To Infinity and Beyond!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

This article originally appeared on The Player's Tribune.

I was mystified when my fifth grade teacher explained the concept of “infinity” to the class.

Imagine moving from point A to point B, but you are only allowed to go half the distance at a time. When you arrive at the first halfway point, you must stop and recalculate the new half point … and on and on and on. You will never arrive at B, because as you move closer to your target, you see how many halfway points there are between you and your target: an infinite number.

Wait, what?

How could there be a destination that you are approaching, but that seems to keep getting farther away?

The concept of achieving greatness reminds me of my elementary school math lesson on infinity. What is greatness, anyway? This alluring, ever-distant word both taunts and inspires athletes.

I have a weakness. I never feel like I’m good enough.

I’ve set tangible goals throughout my career. And I have attained a lot of them. Still, I’m sure that achieving will never satisfy my hunger to achieve.
Last month, Clint Bruce -- former NFL quarterback and Navy Seal Commander -- spoke to the USWNT about what he calls “pursuing elite.” Among the tokens of wisdom and experience he offered, one thing really hit home for me. “Elite is this land that is fit only for the restless,” he told us.

While I don’t know if I exist in the land of the elite, I’m definitely on the battlefield with restlessness. My restlessness leaves my mind racing as I try to wind down at the end of mandatory recovery day. It keeps me tossing after poor performances. And if I played well, well…playing well makes me itch to play better; there is always room for improvement. This process can be exhausting.

I have a strength. I never feel like I’m good enough.

That same discontentment that gets my mind spinning at night puts a spring in my step the next day when our assistant coach Tony screams, “MAX SPRINTS!” during practice. This restless energy ignites my spirit to push forward. The past is not just an indicator of where I was yesterday, but it is also a launching pad for tomorrow.

People often tell me before games to “be great” -- as if it is a choice I can make. Is it possible to choose greatness? If it were, I’m pretty sure most of us would choose it. Is greatness only available to a select group? Perhaps, but maybe not for the reasons I used to think.

By definition, greatness is a state of superiority: that is, being better than all others. But Clint’s speech has me rethinking this idea. As I listened to him, I realized that “elite” doesn’t mean greatness itself -- but the unwavering pursuit of greatness. That thought is as scary as it is much is in my control?

When speaking about his early days training to be a Seal, Clint said that he realized he was average. “There were a bunch of Olympic athletes and then there was me.” To make it, he needed angles, allies, and advantages to keep up with the people around him. Anyone can pursue greatness. It is not a club open only to the gifted or lucky. You simply have to train to get better and never give up; checking over your shoulder only to make sure you are not where you started. Clint’s advantage was his unremitting pursuit.

I got my first call-up to the USWNT in April of 2012. Before I could exhale in relief – I had made it – I realized this was just the beginning. The USWNT isn’t a place where you celebrate, put down roots, or relax. It isn’t a place at all. Being on this team is an honor as well as a responsibility to my country and myself. Maybe it is another halfway point on the line to greatness: because as long as you can look forward you haven’t arrived. What I do with this opportunity remains to be seen, but I know my success and my team’s success depends on that forward motion.

While greatness may always be viewed as a comparison to the outside world: good, better, best; inside, I know what really matters is the relentless fight for progress. Which means it’s only good when I demand better after I’ve done my best. Striving for personal excellence in this way can be like chasing infinity, which is often frustrating. But striving for team greatness is a bit different. Pushing myself is pushing the game and that is the best thing I can do for my team and my sport.  As we push ourselves we push each other, raising the average. Rising and falling as a team is ultimately more comfortable and shared success is more gratifying.

For the world at large, there is a constant demand to know who or what is the greatest, the best in everything. In soccer, we take measurements in the form of matches every weekend. There are numerous titles to be won. But the end-all, be-all measuring stick will always be the World Cup. Winning the World Cup is that tangible goal that keeps me motivated. But I have to wonder: is a World Cup victory my one and only shot at greatness? It is the pinnacle of football, the reward for a lifetime of work … or is it just another point on the progress line? It’s the one objective that forces me to put my individual goals aside, for the time being, and focus on something much, much bigger than myself. The fact that the opportunity only comes around every four years makes it that much more special. It takes the entire team to win a World Cup, a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Or rather, a team made up of individuals in pursuit of greatness.

Maybe teams can achieve the kind of greatness that eminently eludes the individual. The World Cup Championship freezes time. The winning team’s name and country are recorded in history and maybe that moment when the trophy is hoisted and medal is placed around your neck is as tangible as greatness will ever get.

