By Heather Nelson
In fifth grade I hung up my ballet slippers (and tap shoes) to pursue other things. I knew I liked sports, but I had never played an “actual” sport.
I figured my short stature wasn’t ideal for basketball. (I may not have been fully grown, but it was no secret that I’d never dunk a basketball.) Swimming terrified me. Volleyball hurt my arms — I tried out for team, and despite making a club team, I declined. I struck out a lot in softball — and was forever sentenced to right field. Fear kept me from pursuing my gymnast dreams, and ice skating was too expensive. It seemed the only option that remained: soccer.
My parents signed me up for a recreational league, and the rest is history. In 2003, I didn’t pay attention to soccer on TV, but women’s national team finished third in the World Cup. A follow-up of their World Cup win in 1999. Legends like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain graced the team. I had no idea their brilliance.
My first soccer coach was a mere parent, but he wanted the team to understand the game, to learn, and to be in shape. I remember running so many laps around the soccer fields thinking, “What did I get myself into?” Coach Dave, that was his name, had an appreciation for the sport. And he was always cool, calm, collected. (Especially, when, in my first game, I whacked a ball out of the air from midfield fearing it would hit my face. *Handball!* I cried.)
My dad — whose Far Far (grandpa in Danish) used to yell at the TV while watching soccer — gained interest in the sport. My brother started playing around the same time that I did, and my dad wanted to learn about the sport we’d taken up. Sunday mornings became English Premier League Sundays. He watched Manchester United, and later, so did I.
I think that Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portuguese beauty hypnotized me into cheering for the Red Devils. Manchester United quickly became my favorite team, and it worked out well because my team, “Storm,” wore red, too. My dad later switched allegiances to Chelsea, which made for a fun 2008 Champions League final. (Since, Ronaldo’s departure, I’ve become a Liverpool fan. It only made sense with the Red Sox owners taking ownership of the football club.)
Unfortunately, I wasn’t born a talented soccer player, and I didn’t have enough drive to work at it either. (I one time tried ‘the Maradona’ in a game and fell.) Mediocrity was OK for me in soccer probably because I always had this fear of getting hurt. (Oh, hi, anxiety.) I never wanted to stop learning about the game, though. The women’s national soccer team fascinated me, and it wasn’t just because there were two Heathers on the squad. I rose early to watch every USA Women’s World Cup match in 2007. Another third place finish. Pictures of the athletes from the women’s team graced my school binders. I fashioned my hair like theirs. (Ponytail braids, anyone?)
Until recently, a poster of David Beckham and Ronaldo hung in my room at my parents’ house. I still have them stored away for my future apartment. They were my idols. I sometimes joke that I’ll move to Europe so my kids can be immersed in the sport of soccer because I wasn’t fortunate enough to breathe it in at a young age. My younger siblings have and are far better players than I ever was. (I admit, Dylan and Josie.)
I played soccer for 10 years in a league. Although I was never a superstar, I learned things about myself that I couldn’t have had I not played. I learned about endurance. Patience. (Maybe, I was sent to the penalty box once for shoving during an indoor game.) Sure, I was called a ‘commie’ by a few neighbor boys, but it never bothered me. I learned about different cultures (and consumed different cultures) by watching soccer. See: Copa America Centenario, European tournament, World Cup….
Those Premier League Sundays have carried on. I’m always adding favorite players to my list (Jamie Vardy). I’m a huge fan of England’s national team — and could care less about the MLS… (I’m weird, I know.) But, most of all, I gained an appreciation for the world’s game.