I wish I could tell you that I never have conversations with myself … but it wouldn’t be true. I can’t really help it. Right before we play with the national team, my mind just starts to wander off.
And listen, I love the national anthem. It’s beautiful. When we line up out on the field, I feel so proud to represent America. When it starts, you’re just there in the moment. You close your eyes, put your hand on your heart and sing.
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…
But the song is also … long. You know? At least it feels that way when you’re standing there, waiting for the game to start. And, at some point, the lyrics fade into the background, and you begin to talk to yourself.
“O.K., Alex, here we are … I wonder where your family is sitting?”
You open your eyes, scan the crowd. You know you’re not going to find them — it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack. So you give up after five seconds. “O.K., Alex, back to the national anthem.”
… whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight …
When we line up out on the field, I feel so proud to represent America.
“Oh no,” you say. You’re starting to feel stiff. This is no good: The last thing you want to do before a game is go cold. You begin moving your legs a little. Danger averted.
“Good, Alex. Now, not long until the game starts. Time to get ready! Let’s go!!”
… and the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air …
“Ah, still going. Right, let’s keep singing.”
Those are the types of random thoughts that will sneak into my mind. But sometimes, I can also become really contemplative. Like — I’ll look at the little kids holding the flag, and I’ll think, Hmm, I wonder what their stories are.
I wonder if they know who we are.
I wonder what they’re thinking right now.
And unlike the other stuff, these thoughts are not random at all. In fact, they touch upon issues that are very important to me. Because when I look at the kids holding the flag, and I zoom in on the girls, I feel as if I am looking into the future. I wonder if one of these girls will become one of our next soccer stars, one of those who will inspire the next generation.
I really hope so … but I also know how difficult their journeys are going to be. The challenges, the obstacles, the doubt.
The challenges, the obstacles, the doubt. The difficulties that come with being a female athlete.
The difficulties that come with being a female athlete.
And let me just say right now, none of these issues goes away just because you become a professional soccer player. (More on that later.) But the hardest part is to overcome them the very first time. And that, in turn, sends me back to the past. Because when I look at the girls, I also see something familiar. Something I recognize.
I see … well, I see myself.
She is a seven-year-old girl. She is walking into the home office of her mother. She grabs a yellow sticky pad. She makes a note on it.
The note that will change her entire life.
I still don’t know why I wrote what I did. I had never watched a women’s soccer match on TV. I didn’t know there was a professional league. I didn’t even know that women’s soccer was a thing beyond playing for fun. But one day I went with my older sister to our mom’s office. My sister found the yellow pad, and wrote a note to Mom saying what she wanted to be when she grew up.
She wanted to be a model.
And so I was like, Well, I’m gonna write a note too. And I’m gonna stick it up there so Mom sees it. I took the pad, grabbed a pen, and scribbled down my dream.
“I am going to be a professional athlete for soccer! Love always, Ali Cat.”
My mom still has that note, by the way.
I guess I just pulled it out of thin air. Three years later I was playing tetherball and kickball with the boys in school, near our home in Diamond Bar, California. And I was beating them. When I began playing rec soccer, there wasn’t much of a physical difference between me and the boys. Which was interesting, because it meant that I wasn’t overloaded with all these rules about how you should act or be seen as a girl. When you enter your teens, you get judged on what you wear, how you do your hair, you begin to use a bit of makeup … you know? But when I was 10, I was just who I was: a tomboy having fun. I wore long socks up to my knees. I had no fashion sense. I loved getting dirty out on the field.
Whatever sport I played, I didn’t really care what people thought of me.
When I was 10, I was just who I was: a tomboy having fun. I wore long socks up to my knees. I had no fashion sense. I loved getting dirty out on the field.
Also, it helped that I had the world’s best soccer coach.
A soccer coach who knew nothing about soccer.
A couple of times a week, my dad would pick me up from school and drive me to training. He had no clue about soccer, but he was so present, especially given what he was going through. He owned a construction business that was nearly bankrupt. He’d leave for work at 5 a.m., and yet he still had the energy to take me and six other girls to training, driving all over the city to pick them up. He kind of had to, really, otherwise we didn’t have enough players for a full team.
All the family members helped me in their own ways. Mom worked so hard to support us, my two older sisters were so close to me. And Dad coached me. He’d be like, “Alright Alex, let’s go train. I can get off work early. Come on, let’s go.”
And I’d be like, “Oh, I’m tired.”
And he’d be like, “No. If you want to be the best, we need to train. Put on these ankle weights and run around the block 10 times.”
