SALEM — For Salem State senior Lauren DiCredico, 21, of Tewksbury, athletics has been all about heart.
Forced to take off two semesters from collegiate softball and field hockey because of a heart condition called post-viral cardiomyopathy, the honors student has been cleared to play in the spring. She’ll be spending her Christmas break preparing her pitching arm and regaining her strength for her last season before graduation.
“It feels great to be part of a team again,” said DiCredico. “I’m finally not feeling weak after my workouts or practice anymore, so physically I am definitely getting there.”
A psychology major and sports science minor, DiCredico began playing softball at age 6 and field hockey her freshman year at Tewksbury Memorial High School. She competed at the varsity level for four years in both sports, which she continued into college after Salem State’s head softball coach, Leanne Doviack, recruited her.
“I knew she could be a two-sport college athlete,” said Doviack. “She is an amazing, determined young lady in both athletics and academics. I never saw her leave practice without throwing a whole extra bucket of balls.”
DiCredico was named Mass. State College Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year her freshman year; in the spring of her sophomore year, her softball team won the MASCAC championship, which took the players on to the NCAA tournament.
But during her junior year in field hockey, chronic viral symptoms began to plague her.
“I was able to play, but not to my fullest potential. I would play two weeks and then sit out for two weeks,” said DiCredico. “Nobody knew why I was sick.”
In January 2013, a few days before softball practice started, doctors told DiCredico she had a heart condition and could not be active for six months.
“I was definitely upset, and even had a little bit of regret thinking about what more I could have done to stay healthy,” said DiCredico. “But I thought about everything I had learned in sports psychology and realized that maybe this heart condition happened for a reason, because I needed to learn how to relate to athletes in the future.”
DiCredico said the break turned out to be a blessing. She rested, interned in sports psychology for the Lowell Junior Spinners baseball program, and contributed to academic research conducted by professor Chris Schoen. Their research looked at how to incorporate a sports psychology curriculum into the athletic training program at Salem State. The study was accepted at a Massachusetts undergraduate research conference and at the European College of Sports Science in Barcelona.
“She wanted to help out and got right on board,” said Schoen. “She was very proactive and became an equal contributor in the whole process. Lauren was becoming a researcher in the standard format that we would want to train our students in for preparation in graduate school.”
DiCredico was cleared to begin working out again 20 days before field hockey preseason began this past fall. With so little time to get back in shape, though, and after deliberating with coaches, DiCredico decided not to play. Instead, she set her sights on applying to graduate school for sports psychology and training for her final softball season in the spring.
“It still took a while to feel like myself, and I had to wear a heart-rate monitor,” said DiCredico. “My softball team was awesome about it, and they would joke, ‘Oh don’t have a heart attack.’ ”
Though her commitment to athletics has been her passion, she said education comes first.
“My dad always said, ‘I don’t care if you quit softball tomorrow, get an education,’ ” said DiCredico. “I’ve known throughout college that I wanted to do sports psychology, but I think it solidified sophomore year when I asked my family for a sports psychology textbook for Christmas.”
DiCredico hopes to enter an accelerated five-year master’s and doctoral program at West Virginia University, where she would earn degrees in sports psychology. She also is considering coaching after graduate school.
“Her skills and abilities are reflected by her tremendous focus,” said Schoen. “This is what she loves. She’s an athlete and scholar, and she knows what kind of graduate school experience and career she wants to have.”
As May approaches, DiCredico looks back with no regrets.
“Playing sports has definitely kept me on track and taught me time management,” she said. “Everything that I’ve done or has happened to me has set me up to think positively about the future. It’s definitely been a huge roller coaster ride, but what I’ve sacrificed has been so worth it.”
After graduation, she knows she will always remain active and fill the void of softball and field hockey somehow, whether by playing in an adult field hockey league or training for a half-marathon.
“It’s bittersweet. I’m excited to move on and go to grad school but nervous to leave behind what I already know,” said DiCredico. “I’m also lucky, because what I’m going into means I’ll be helping people have the best career they can in athletics. I’ll feel like I’m doing my part somehow.”This article is being published under an arrangement between The Boston Globe and the Gordon College News Service.