Fifth year midfielder Ian Strain felt like a sledgehammer was hitting him in the chest when he woke up at 4 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2013.
He had gone home for winter break two days earlier after taking the last final of his first semester of college.
Before leaving Lehigh, he had caught pneumonia and thought nothing of it. He had no way of knowing it would end up affecting his heart rather than his lungs.
“I kind of heard the rumors about freshman year and how everyone gets really sick right away because it’s a new environment.” Strain said. “So, I thought, ‘You know what, tough it out. You’re going home in like two days. It’s not a big deal. Tough it out. Get through your exam. Maybe pass it. But just get home.’”
When he got home, he felt better.
Then, he had a heart attack.
Though Strain’s lacrosse career was uncertain, he never gave up on his dream. To him, it was a matter of when he’d be able to play again, not if.
“This was my life, not just lacrosse, sports,” Strain said. “Athletics and competition, that’s what drove me. As much as I care about academics, my passion and what drove me was sports, so I was going to get back no matter what. I wasn’t going to let (the heart condition) stop me.”
Strain’s dad took him to the hospital in his hometown of Springfield, Pennsylvania, and he was transported to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.
Strain was diagnosed with myocarditis, a form of heart failure that young adults rarely experience. He described it as a “freak accident.”
“At the time, I was 19,” Strain said. “By like 45 years, I was the youngest.”
His doctors caught his heart condition early enough that he didn’t need surgery but decided to monitor him in the heart failure unit for a week.
The day after Strain checked into the hospital, he asked his doctor if he would be able to participate in lacrosse practices when they resumed on Jan. 12. His doctor started crying as she broke the news that he may never be able to play again.
In a way, however, he was lucky.
“They said if I didn’t go to the hospital and stay the next day, I could’ve just died,” Strain said. “They said it could’ve happened in the middle of exercise, and my body wouldn’t have been able to catch up with it, and I would’ve collapsed.”
While the virus eventually ran its course, Strain was on six months of “hard shutdown” and had to monitor his heart rate so it didn’t jump over 100.
Before Strain came to Lehigh, coach Kevin Cassese said it was clear that he was a “relentless competitor.” Once he had his mind set on something, he didn’t stop until he achieved it.
In line with how he was raised to be tough and resilient, Strain made it his mission to learn everything he could about lacrosse and how to lead while not being able to play. So, he started shadowing captain and defender Ty Souders, ’14.
Despite observing, learning and growing on the sidelines, Strain said it was hard watching his freshman class grow stronger and closer.
“I watched them get so much better because they’re playing against some of the better guys in the league and in the country every day,” Strain said, “and I was kind of sitting there like, ‘I’m really missing out on this chance to grow and learn and kind of figure out that craftiness you need.’”
After he was cleared to return to full speed again, Strain spent the summer fighting to get back in shape.
The team’s first practice of the school year was a scrimmage. Strain described it as one of the better days in his college career.
“Everything felt normal again,” Strain said. “I was back to normal. It just felt right. It felt like I was back to my usual self. Competition and sports are just a huge part of my life that it almost directly impacts my mood and who I am as a person, so I just felt like I was happier being able to run around with the guys again.”
Junior attacker and midfielder Lucas Spence — who grew up alongside Strain — said he believes Strain found success after the injury because of his confidence and talent, his natural leadership abilities and athleticism, and his passion for the game.
“He loves having the opportunity to compete,” Spence said, “and I think because he missed a year and was almost forced to stop playing altogether, he realized how much he would miss this.”
Strain said his teammates ultimately helped him remain focused on his goal of playing again. They created the best culture he’s ever been part of and had his back every step of the way.
“Some people were like, ‘Is it worth it? Is it worth risking it?’ It absolutely is worth it,” Strain said. “That group of guys, the guys on the team, they’re why I do everything. If I can be out there for them, then it’s absolutely worth it.”
Looking back at his Lehigh lacrosse career, Strain said one of the memories that will stay with him forever is the team’s most recent Patriot League semifinals win against Navy when his career came full circle.
“My freshman year, we won in overtime to go to the Patriot League Championships,” Strain said, “and then, you know, my fifth year it happened as well.”
Spence — who scored the game-winning overtime goal in this year’s semifinals — said the game was special for Strain because it gave him another chance at postseason success, this time as a key player and not an injured observer.
Despite the early setback Strain faced, he became an example of how to lead the team and will leave Lehigh as a rare two-time captain of the program.
Cassese said Strain is one of the best leaders Lehigh men’s lacrosse has ever had.
“He represents the definition of the ‘Lehigh Lacrosse Man,’” Cassese said. “Leadership, loyalty, passion, selflessness, discipline, toughness. Those are words that come to mind when I think about Ian Strain.”