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Orlando Pride defender Toni Pressley finds strength on pitch after battling breast cancer

Three months after a breast cancer diagnosis turned her life upside down, the Pride defender is looking to make an impact on and off the field.

Orlando Pride defender Toni Pressley controls the ball at Rio Tinto Stadium during the 2019 season. (Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos)

In the hours following the phone call that delivered her breast cancer diagnosis, Toni Pressley sought comfort on the soccer pitch.

It was a Friday, the day before the Pride were hosted the Washington Spirit. For Pressley, the game served as the perfect escape. For 24 hours, she focused on soccer — warming up at Exploria Stadium, directing the backline to a 4-3 victory.

It was the team’s first home win of the season, a moment meant to be filled with joy. But sitting on the field after the final whistle, Pressley could barely hold back tears.

“It all kind of hit me at once,” Pressley said. “In that moment I was so happy, but I also didn’t really know if this would be one of my last games. I was just trying to hold my emotions the best way I knew how.”

For Pressley, most of her day-to-day focus remains the same — getting back on the pitch after beating cancer. 

During the past three months, Pressley’s diagnosis sparked a league-wide movement that will be capped by the Pride’s first Breast Cancer Awareness Match when Orlando plays Reign FC Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Exploria Stadium.

“She’s not doing anything for this reason, but she’s just such an inspiration to us all,” Pride teammate Alanna Kennedy said of Pressley. “I look up to her so much. She tackles everything front-on and just with the most positive attitude. She’s honestly one of the best people I’ve met in my life.”

On and off the field, Pressley is a pillar of strength, a tall, athletic defender known for balancing quiet leadership and physical play. 

Pressley was home alone with her dogs when she first heard her cancer diagnosis, and in the following days, she kept it to herself. She didn’t want to tell her family until she had a clear-cut plan, waiting until weeks later when her surgery date was set.

Pressley waited even longer to tell her team. She was afraid to pull their attention away from the game or bring a dark cloud over training. Most important, Pressley didn’t want her teammates to think about her diagnosis every time they looked at her on the pitch.

So the defender who grew up in nearby Melbourne and was an All-American at Florida State held the secret for more than a month, making the announcement on her last day of training before undergoing a double mastectomy. Standing in front of her team, once again battling against tears, Pressley felt the full weight of the diagnosis finally sink in.

“I was thinking about them, because I didn’t want them to worry, I didn’t want them to be thinking of me when they need to be thinking of other things,” Pressley said. “But telling them made me realize that I had to step away from the game that I love and I didn’t know when I’d come back.”

For Pressley, the days after her surgery were the hardest. She had two drains on either side of her chest that had to be changed twice a day. She felt trapped, like she was missing a part of herself.

But almost immediately, her mind returned to soccer. Despite the drains, Pressley’s pain levels were manageable. The game-changing news came several weeks later — she didn’t need chemotherapy.

If it had been necessary, Pressley insists that she would have kept training through chemo. But it would have been a grueling six-week process, one that hammers most patients with side effects like nausea and hair loss.

Instead, Pressley was cleared to return to soccer. The defender had already muscled her way back into training as soon as possible. Coach Marc Skinner joked she almost forced the issue initially — coming to training in her Pride kit weeks after surgery to watch from a bench alongside Alex Morgan.

Due to her powerful style of play, Skinner decided the defender needed to regain a particularly high level of athleticism before being released on the field. But the coach felt the impact of Pressley’s return immediately, her calming presence seeping into training even when she couldn’t run at full-speed.

At every training, Skinner checks in on Pressley, and every morning, he said she tells him the exact same thing — “I’m wonderful.”

“I would use the term unbreakable,” Skinner said. “There’s many ways that you can manufacture leadership, but when moments hit you, that’s real leadership. True leaders come back in those moments and show their true spirits.”

From the first day, Pressley knew that she could trust her team’s support. But what she didn’t expect was the response throughout the league.

First came the social media messages — from fans, former teammates and opponents, coaches and teams across the league. Then came the Pride’s first match without Pressley, during which the Chicago Red Stars debuted warm-up tops emblazoned with a pink ribbon and inscribed with Pressley’s initials.

Every ensuing opponent showed similar support, wrapping pink tape around their wrists and wearing pink tops over their jerseys. Watching from home, Pressley was overwhelmed by the gestures.

“We obviously have great players in this league, but we also have great human beings,” Pressley said. “It just makes me proud to be part of this league and call these people my friends and my peers and my colleagues. I’m forever in their debt.”

What came next surprised her even more — an online auction, spearheaded by Red Stars players Casey Short and Alyssa Naeher, to raise money for a breast cancer foundation of Pressley’s choice.

Pressley selected Libby’s Legacy, an organization that provides financial and emotional assistance to breast cancer patients. The foundation serves as a support network, taking patients to appointments and helping them pay for treatments.

The auction — which closes Thursday — includes signed memorabilia from every team in the league. On Wednesday, the bids totaled more than $30,000, which doesn’t include the funds raised by merchandise and ticket sales for the Pride’s game Saturday.

When she first announced her diagnosis, Pressley delivered a simple message on social media — “Please don’t feel sorry for me.”

Pressley welcomed the support she gained throughout the NWSL, but she didn’t want to be the object of pity. Even when she was scared and uncertain of the future, she felt lucky to be surrounded and supported by the sport she loves.

Now, as Pressley looks to tackle the next step of her journey and return to the pitch with the Pride, she knows this isn’t a sad story — it’s a story about finding strength.

“It taught me never to take things for granted,” Pressley said. “I was so close to having the one thing that I love taken away from me. I don’t want to leave a training session or a game feeling like I could have given more. I’m giving everything that I can in every moment, whether that’s soccer, a relationship, an interaction with someone, eating breakfast, anything. I’m doing everything to the best of my ability.”

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