Soccer and skeleton don’t have a lot in common. Ok…they don’t have ANYTHING in common. For starters, one is played on grass, the other done on ice. One is a team sport, one is strictly individual. One competition is 90 minutes long, while the other is completed in well under 90 seconds. But without soccer, I wouldn’t be a skeleton slider. Without soccer, I probably wouldn’t even be an athlete.
Plenty of athletes can tell you when they first were bitten by the competitive bug, or when they had the first dream of standing on an Olympic podium. They’ll name their favorite athlete, the athlete they most looked up to as a child. They probably have a vivid memory of a certain game, tournament, race or bout that they will immediately describe in detail. Maybe their moment came when their idol put their arm around them for a picture, or signed a piece of clothing for them.
I was 11 when mine hit.
It was the summer of 1999, and my family and I were watching history being made as the US Women’s Soccer Team was about to take on China in penalty kicks after 120 minutes of exciting soccer. I didn’t know much about soccer then, but I was swept up in the emotions streaming from the television set, and from the nervous anticipation of my family around me.
I remember squatting, rocking back and forth with my hands still clenched as Brandi Chastain stepped up to take the final kick. Someone, my brother probably, told me that if she made the kick, the US would win. I remember the building tension, the nation-wide intake of breath as Chastain approached the ball, and then…
Well, there was lot of screaming , and running, and jumping up and down. Not from the team (though they were doing it too), but from me. I don’t remember even watching the soccer players celebrate on TV, as I was too busy proving my lungs still worked. Little did I know, I had just opened the door to a passion that would consume me for years to come. Those “Girls of Summer,” who showed the country and the world what teamwork is all about are who shaped me into who I am today.
Go ahead and laugh. Raise your eyebrows. You’ll probably say, “Really? You don’t even know them. Man, you really ARE obsessed”. Trust me when I say, I’ve heard it all before.
But to understand what I mean when I say they’ve shaped me, I’ll share with you what I’ve internalized since that boiling hot July 10, 1999. From a purely athletic standpoint, that was the day I decided that I wanted that. I wanted to be a part of a team standing on top of a podium. I wanted to have a medal draped around my neck and lift a trophy above my head. I saw what they had: 90,000+ fans in the Rose Bowl screaming, confetti cannons exploding, signs with their names on them, posters, medals around their necks, and I wanted it too.
It’s 14 years later, and I’m an elite-level athlete about to compete in my first Olympic season, albeit in a sport that is about as far from soccer as it is possible to be, and certainly not in a team sport like I envisioned. I’m chasing my own Olympic Dream, but I can confidently say that without the presence of the USWNT in my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They (past and present players) epitomize hard world, perseverance, never-say-die attitudes, passion and leadership. They are the ones I’ve looked up to since childhood.
My sophomore year of high school, I was brought up to play on the varsity soccer team, despite only having one year of soccer experience. I had learned to play soccer from watching the USWNT, reading their books, and trying out their tips on my own, and now I was playing at the varsity level. I was terrified. Excited, but terrified. My coach knew very well that I had no experience, but he saw the passion I had for the game, and he utilized it. During the quarterfinal game of the California Southern Section state tournament, I remember being substituted in towards the end of regulation. It was cold: so cold that the host school had set up electric heaters by the benches, and parents and players alike huddled under piles of blankets. I was nervous, as it was one of the first major games I had ever played in.
Before I went into the match, my coach took me aside, lightly hit the top of my head with his clipboard and said, so only I could hear him: “You go out there and you play like you’re playing for the US women. You’re in a World Cup match and you have to help your team. You can do it.” I’ve never been able to figure out what exactly made him say that to me. But I remember how I swelled with pride at his trust, and how the nervousness disappeared as soon as he told me to pretend I was on the US team. I used those women as my model, and we went on to win the game and have the most successful tournament in 14 years.
When my athletic endeavors took me beyond soccer, there the USWNT was still. As a track and field athlete, I’ve run thousands of repetition sprints. I’ve run so many stairs in off-season workouts that I probably could have run to the moon. When those workouts got almost too tough to bear, I would remember reading about how Carla Overbeck and Joy Fawcett came back to the team after having birth. Fawcett would set up cones in the parking lot of her house after her daughters had gone to bed and run sprint drills. If THEY could do it two weeks after having a baby, I could do it (not having the baby part…that’ll wait a few years).
Subtly, almost unconsciously, the USWNT acted as my teammates, even as I progressed to different sports. Though I never went to more than one soccer camp in my childhood, I felt like I knew a little of the US player’s work ethics, and I tried to mimic it. Every time the USWNT came from behind in a game to win it, there was always a moment in the game where one can almost see the players steel themselves to push harder. I felt compelled to that in my own training. If I could just train as hard as they do, and push through the times when it felt like the game was up, I could overtake my competition. That’s what I told myself.
Even in matters of politics and ethics, I admire them. I was so taken by the announcement of 18 National Women’s Soccer Players committing themselves as Pro Ambassadors for Athlete Ally, particularly by Megan Rapinoe’s quote on her page, that I contacted the group and became part of it too. Julie Foudy’s work with the Women’s Sports Foundation, ESPNW, and other organizations dedicated to getting women involved in sports is so awe-inspiring. She is such a strong leader and such a positive presence, and that’s what I want part of my legacy to be: helping to improve the lives of girls and women through sports.
If I ever do make it to the Olympic Games, whether it be in 2014, 2018, or even 2022, I’ll owe much of that success to the USWNT. If I don’t, I still have the US Women’s Soccer Team to thank for shaping me into the athlete and the woman I am today. And better role models I could not ask for!
For more on the US Women’s Soccer Team, visit US Soccer’s website.
For more on Athlete Ally, visit www.athleteally.org