Heaston Sisters Turn Success at Willamette into Successful Careers

By Katie Huber '13, Writer

SALEM, ORE. -- When the Bearcat women’s soccer team won its Oct. 18, 1997 game against Linfield College, Liz Heaston Thompson ’99 couldn’t stick around to celebrate — she had a football game to play.

Three weeks earlier, Willamette’s head football coach had asked Liz to be a backup for his injured kicker. And now, as she rushed from the soccer field to her family van, she was on her way to becoming the first woman to play and score in a college football game.

“I quickly changed from one uniform to the other on the way to the football field,” Liz says. “My dad drove up to the gate, I jumped out of the van and I jogged onto the field as my whole family yelled words of encouragement.”

Karen Heaston Helms ’02 remembers watching as her older sister joined the football team, and then the history-making moment when Liz successfully kicked an extra point.

“Liz has this gumption and passion, and she’s not one to ever turn down a challenge,” Karen says. “You don’t find that very often, and I’m thankful to have that in a sister.”

Though Karen supported Liz from the stands that day, throughout most of their lives the sisters have worked side-by-side by playing soccer for Willamette, majoring in biology and attending Pacific University’s Optometry School. Today, they are optometrists at their family practice, Heaston & Thompson Vision Clinic in Richland, Wash.

“We have very different personalities, so it’s funny that we ended up doing the exact same thing,” Karen says. “But that’s where we complement each other. My sister is one of my best friends, and I wouldn’t change anything.”

Athletic Excellence

When Karen began her college search, she didn’t plan to attend the same school as her older sister.

“I was originally looking to play Division I, but the caliber of the soccer team and the science program attracted me to Willamette,” Karen says. “I knew I wanted to be both a student and an athlete.”

Jim Tursi, the head women’s soccer coach at the time, admits he was nervous about having two sisters play on the same team.

“Karen was very level-headed and quiet, and Liz was very outgoing,” he says. “They both played defense and it could have been a disaster, but their closeness made it work.”

With Liz beginning her senior year and Karen coming in as freshman, the sisters only had one season to play together — but they made the most of it.

The dynamic duo led the 1998 Bearcat soccer team to the NCAA Division III Final Four in Willamette's first season as a member of the NCAA, setting a school record with 23 consecutive wins or ties. To commemorate their season, the 1998 squad was inducted into Willamette University’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011.

The 1998 season capped off Liz’s soccer career at Willamette, during which she helped her team capture four conference titles. She earned NAIA Honorable Mention All-American honors in 1996 and 1997.

Though Karen went on to a successful soccer career of her own — earning First Team All-Conference, First Team All-Region and Second Team All-American honors during her senior year — she says playing with her sister was the highlight.

“I knew where she was going to be, she knew where I was going to be and we really had each other’s backs,” Karen says. “The season after Liz graduated, I can remember playing the first two games and feeling like I didn’t have my right arm attached to my body.”

Support Systems

At Willamette, the sisters had each other — but they also found a wide network of supportive professors, coaches and teammates.

“I really got to know my professors, and many of them came to my games,” Karen says. “They would be able to ask me on Monday, ‘Wow you took a hard hit, how are you doing?’ You don’t get that at bigger schools.”

Both sisters excelled in the liberal arts environment, where they could pursue an intensive pre-medical track while playing the sport they loved.

“At Willamette, you were a student first,” Karen says. “My science labs sometimes overlapped with practice, but my coaches understood and always made it work.”

In addition to their rigorous academic and athletic schedules, both of the Heastons participated in a variety of campus activities — playing intramural basketball, working as teaching assistants in the biology department and joining the same sorority, Alpha Chi Omega. Karen also co-founded Willamette’s pre-veterinary club and volunteered regularly at local veterinary clinics.

Liz says the time management and interpersonal skills she gained as a student athlete prepared her for life after graduation.

“Most of the time, college is all about you and your education,” she says. “But to be on a sports team and survive in that environment, you have to learn to work with other people.”

Family Practice

After graduating from Willamette, Liz enrolled in Pacific University’s Optometry School. And once again, Karen followed a few years later.

Today the sisters work with their father and Liz’s husband at Heaston & Thompson Vision Clinic, combining their passion for patient care with the business aspects of their private practice.

“I get to work with interesting people and really change how kids do in school, which is definitely rewarding,” Liz says. “We can actually train visual systems to be more efficient and make learning easier.”

When working with sports vision patients, Karen says she sees the same drive and focus that helped her find career success.

“Being an athlete changes you, as your physical side and emotional side are pushed to the limits,” she says. “I learned everything I needed to know in life on the soccer field, and I loved every minute of it.”

Karen Heaston Helms '02 (left) and Liz Heaston Thompson '99 (right) both played soccer at Willamette. They are optometrists at Heaston & Thompson Vision Clinic in Richland, Wash.

Karen Heaston Helms '02 (left) and Liz Heaston Thompson '99 (right) both played soccer at Willamette. They are optometrists at Heaston & Thompson Vision Clinic in Richland, Wash.

Liz Heaston Thompson was named Honorable Mention All-America twice in soccer and was the first woman to play and score in a college football game.

Liz Heaston Thompson was named Honorable Mention All-America twice in soccer and was the first woman to play and score in a college football game.

Karen Heaston Helms was a freshman at WU during her sister's senior year. Karen was chosen Second Team All-America in 2001.

Karen Heaston Helms was a freshman at WU during her sister's senior year. Karen was chosen Second Team All-America in 2001.