Every time the Olympics come around people gather to watch the extraordinary seem ordinary. Millions around the world watch as their respective countries search for gold. The Summer Olympics have it all yet there is only one sport I find myself willing to wake up at 4 am for: Women’s soccer.
Soccer and I have a complicated relationship. I always loved soccer. I loved talking about it, playing it, and watching it. I remember watching in awe of USWNT greats like Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy. Something about watching them play struck a chord with me. They were unabashedly competitive and aggressive. They were teams of women that were different from each other yet, on the field, they played as one. As a child, what stuck with me was the way it was common knowledge how much better they were than their male counterparts. It may be the only time in my memory that I recall announcers referring to a women’s sports team as The U.S. Team. Of course, there could be novels written about the unfair financial and opportunity disparities female soccer players were/are subjected to, but as a child I remember feeling inspired by the fact that these women were doing something men couldn’t and the world watched in awe.
Soccer and I continued to have a tumultuous relationship. I played through High School but my talent never quite matched my love for the sport. After school, I thought I found my sweet spot by coaching. The cliché seemed to ring true for me and where I couldn’t do I could certainly coach. Then I had family tragedy. I lost my baby cousin, the only person who I truly shared my passion for soccer with. Someone who didn’t just placate my obsession but also felt that fire. I made her watch World Cup games and coached her youth teams. I saw in her a potential for greatness further than I ever thought myself capable of and then I lost her and all those dreams with her. In the midst of my grief I lost my love for the game. I stopped playing, I stopped coaching, and eventually I stopped watching. Even when my own child played I couldn’t bring myself to fully enjoy it again. It felt too raw at first then as years went by it felt too awkward. Like an old friend you see in the grocery store and want so desperately to say hello but instead you hide in aisles avoiding them, I avoided soccer to avoid the pain.
Then something happened recently that brought the two of us back together. I was listening to a new podcast, We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle and the host spoke about the USWNT. The episode titled, “FUN: What the hell is it and why do we need it?” featured Doyle’s wife Abby Wambach (Pro USWNT player and two time Olympian). In the episode, Wambach asked Doyle why she liked watching the Women’s national soccer team and Doyle’s response triggered something in me. Doyle said, “Watching women use their bodies to compete instead of perform to the way they just try so hard and don’t give a shit what it looks like. They’re not trying to be pretty. They’re trying to be fierce, they’re sweating and, they’re doing it for themselves and for each other” (Doyle 29:00). Listening to Doyle felt like I had just turned the corner in the grocery store and accidently bumped into that old friend. Carts clashing and eye contact made. Here soccer was again and this time I could not avoid it.
Watching women compete and not perform inspired me to be more competitive and less performative in my own small ways growing up. I realized that was the true lesson I wanted to pass to my little cousin all those years ago, not how to be better soccer player but how to be truer and braver woman. In a world that has a lot to say about what a woman should be I wanted to show her and the USWNT did that. They showed the world what womanhood really looked like. I realized that there was honor in keeping that feeling alive in myself; I could honor my cousin by honoring that spark and passing it onto the next generation. A few weeks later the Olympics began and I found myself looking up statistics and following the players on social media till eventually I was up at 4 A.M. watching them play. When my little one cuddled up next to me wiping her eyes and watching in awe asking each player’s name, I realized soccer still had that spark. While soccer and I may never be the same, we had found our way.
It couldn’t be a better time either, women’s soccer has never been more popular. The players understand their importance and value, just read "American Girl" by Crystal Dunn or look into the off-field endeavors of stars like Christen Press or Megan Rapinoe; this USWNT shows up on and off the field for their country. Also, Women’s soccer in general is on the rise. Former stars are doing their part to create a sport that is better than when they left. Wambach, Foudy, and Hamm are all investors for the newest NWSL team Angel City FC which is majority owned by women who hope to restructure the way soccer is managed and how players are treated. Many former soccer stars are also finding their own in other avenues as announcers, board members, and activists. While this is not the USWNT’s year for gold (they will play for Bronze on Thursday), the future is bright for Women’s soccer in America and I will be watching no matter how early the game is.
You can catch USWNT games anywhere you find Tokyo Olympics coverage. We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle can be found on Apple Podcast, Audible, Spotify and more.
Autumn Andersen is an editor for Penumbra Online and grad student at CSU Stanislaus. She enjoys reading, writing, and talking about her favorite shows.