Ryley Bugay never thought she could pursue two dreams at once—playing soccer at the highest level while going to medical school. As soon as the spring semester ended at Indiana University School of Medicine-Evansville, Bugay hopped on a plane to join the Philippines Women’s National Football Team in training for the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“My younger self would never have believed it,” said Bugay, a Filipina American from West Lafayette, Indiana.
She was named MVP for William Henry Harrison High School before receiving athletic and academic scholarships to Marquette University in Wisconsin, where she was part of the 2016 Big East Championship team that made it to the NCAA Tournament.
Bugay was recruited by the Filipinas in 2018 while she was still in college. Now she is a member of the first-ever Philippines women’s team to make it to the World Cup. The national team’s first game will be on July 21 in New Zealand.
“We qualified in India in February 2022, and I was a part of that group,” said Bugay, a defender. “After the game was over, my teammates and I were in tears at how far we’ve progressed as a team and as a country. That moment was very surreal. I still think, ‘pinch me.’”
The timing couldn’t have been better for Bugay, who realizes her stint as a professional soccer player will likely soon end. It’s difficult to simultaneously train as an elite athlete and a future physician. Thankfully, the World Cup falls over summer break for medical school.
Rather than doing a summer research project like many of her peers, Bugay will be working on team cohesion in a culturally diverse environment as she strives for personal and collective excellence—all critical skills for a future physician.
“Athletes tend to bring leadership and tenacity to medical school, and Ryley is no exception,” said Jamie Henderlong, Bugay’s lead advisor on the Evansville campus. “She simultaneously manages a rigorous training schedule for soccer and the expectations of IU School of Medicine with ease, always being present and engaged in her courses.”
While the Filipinas have been hot—making it to the semifinals of the Asian Cup and winning the AFF Championship in 2022—they are the underdogs going into the World Cup, ranked 49th on the international stage. They’re set to match up against Switzerland and New Zealand—both ranked in the 20s—and Norway, a top contender currently ranked No. 12.
“The culture of the Philippines has a lot of heart to it, and that transcends into our team culture,” Bugay said. “Even if we’re not the best team or the most talented, we give our heart and soul on the field.”
Journey from athlete to MD
Bugay’s interest in medicine stems from her more painful experiences in sports.
“I’ve had many, many surgeries,” she said. “Unfortunately, that comes with playing a contact sport.”
The first was a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her knee in high school.
“I remember the surgeon showing me models of the ACL and how it gets torn and then seeing the MRI with a blip on the ACL in the image,” Bugay recalled. “I just remember being so fascinated by that.”
She would have four more surgeries over the next few years, affording her several opportunities to interact with orthopedic surgeons and other physicians.
“I would love to give back to someone what was given to me,” she said. “For me it was the ability to play soccer again, but it might be something different for someone else.”
Bugay also has a connection to medicine through her maternal grandfather, the family patriarch who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 1954 to complete his medical training. He was a urologist practicing in a small town in Maine until age 70.
“One of the first thoughts that crossed my mind upon her acceptance into medical school was how tickled her grandfather would have been to see her reach her goal,” said Bugay’s mother, Terri.
Bugay’s grandpa never pushed her toward a career in medicine but was a strong supporter when she announced her goal.
“I remember him telling me, ‘You can do it. The first year is the hardest, but push through,’” she recalled.
Now Bugay has completed her first year of medical school. What her grandfather never imagined was that she would be representing his home country in the World Cup the same year.
“We are very touched that she is able to represent the Philippines as part of the women’s national soccer team,” Terri said. “Having many relatives in the Philippines, this gives her an opportunity to connect with her extended Filipino family.”
Being in medical school in Indiana has limited Bugay’s ability to join the Philippines team during training windows. Thankfully, she has been supported by both her soccer coaches and her medical program administrators, who allowed flexibility in scheduling.
“Ryley has gained the respect of faculty, staff and her peers,” said Steven Becker, MD, associate dean and director of IU School of Medicine-Evansville. “She possesses strong leadership skills and inherently became an important part of the teams that she has been working with during her time in medical school.”
Bugay admits time management has been challenging.
“The rate you are expected to learn in medical school and the time commitment outside of class sometimes doesn’t align with the athlete side of training and needing proper sleep and nutrition and lowering stress,” she said. “I’ve had to be very disciplined with myself and plan ahead.”
No one in her family is surprised to see her do it.
“I would describe Ryley’s personality as quiet fortitude,” Terri said. “She is not flamboyant in her approach to school or soccer. Ryley puts in the work without complaint and with a disciplined approach that matches no other.”
Excellence on both fields
Second in birth order of four athletic siblings, Bugay was first coached by her dad, Dave Bugay. Terri and Dave often joke about who contributed more to their children’s athleticism and intellect. Terri was a three-sport varsity high school athlete, while Dave was an accomplished rugby player at the international level.
Bugay and her siblings played many sports but eventually zeroed in on soccer. Her older brother, Chris, played professionally in Germany while younger brother Kyle was an accomplished goalkeeper at University of Illinois Springfield and younger sister Sammi followed in Bugay’s footsteps to play at Marquette.
“My siblings and I are very close, and they are an essential part of who I am today as a person and a player,” Bugay said. “When we were younger, we found ourselves always training together.”
Sammi said she’s not surprised to see her older sister playing on soccer’s biggest stage.
“Ever since we were little, I always wanted to be like Ryley, copying everything from the clothes she would wear to the things she was into and even her handwriting,” Sammi said. “Now that we are older, she inspires me in other ways. Her work ethic is one of the things I admire most. In everything she does, she gives 110%. It’s because of this she succeeds in so many areas of her life. She is super disciplined, detail oriented, committed and will do whatever it takes.”
Following Chris’ lead, Bugay started her pro career overseas with FC Saarbrucken. However, the siblings’ time in Germany barely overlapped before Chris retired to pursue a degree in engineering.
“At first, it was uncomfortable being thrown into a foreign country and into an environment where I was pushed to the limit,” Bugay said. “But being uncomfortable has become sort of a norm for me now. I think having that experience will play a huge role when I become a physician.”
Bugay played in Germany eight months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sending her back home. She had taken the MCAT medical entrance exam after graduating from Marquette but decided to pursue her soccer career first. Not one to embrace idle time, Bugay used the COVID lockdown as an opportunity to study for an improved MCAT score.
She was already playing with the Philippines national team when she learned she had been admitted to IU School of Medicine. Becker and Henderlong wholeheartedly supported Bugay’s simultaneous pursuit of a medical education while playing soccer on the world’s grandest stage.
“Ryley’s experience playing on a team translates well to medicine—she easily connects with her classmates, as well as faculty and staff,” said Henderlong. “What’s even more amazing about her is that she makes it look easy. We are all really proud of her and excited to cheer her on this summer, even if that means waking up in the middle of the night to watch the games live from New Zealand!”