In a math class long after my Lunada Bay Elementary School graduation, I learned that for all intents and purposes, the concept of infinity is not functional. So instead of trying to reach infinity, mathematicians describe what the value is approaching: a limit. With limits, the end point becomes irrelevant and the focus falls on the direction you are moving.

The World Cup is the limit. And we’re moving forward.

Ny Tid Ny Strid

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

These words come from one of the wisest and best footballers I’ve ever played alongside. Lisa Ek was my teammate in 2012 for Kopparberg’s Gothenburg FC. I have loosely translated this from her Swedish blog.

When I was six years old, I said that I would become a professional soccer player in Italy and play for the Swedish national team. My dream to be on the national team has brought out the best in me in many ways. I've been training like a madman, I have always been motivated and I have fought my way back from five years of injuries with rehabilitation. I have given everything for the team I've played for, partially for selfish reasons-- because I know that if the team feels good and is good, I have a greater chance of success. I have been traveling all over the world and won matches with players who have been like a second family to me. In the 26 years of my career I have truly lived because I have chased my dream. I have met people. Oh what people! The finest and the best people you could wish for. People who have been a part of my everyday life, and who are still a big part of my life. And for that life, I thank the dream.

With the dream has come demands on myself. I never thought of it as a requirement, it just felt natural to run additional sprints every preseason, to train my eyes by watching my thumb, to do mobility exercises for two hours every day to optimize performance, to rehab many hours a day during the five years that I was injured, to analyze all my matches and to constantly search for new ways and new research that could optimize my performance. I have loved the journey. I have loved to optimize but for awhile I have had an insight that I cannot ignore.

I can not take more. I have done everything to reach the national team. And then I did a bit more… but life decided otherwise. I was not destined to reach all the way. It was the journey that was the goal, and my task was to demonstrate the benefit of daring to dream.

I made a last effort last fall. The year before I had been injured and away from football for a year and a half. I went into the venture aware that I could not afford to miss a single workout. Shortly thereafter I injured my hip and could not take a stride for 10 weeks. My body gave up. Once again I had to fight myself back just to keep afloat, not to progress. When my other teammates were lifting weights, I worked hard just to be able to lift my own body…just as I had done previously, for the five years that I worked hard rehabing, far from the football field. The only difference was that this time I lost the urge.

I can no longer double work… To do extra to keep me afloat and then the extra premium to optimize. I can not chase performance anymore. Now I just want to play. And people are playing in other places.

I have always believed that the most courageous thing to do is to follow your dream. I never thought that it required even more courage to let go of a dream and let another take over. To look at yourself in the mirror and say "damn good job! You did everything. You made some. And you held out for 26 f***ing years. It is time to set yourself free!”

It feels crappy sad. Bye dream of the national team, have a nice day! There is an emptiness now and I will certainly feel lost in the beginning when I do not have the light eminating from the blue and yellow jersey that has led me for so long.

I am painfully aware that I no longer have anything to give or take in the environment I find myself. To continue here without the dream would be to continue without momentum. It would be to go to work and collect salary. To be here, but without optimizing, it's not me. That will never be me. And it is not “Booyah” against anyone, not the club I represent, my lovely teammates nor myself. After 26 years of struggle I owe myself more than that. I owe it to myself to let my second dream begin. A dream that for 26 years has stood sideline and watched as I look like a crazy person directing all my focus towards the national team. This dream is to play football abroad.

I feel selfish because I do not want to leave a team in the middle of the season but I know deep down that it is the best for everyone and that it would not be good for anyone to have an Ek without momentum.

I know I'm living on borrowed time. After recent knee injury, they said that I could never get back to the football field. I wander around like I am walking through a minefield, and I am grateful for every week that I can play football. When my body breaks down, and that is the end, I want to feel like I have released myself free and have followed the dreams that I want to follow. That I have experienced what I want to experience. . . Now, I'm ready for another country, and I’m hoping another country is ready for me!

She says, “I have always believed that the most courageous thing to do is to follow your dream. I never thought that it required even more courage to let go of a dream and let another take over…” Perhaps it is just as courageous to share your story.

Caught... In A Moment: A Photo Journey

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

This article originally appeared on The Player's Tribune. 

I am always moving.
Pit stops... rest stops... refueling...
Trying to fit in.
My lifestyle demands flexibility.
And wherever I go...
...There I am.
With this job, I have the power to do what I want.
But like everyone else, I get caught up in the fray.
The smiles you see...
Well, they come at a cost.
Behind closed doors, the work begins.
With the people and places I love far, far away...
New friends and favorites begin to surface.
Just in time to leave again.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
But I've learned to bring the things I need with me.
My calm. My commitment. My game.
Wherever I go, there I am.

