The late afternoon sun beat down on my back—it was hotter than one might expect for June in Minnesota, where I was spending the summer as a visiting scholar at St. Olaf College. Sweat soaked through the back of my shirt as I walked into the cool, dimly lit sports bar. My colleagues were going out for dinner later, but my priorities led me here, to the Ruebe ‘n’ Stein, in search of cable television and fried cheese curds. Settling onto a bar stool, I perused the menu, knowing full well I’d get my usual order of the local delicacy, and asked the bartender to switch one of the televisions to Fox Sports 1. Familiar with my request by this point in the summer, he smiled, obliged, and switched the channel, and I settled in to enjoy a pint and watch a Women’s World Cup match.
The crowd—if you could even call it that—would be sparse. Sooner or later some guy would sit next to me and ask who was playing. He would look confused when I said it was the World Cup (“I thought that was last summer,” he might say, referring unwittingly to the men’s tournament) and then begin pontificating about the results of the previous matches.
“I heard we looked pretty bad against Canada,” he would say.
“We didn’t play Canada.” I’d keep my eyes on the TV, and he’d slink off to another part of the bar.
One of my most bittersweet memories of high school is waking up at four in the morning with my sister and one of our teammates to watch the men’s national team play in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. We had dared to hope that US soccer—men’s US soccer—was finally coming into its own. Hours later, over eggs, hash browns, and bad coffee at Steak N’ Shake, we commiserated about our false hopes. Germany was the stronger team, going on to beat South Korea in the semifinals before losing to Brazil in the end. The US men’s team was a disappointment yet again.
The men I met in bars during the 2015 Women’s World Cup rarely stuck around to watch the ferocious grace and electricity of a team that puts the disappointing male squad to shame. But their ignorance isn’t unfamiliar. I have close male friends who have argued that women’s soccer is less entertaining than men’s. And a recent lawsuit put forth by the female World Cup players reveals that the US men’s team is paid more to show up (and lose) than the women’s team is paid to win world championships and Olympic medals. The last women’s World Cup was played on artificial turf, which is more dangerous and more difficult to play on and would never be considered for the men’s World Cup. In these ways, and others, I have been shown time and again that women’s achievements and skills are worth less than men’s. I live with the daily frustration of hearing men belittle women who could clearly kick their asses, on or off the pitch.
These feelings, often submerged, bubbled to the surface after my many evenings at the Ruebe ‘n’ Stein were rewarded with a US women’s victory in the 2015 World Cup. I spent hours in front of the television watching the city of New York celebrate this astonishing group of women athletes with a ticker-tape parade. I’m not usually much for parades, but that July day I sat alone and cried, because when I can’t find the words for my feelings, they come out of my eyes in liquid form. A week later, I met up with my sister, and between us we tried to collect all thirteen unique Sports Illustrated covers of the US women’s national team. We are thirteen going on thirty-something, both of us, as in love with women’s soccer as when we were children, watching Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy show us a different way of being girls. After Carli Lloyd scored a hat trick in the 2015 World Cup final, I thought that finally perhaps we could all agree that women are capable of not merely doing anything men can do, but sometimes doing even more.
I became a feminist the moment Brandi Chastain ripped her shirt off after her World Cup–winning goal in 1999. When I watched that ’99 team win, I felt like I could do anything. Before the 2002 men’s quarterfinal game, my friends and I naively imagined that the US men’s team might be triumphant, but after the 1999 victory, I dared to imagine embodying my own dreams.
Seeing women succeed in sport means something different to me than seeing women succeed elsewhere. In my own life and work, women’s bodies are distrusted, hidden, or openly criticized. There is a sense that we do well in spite of these bodies, as if we’re trapped in them, as if we must overcome our breasts, our vaginas, our flawed minds that are clouded by emotion. We successfully downplay our bodies or strategically play them up in certain, limited ways. One way or another, the body must be managed if we are to reach our goals, and so it comes to feel like a burden, an entrapment; our body is bifurcated from our true selves. But in sports, the body is not a burden. The body is a gift. The body is vital. In sports, I see women’s limits and capabilities, our strength and weakness, together. We are whole.
When I watch the US women’s national team play, I watch women whose every movement is the result of training, habit, practice. Their bodies are prepared for this, their instincts carefully honed. They play smart, but they don’t overthink, not in the heat of the game. There is strategy, yes; there is intelligence in the way they play this beautiful game, but that intelligence has been written on each muscle and ligament over the months and years that lead to this moment. In the game, there is only the body, responding. The body running. The body passing, dribbling, defending. The body scoring. The body—these women’s bodies—winning.
