I was born like this, I think.
Growing up, my grandpa had nicknames for me and my twin sister, Rachael. We sound exactly alike, but our personalities couldn’t be more different. Rach was the social queen. I was the tomboy. She was chill. I was sweet but also sort of bonkers, emotionally.
So my grandpa had these special names for us.
Rach was “Muffin.”
Muffin! Adorable, right?
I was “Ma Barker.”
One day when I was pretty young, I said, “Grandpa, what’s a Ma Barker?”
He said, “Well, Ma Barker was a person.”
I said, “Oh, what did she do?”
I thought maybe she was like a female astronaut or a trailblazing lawyer or something?
He said, “Ma Barker was a notorious female gangster from the 1920s.”
So, yeah, Muffin and Ma Barker. That sort of paints the picture for you. I had a lot of energy, to put it mildly. We used to go from playing street hockey in full gear, to playing basketball, then break for lunch, then play some soccer, then back into the street hockey gear.
From like five to 12 years old, I was living my best life, man. I had the patent leather Jordan 11s. I had my Cowboys STARTER sweatshirt. I had my little gang of friends, terrorizing the neighborhood.
And then, all of a sudden….
Sixth and seventh grade hit me like a freight train. Kids started going through puberty, and the gender roles became a little more defined, and I was just like, “What. Is. Happening?”
It felt like one day we were all playing street hockey and then, literally the next day, everyone was changing, and I was still glaringly this tomboy. I just didn’t know how to act or how to be.
It was like, “This is weird and I feel weird?”
Two things really helped me survive middle school: Sports and my sister.
I used to follow Rachael around — and I mean like physically. I was always right on her heels, about two feet behind her, for the entirety of seventh grade. I don’t know how, but she just had it all figured out. She was the queen bee. So I was her shadow, and I was totally cool with that.
You know in Planet Earth, how those little fish kind of chill on top of the dolphins or the whales or whatever, and ride around with them? That was me. I was the little Nemo fish, like, “So what’re we doing today?”
Rachael saved me. Without her, I don’t even know how I would’ve handled The Wonder Years.
The other thing that I could always dive into and feel really good about was sports. The ’99 Women’s World Cup came around at the perfect time for me. I was 14, I really loved soccer, and I was good for my club team, but it wasn’t like the thing, you know? It was just one of the sports I played.
Then ’99 happened. And everything changed. For the girls growing up now, it’s hard to understand just how mindblowing of a thing this was to see. Nothing like this had existed. All of a sudden, there was a World Cup for women. In the United States. And it was on TV. And huge crowds were showing up. And people were going crazy, painting their faces and wrapping themselves in the flag, It was just this wave that nobody saw coming.
My sister and I actually went to the semifinal against Brazil at Stanford Stadium, and it was probably one of the more transformative experiences of my life. You had 70,000 people showing up for a women’s soccer game, and it was so electric and … well.…
Just, holy s***!
This just wasn’t supposed to happen, you know? I think you probably had thousands of girls in the stadium that day who went home and grabbed a ball said, “This is what I wanna do.”
It was finally possible to dream that big.
It’s funny, because seven years later, I got called up to my first USWNT camp, and I’ll never forget when Kristine Lilly walked into the room for the first time. She was my freaking hero. Obviously, she blocked the shot off the line against China in the ’99 final that saved the match, and she was just such a badass. I was already 21 years old, but when Kristine walked into the room … I mean, you just can’t help it — you’re instantly 12 years old. You’re a mess.
So I was sitting there like, “Oh my God, oh my God, what do I say, what do I do, who am I, what’s happening?”
At some point, Kristine came over to me and some of the other youngers players, and she was so cool, and so chill, and she was like, “What’s up? What’s going on?”
And I just remember barely being able to speak, like, “Uh, we don’t know. We’re just here. We don’t know what we’re doing. We’re just trying to survive and you’re you. You’re Kristine Lilly and I love you and I had your posters and obviously you didn’t have mine because I’m me, O.K., byeeeeeeeeeee.”
Lilly was so good to all the young players when she could’ve easily been like, I AM KRISTINE LILLY. BOW BEFORE YOUR LEGEND.
It would really suck if your hero was a jerk! But mine was so down-to-earth and so humble and so cool, and I’m really thankful for that. Seeing her demeanor and professionalism was a really great lesson for me as a young player, because the reality of our sport that becomes increasingly clear the older you get is that IT. IS. A. FREAKING. GRIND.
We do not have the conveniences that the top-level male players have. It’s just a fact. We have to make our supplemental income any way we can — appearances, events, video shoots, whatever. We’re not flying private. We don’t have personal chefs. We work out at the gym like you do. It’s the most fun job in the entire world, but it’s a different lifestyle. You’re getting off of six a.m. flights, checking in to the hotel and then trying to get in a full sprint workout in one of those sad hotel gyms with the carpet and the low ceiling and the four dumbells and the Dr. Phil on the TV on MUTE.