The Chicago Daily News

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

[[THE PITCH]] Growing up, one of my dad’s favorite expressions was the complement, “She always brings her lunch pail.” The phrase, with roots in American football, tips its hat to the blue-collar workers who were so hard working that they barely took time for lunch. So, “On Any Given Sunday” right before I took the field, my dad would nudge me, “You better bring your lunch pail!”

Football has brought me back across the Atlantic into the heartland of the USA, and I am awe struck by the impressiveness of Chicago. Always an explorer at heart, relocating here has made me not only a member of the Chicago Red Stars, but also, an excited and happy tourist. I’ve spent my first month trying to figure out what it means to be a Red Star as well as a Chicagoan, and I’m starting to think the identities are not too different.

On my first day here, they handed me my CRS jersey, and a few minutes later I found myself comfortably cloaked in Chicago’s city flag. I have to admit it was an upgrade from the Ronald McDonald costume we rocked on my last team. J With red stars lined across the chest, the jersey links the team to the city’s blue-collar core and the student in me wanted to know how.

The four stars on the flag represent significant events, two tragedies and two triumphs, in Chicago’s history.

One of the stars on our jersey symbolizes the Chicago fire of 1871. While most people know about the destruction of this devastating disaster, many have no idea what happened next. Faced with the enormity of debris from the fire, the people of Chicago pushed tons of rubble into Lake Michigan, creating a landfill, which is now the foundation of Grant Park. Walking through this beautiful lakefront public property, alive with museums, grassy fields, bike trails, and amphitheaters, I can’t help but think about the concept of repurposing for the greater good.
The flag commemorates the persevering spirit of the city, a spirit very much alive in my new team. It seems to be the signature of a team for whom, last season, led the league in comebacks and goals after the 80th minute. We are headed to a similar stat this year: in four of my first six games, we have come back from a deficit to steal points.

Playing in Europe for three seasons has equipped me with some new tools, and I was excited to come back to the US and try them out. While my first few NWSL games don’t compare to the great Chicago fire, I will say that they left me a little singed. After just a few minutes on the field, it was clear that the tempo and style of play were quite different here, and I struggled to figure out the timing and movements. Is it possible I am a foreigner in my own country? Practices were frustrating. I considered chucking my “tools” into Lake Michigan. Or maybe it was me who needed a dip in the icy lake. In the end, I got my wake up call from a more gentle water source!

When I wake up every morning, I look out my window at the tranquil flowing turquois water of the Chicago River. The guides on the Chicago Signature Tour have revealed that it wasn’t always so beautiful. As a young city, the river was contaminated with sewage and industrial waste. In 1900, through the ingenuity of a civil engineer they changed the direction of the river water to flow away from Lake Michigan toward the Mississippi River. Today, I’m told it is one of the cleanest city rivers in the country. To find a solution, sometimes you need to change your way of thinking, and sometimes changing your way is the solution.

When you visit Chicago today, you see a dazzling skyline of architectural masterpieces jutting out of a sophisticated metropolitan center. Amazing as it is, it’s the knowledge of all the work that is buried below the surface that has inspired me.

Maybe, for now, I need to worry less about my toolbox and get back to focusing my lunch pail. After all, Grant Park didn’t build itself. The wreckage was carried and transformed by the hard working team of people that is Chicago. The result is pretty magnificent.  My new team is a young team, and if we are going to build something great together, we are going to have to put in the hard work… show a little patience… and for me: consider a change of direction.

The Swan Song.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

[[THE PITCH]] “Now wakes the Owl…Now sleeps the swan...Behold the dream…The dream is gone.” -Pink Floyd.

I have never been less excited to write a blog post. After two and a half years sharing stories about my journey through Sweden as a professional footballer, how could I possibly skip over the biggest game of my career and the final goodbye? Well, other than a country western composer, who wants to write about a heartbreak? That is what May brought: a heartbreaking loss in the Champions League Final and and sad ending to the best chapter of my soccer life.

It seems that my journey in Sweden led me to this final...Falling in love with the city of Gothenburg...and then giving it up to surround myself with some of the best players in the game... Then... falling in love with Stockholm and the small suburb of Tyresö. Losing titles and teammates and friends... Struggling to stay afloat amongst a sinking ship that once was one of the top clubs in the world in the midst of an exciting Champions League run. So many games leading to that final game. Hello Lisbon…Goodbye Sweden!

I've played in finals before. Heck, it's been 4 USYSA Club Championships, 2 CIF High School Championships, 2 NCAA Championships, 2 SuperCups, and one Swedish Cup... The experience of playing in those games I’ve carried with me, but in the preview of the CL Final,  they seemed like recreational games. There is something about a final. In this tournament, where in each round you're given 180 minutes with each opponent, the likelihood that the better side will advance is increased. But there is just one shooting star 90 minute final, where anything you can imagine can happen. And, for us, on that day, the unimaginable did.