I was never a great soccer player, but I remember this: I remember not knowing or caring what was going on in the rest of my life when I stepped onto the pitch. I remember standing at the edge of the box, as a goalkeeper, when the action was at the opposite end of the field, watching every movement, my muscles tense and ready. I was ready, always ready, because I never knew when the game might shift. I was the last line of defense.
A finesse keeper, my sister called me. She is 5’9”, and I am 5’2”. She scored the goals; I stopped them. I was too short to be a goalkeeper, but that, Holly said, is why I’d learned to play smart. Compensation. Knowing every inch of the goal area, knowing my body and the angles it created as I moved, knowing how to cut off an opposing player’s shot before they had a chance to take it—this body, so small, in the right place, could beat you. I memorized the field with my body. I learned to fly.
At goalkeeper camp the summer I was sixteen, Carl, a goalkeeper from our local minor league team, taught me to dive. I was a decent keeper before that summer, but when I tried to dive, I fell like a tree, and that downward trajectory limited how far I could reach. I hadn’t practice diving—how do you practice throwing yourself at the ground? Someone makes you.
Carl would set up an orange cone. I would stand about three feet to one side of the cone and he would lob the ball to the other, forcing me to dive up, over, to stretch. I missed, mostly. I fell, hard. Waking up for day two of that camp is still the sorest I ever remember my body feeling. I stared at my sister’s top bunk bed above me, convinced I couldn’t actually move, every muscle protesting. But I got up. My mom made breakfast and drove me across town for another day of camp. My body loosened, the way that a sixteen-year-old’s body can, and I went back for more. I wanted to go back for more.
I learned to set up a wall. Standing at the goal post while Carl timed me, I shouted orders at the other players—I, who never shouted, told people what to do, force in my voice, small but strong—and I shuffled back into position before my time was up, and Carl took a shot into the upper ninety. I was too slow. I needed to do better, to be faster.
This was during the time that Major League Soccer was pioneering a (now abandoned) new approach to penalties: a one-on-one challenge in which the keeper was allowed to move off the goal line to challenge the dribbling striker. This too we practiced. Over and over I had to choose whether and when to hold my line, whether to challenge, to cut the player off, and to spoil the shot, my petite body made large as I sprinted and slid. I learned not to think about getting kicked in the face. I learned to only think about getting my hands on that ball, the satisfaction of both gloves firmly gripping the polyurethane surface as a disappointed striker hopped to the side to avoid kicking me.
And every day, I dove again. And again. And again, stretching across the sky, my body slamming into the manicured grass on the way back down. I was soaring now, but something else had changed. I didn’t fear the fall. I knew it was coming, I knew it might hurt even though I was also learning to fall better, softer, but my body no longer feared the ground. I watched Carl, his eyes, his foot as it struck the ball, and I leapt, stretching my petite frame to the limits of its height, getting a finger, a palm, or maybe two hands firmly on the ball before gravity took over and reminded me that a girl may learn to fly, but she will always come back down.
I came to trust my body. And I wonder now how I lost that trust as I grew up, as I became a woman and my body came to mean other things. As I learned to think too much, to move more carefully, more gingerly, no longer launching myself into the sky, I came to know the consequences of a woman’s body, and my wings were clipped.
And so 2015 was like a time machine. Watching the women’s World Cup team, I remembered all of this. I felt it again in my flesh and blood, the knowledge that my body is not my enemy but my teammate, that the falls are hard, the earth not kind, but that I can learn the angles still. I can play to my strengths. I can stretch from 5’2” to something more and reach, reach, reach. I can get a finger on the ball, a palm, sometimes both hands grasping what I want, what I hunger for, and I can win as well as lose. I can hit the ground and get back up the next day, staring at the ceiling and believing I can’t, and I can roll over and prove to myself that I can.
My body aches with hunger. And as I watched these women play, appetites denied and suppressed began to rumble inside me again. The self-doubt and denial that have characterized so much of my adult life came to the surface, like bad habits to be left behind during training.
“Always be ruthless with your own work,” an index card on my desk reads. I no longer play soccer. I no longer dream of being those women I watch on TV. I no longer fly in front of the goal. But I have other desires, other dreams, other hungers. My body wants things, still. For too long I have lived in a world where wanting anything, in this body with its curves, its softness, its danger, where wanting anything felt like wanting too much. I was grounded; I grounded myself.
When I watched Carli Lloyd hoist the World Cup trophy into the air last year, I cried because in some place in my gut I knew that it is worth every fall, every bruise, every failure, to get a single moment like that. To grasp the thing you want, to lift it above your head and raise your voice high and higher above the noise of the crowd, to roar. To succeed instead of watching men succeed.
I watched her, and I thought not just about everything I want but about the joy of desire fulfilled, about flying so high you might never come back down.