And I’m like, “O.K., Dad, O.K!”
He was always doing crazy stuff like that.
When I was 14 or 15 years old, I wanted to get a scholarship for college. I needed to play with the best youth teams, at the best tournaments, and that meant going out of the state a lot. My parents would drive me to these weekend tournaments, which often lasted four days. I don’t think they ever used their vacation time on an actual vacation. I don’t think they even liked being at those tournaments. But they went anyway, because they knew I had this dream.
By now I guess my dad had read the yellow sticky note too.
Not everyone cared about my dream, though. When I was 14, I began playing for my first club team. Honestly, every girl who wanted to play college soccer was playing club soccer at this point. But I just … wasn’t. I just played recreational for my city. I didn’t really know that you started younger.
The coach saw that I had talent. But he was like, “You’re just not finessed enough. You’re not good enough. You’re not gonna make it. I’m sorry, you just can’t be on this team.”
Nothing like that had ever hit me before.
I mean, I had heard similar stuff. But when I was in school, I was this confident little fireball. If people said that I couldn’t become a soccer player, I’d be like, “Well, screw them. Of course I can. Didn’t you just see I beat all the boys in kickball? I’m the Tetherball Queen! Of course I can do this! You guys are crazy.”
In no way had I even considered that I couldn’t do what I put my mind to. But when the coach said that, I was like, “Well, shoot … maybe I’m not good enough … I’ve always been the best on my team, but hey, maybe there’s just so many more girls that are way better than me.”
I guess it just shows you that anyone can have doubts. Even now, as a seasoned pro, I can be training and start thinking, Oh man, my teammates are so good. I’m not good enough! It creeps in, it really does. And that’s when you have to instill confidence in yourself, and tell yourself that you’re good enough until you really believe it. Trust me, it works.
Failing that, you need some kind of hero to pull you out of it. And luckily, I had that. My dad stepped in and just went, “Screw that. We’re going to another team. That guy can have his own thoughts, whatever, but it’s not the truth.”
I joined another team.
You have to instill confidence in yourself, and tell yourself that you’re good enough until you really believe it.
It wasn’t the truth.
With a team and a coach who believed in me, I excelled. I made the Olympic program, I made the U-17 national team. I began to realize that the note I had written to my mom was really going to come true. And then came the stuff that most people know about: My senior national team debut in 2010, the Olympic gold, the World Cup win, all that.
When I line up for games now, as one of the most experienced players on the team, I wonder who will come next. I look at the girls holding the flag and think, Do they know who we are? — and by that I mean, do we inspire them?
Are we setting the right example?
Are we making little girls want to become soccer players?
I think a lot about these questions. And one of the most difficult things, I feel, is carrying myself in a way that girls see and want to emulate. It’s making sure that I’m always on, and by that I mean always saying and doing the right things. And that’s hard in today’s age, because if you make one little slip-up, you pay for it. It spreads across social media like wildfire. It’s devastating.
And what really makes it hard for us female athletes is that we don’t make the same money as men do. Just flat-out.
Let me explain. If you look at any of the top players in Europe, I probably make like … I don’t know … a nickel to their dollar?
Something like that.
And so you need to try to compensate for that. As a team, I feel we do a good job trying to correct that imbalance. Personally, I work with a lot of sponsors and partners, I do a lot of appearances and stuff outside of soccer. That helps. But it also means that I need to open myself up more. I need to be that public figure, I need to give more of myself on social media. Male soccer players, they don’t have to do all that. They have their agents, they have their people handling social media. They live their private lives.
It’s just not the same for us.
And it’s like this for every woman. Everywhere.
It angers me so much that we still have to talk about these same old issues. That we still have to hear about them from women in different lines of work. That the change is so slow and snail-like.
But at the same time, you want to see progress, and we do see progress. It‘s not at the pace we want it to be, but without people being vocal about it, it would probably be even slower. So we need to keep speaking up.
We need to keep fighting.
We need to keep speaking up. We need to keep fighting.
It was so cool that we had so many eyes on us at the 2015 World Cup. To hear that we played in the most-watched US soccer game ever in the U.S., male or female, that was really awesome. That so many people were surprised by that was pretty interesting too. So I think we have a special few months ahead of us. I really believe that the World Cup can be a platform for female empowerment, and we want to capitalize on that, both on and off the field.
What all of this will lead to, I hope, is that women will build each other up and continue our fight for a seat at the table. I hope that the next time we are out there singing the national anthem, the girls holding the flag will look back at us, take courage, and be inspired by what we do.
And who knows … maybe later that night, one of them will write her mom a little note.