We stole the first half with certainty and flair, but we played at just 75% of our capacity, giving away too many balls and with a palpable tension in our game. Still, it was more than enough. We had the majority of possession and when we ran at their back line, it seemed to dismantle them. We went up 2-0 on Marta and Vero goals.

Half two was a whirlwind. They scored a great goal within the first two minutes and we took it like a punch in the gut. Deflated, we tried to keep the pieces together and defend our lead. Marta and I switched spots as she was nursing a hamstring strain, and out of position, we lost our pressure on their back line. As much as the first goal against rattled us, it was nothing compared to the second. In just 10 minutes, we lost our lead and all of our confidence. I looked at the faces of my teammates. We had so much experience on the field, but faces seemed stricken with panic. So many our fittest players began to cramp halfway through that half. It was chaos.

Against the run of play now, we scored to make it 3-2! We encouraged each other. Fight back!! It's our game now!!! We did fight, but it wasn't our game at all. Minutes later our right back Meghan Klingenberg went down with a charley horse turned total leg cramp. We played the ball out of bounds so she could get medical attention. While the play was stopped, Tony subbed our right forward Malin Diaz out for Madde Edlund, but nobody came in for Meg. Wolfsburg threw the ball in and went straight up our right side to their unmarked forward: 3-3.

When their forward scored the final goal unmarked inside the six yard box with just ten minutes to go, we didn't give up, we kept fighting until the end...until it was over. I was in shock because it was so little about soccer and so much about emotions. After everything we had been through, this was not how it was supposed to end. Yes, Wolfsburg deserved to win. They were resilient, strong, and tactically smart. As they raised the cup under a downpour of confetti I thought: soccer is a cruel, cruel game.

I've tried really hard the last few years to be less attached to winning. I would like to fight as hard as I possibly can in each and every game, and win or lose, leave it at that and move forward. I know in my heart that that is the mindset I need to be a successful and happy athlete. But still, I knew that this game had taken a piece of me. With the team ending and my time in Europe over, it is a piece that I will not get back. Once again, I looked into the stands, and there they were: my mom, dad, and sisters, where they always are: on their feet, clapping their hands, and crying. In the end, I'm the same girl I was when I was 14,  just wanting to make them proud. I saw my dad take out his handkerchief. A few hours later, as my family held me in their arms, through a flood of tears, I thanked them for coming to all of these heartbreaking finals. I assured them that one day we were going to win...and there was comfort in knowing that they are foolish enough to keep coming back...

Just two days later we were expected to fly home and play against our toughest Swedish rival: FC Rosengård (formerly know as FC Malmö.) So that's exactly what we did. For some of us: me, Meg, Whit, Vero, and Seger, this would be our last game with the team and a sort of send off... A swan song. For the rest, not knowing just what the future held at the club made the game totally meaningless. After our embarrassing loss, what would have been the biggest game of our Damalsvenskan season now seemed dimly lit. There was no motivation to play. Points didn't matter as we suspected that we wouldn't finish out league. We weren't getting paid.

What actually happened was a reminder of everything I love about athletics.

Our team-- broken bodies and spirit-- played exactly how we wanted everyone to remember us. Two days after a strain and cramps in the final, I watched Lisa Dahlkvist make tackles and spray balls like few other women players can. I witnessed in awe, Vero, who had not practiced in a month due to injury, play the second of two back-to-back battles, picking up balls and unchaining Malmö's defense at full speed. And me? I was re-invigorated by the freedom of playing solely for the love of the game. I never felt more confident on the field. My heart insisted that we would end this on a happy note. And so, tied 1-1 in the 85th minute, when I shot from range, empowered by my team’s display of courage and integrity, I knew, the moment it left my foot, it was going in. After the ball whipped right and brushed the back of the net, the team huddled together one last time. In the corner of my eye, I saw Tony unabashedly celebrating on the sidelines.

Now, a few weeks later, I can hardly remember the Wolfsburg game. When people ask me what happened, I struggle find the words. But these final images of my teammates overcoming against all odds stay with me and continue to inspire me.

Was it redemption for our loss? Not even close. But perhaps it was something bigger than that. Since then, the club has pulled out of Damallsvenskan, all of the players were released as free agents, and all of our results deleted from the standings. Still, that final ultimately meaningless performance is what the beautiful game is all about for me: getting back in the ring and fighting the next fight...with style and class.  I used to think that losing titles made me a loser... But as I packed my life back into my luggage, I knew that although I was losing everything-- not just the title, but also my team, my training environment, my life, my friends--- I had won something more.

Hej då.