Award for top women’s soccer player in the nation.
“It didn’t feel foreign. It felt like a little vacation,” Whalen said of her transition to attacker. “I was really successful up there because of my speed. Who’s going to turn that down? I probably wasn’t the most tactical attacker, but it worked.”
Her next stint with the USWNT would be a more successful one, as Whalen made the roster for the 1999 World Cup. She provided a spark off the bench for the U.S., notably checking in 91 minutes into the World Cup Final at the sold-out Rose Bowl. The U.S. won in penalty kicks against China, and Whalen was the first teammate to praise Brandi Chastain after she scored the game-winning PK. The picture taken of them celebrating would be on the cover of Time Magazine.
Her accolades playing for her country would not end there. Whalen also was a part of the historic silver-medal run at the 2000 Olympics, where the US fell to Norway in a 3-2 thriller. She was a great “12th woman” for Dicicco and the team, as she made 65 appearances and scored seven goals in her international career.
Whalen was a pioneer in women’s sport as well, as she was one of 20 founding members of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the world’s first women’s soccer league to give their players professional pay. She played club soccer for the WUSA until 2002, where a collision with another player tore her MCL and ACL. After surgery, Whalen’s knee became infected, almost taking her life. Doctors were able to remove the infection from her knee, but her soccer career had to come to an abrupt end.
Dealing with depression and other mental health issues after the injury, Whalen’s story becomes even more inspirational. Trying to revive her previous passion of running, she was advised by doctors not to continue due to the immense pain she felt, despite being only 25 years old at the time. Whalen disregarded the advice, and instead started training for the 2004 New York Marathon.
“Oh my God, I’m like 25 and I’m basically crippled. So, I figured there was nothing to lose,” Whalen said. “I was pushing to see what would happen. That was kind of my mojo. If I can run for a minute, I can run for three. If I can run for three, I can probably run for eight. The training gave me purpose.”
She finished the marathon in four hours, 19 minutes and 38 seconds, finishing in the top 35% of all runners.
“That was awesome, but hard,” she said.
Whalen now has three children with her husband Jon Hess, a former college lacrosse athlete. She went back to school and received her master’s degree in psychology from Fordham University. The former Husky also received a doctorate from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and is a licensed psychologist and cognitive behavioral therapist. Previously in private practice, Whalen recently partnered with a physical therapy and sports performance group to share her story and help athletes with their mental health.
“I still can see my typical patients, but also gear towards athletes and student-athletes because there is a big disconnect,” Whalen said. “When students get hurt they get physical help, but they don’t get any mental help for that.”