There’s no one quite like Kat Williamson. It takes a certain type of character for an athlete to endure four knee surgeries and come back better each time. While the former Portland Thorns FC defender retired in 2016, there’s no doubt her impact on the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), former teammates, and fans is irreplaceable.

Williamson’s career was shaped by her resilience.

Over the course of her four-year professional career, Williamson’s toughness, high work rate, and consistency made her one of the most reliable defenders in the league. In her rookie season, she also played a key role on the Thorns FC side that won the 2013 NWSL Championship.

“She’ll light up any room with her positive take on life.” Those are McCall Zerboni’s thoughts on Williamson, her close friend and former teammate, which she gave to sports blog Dynamo Theory. The pair played together for two seasons in the NWSL.

Last April, ahead of the NWSL’s historic fifth season — no professional women’s soccer league beforehand had made it past three — I had the opportunity to interview both Williamson and Zerboni, along with University of Southern California (USC) national champion and standout Morgan Andrews for a story attempting to capture the past, present, and future of the league.

The tough veteran Zerboni served as the present, Andrews represented the promise of youth, and the newly retired Williamson was reminiscent of the league’s not too distant past.

In the interview, Williamson reflected on her career, and I was reminded not only of her unselfishness and raw passion for her sport, but also the exceptional qualities shared by players in the league. In its inaugural 2013 season, it saw non-allocated players make between $6,000 and $30,000 USD; that range increased in 2017 from $15,000 to $41,700.

I was 16 the first time I interviewed Williamson, a time in which I’d define myself as far more passionate than skilled as a writer. Regardless, the year prior, two crucial events had happened in the landscape of women’s soccer in Canada.

The Canadian women’s national soccer team had lost an epic semifinal to the United States at the 2012 London Olympics, for one. This grabbed major headlines, but my attention was also on another, severely underreported event. The Ottawa Fury women had won the now defunct USL W-League Championship over the Pali Blues in a thrilling penalty kick victory, and Williamson had earned MVP honours for her performance in the match. Both events piqued my interest in women’s soccer.

At that point of her career, Williamson had already experienced more than her fair share of adversity, yet she managed to triumph after each setback.

The spring before her freshman season, she suffered a torn ACL in her right knee. She endured the strenuous rehabilitation process and came back to start in every game at centre back, and the following season she was named 2010 Southeastern Conference (SEC) Defensive Player of the Year.

In her senior season, Williamson played in only five games before she suffered another knee injury, this time a meniscus tear in the same knee. Yet she rehabbed again and returned two months later to join the Gators in the NCAA Tournament. In her collegiate career, the two-time All-American won three SEC titles.

Following her fifth knee surgery, Williamson made the decision to hang up her cleats. She still lives in Portland and works at Nike. Her career has had significant impact on me. I can’t imagine wanting to write about sports without having seen her play.