There’s no music and you’re grunting like a maniac, just trying not to fly off the back of the treadmill and cause a massive scene in front of the guys from the Accounting Conference. That’s our life. We’re getting it in any way we can.
We don’t just pop up once every four years on your TV, ready to win the World Cup. It’s a constant, neverending grind, even without the actual soccer part. But! It’s also the coolest job in the world.
Let me repeat: This is the coolest job in the freaking world.
More than anything, what fuels our crazy, unrelenting journey during these World Cup cycles is you. The person reading this right now. Our fans. Especially the young ones. I’ll never forget, right before we left for the 2011 World Cup, we had a send off game at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.
There were probably 7,000 people there. In a 25,000-seat stadium.
It just felt like … O.K., we’re not really a thing.
Then we went away to Germany for the 2011 World Cup, and everything changed. Remember, we lost. Japan. Penalties. Heartbreak. Tears. Remember that? You can’t help but feel like you’ve let everyone down. But when we landed back in the States, everyone still treated us like heroes. We didn’t even win, but it felt like a ’99 moment for a new generation.
At a World Cup, there are so many little memories that go way beyond what happens on the field. For me, the coolest part was experiencing it with my family. My beautiful, fierce mother came along for the ride, and what you need to know about my mom is that whenever she travels, half of her suitcase is dedicated to pajamas.
We call her Mammer Jammer.
It started when she was going through menopause. Apparently, when your hormones get out of whack, you get really sensitive to touch and smell and all that. We had no idea! But she started going to bed in a different set of pajamas every night.
They had to be fresh. No exceptions.
So when we left for Germany, she packed eight sets of pajamas for eight days. That’s like a separate pajama suitcase entirely. Imagine the TSA person going through her suitcase, like, “M’am, what’s the story here?”
Anyway, my whole family had to extend their trip because we made it all the way to the final, which turned out to be a real PAJAMA DRAMA. We’re sitting around the hotel one day, and my mother is googling German H&Ms so she can go buy more pajamas, and I’m like, “Mom, it’s only a few more days. Just wear one of your EIGHT pajamas.”
And my mom looks at me. Silent. Disapproving.
“No,” she says. “They’re soiled.”
Mammer Jammer, everyone!
By the time the 2015 World Cup rolled around, she was fully prepared. We’re talking a set for every day, plus robes, slippers, the whole thing. She’s the queen of bedroom luxury.
In all seriousness though, we cannot do this without our families. We don’t have big entourages. We don’t have handlers doing everything for us. But what we do have is something way more special … we have our families on this journey with us.
That’s why I think the memories are even stronger.
That’s why I can honestly say that I do not take a single second of this experience for granted, especially now.
The truth is, after the 2016 Olympics, I really thought maybe they were putting ol’ Pinoe out to pasture. I thought maybe it was over.
I had a bad ACL injury.
Then I barely made the Olympic roster, and I wasn’t close to 100%. So I had a terrible tournament. I barely played. I was a shell of myself.
And then before a friendly match in September, I knelt during the anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick’s message about police brutality and equality in America. The federation was not very supportive, publicly or privately. I started getting left off rosters. It was never directly connected to my kneeling. They told me, “You’re not really at the level you need to be.”
Which was true!
I was coming back from a big injury, and not at my best, but we weren’t in season with the NSWL. The only way I could get into shape was to play with the national team. For five months, I wasn’t rostered, and I was kind of in the wilderness. I had to play to get back into shape, but there was nowhere to play. Cool coincidence!
So yes, I felt as though I was being blackballed a bit. Maybe that’s harsh, but it’s how I felt. It was never explicit, but how can I put this? It felt like maybe if I faded off into the sunset, that would’ve been just fine.
Well, guess what? I wasn’t gonna fade away. Tough s***.
I was so motivated, but not in the way you might think. For all the talk about the backlash and “distraction,” the noise was basically confined to a few random people on Twitter saying, “You’re a B! You’re a C! I hope you die!”
Like, O.K., anonymous Twitter bot, whatever.
In reality, not a single person ever came up to me in real life and said anything negative. But, all the time, people would come up to me in the gym or when I was grabbing a coffee and say awesome stuff that really reinforced my faith in humanity.
“We’re with you.”
“Thanks for doing what you did.”
“We support Colin, too.”
Maybe it doesn’t make for a great headline, but that was the reality. The amount of support for Colin’s message was overwhelming, and you can tell by how much it’s still resonating across this country to this day. It was those little moments with real people in real life, not the haters, that gave me so much motivation to train on my own, and get back to my best, and force my way back into this team.
And look, at the end of the day, ol’ Ma Barker wasn’t going to ride off into the sunset that easily. When I got called back into the team last summer, I finally felt like I was back to my old self.
And yeah, I definitely had a big smile on my face.
A big, warm f*** you smile.
I know this might be my last ride. But I don’t take a day of it for granted. This is still the coolest job in the world, and something I’ve been dreaming of since I was in the crowd at Stanford Stadium in ’99.
I really want one more World Cup trophy, and one more ticker-tape parade, and one more insane after-party with all the friends and family and staff who make this all so special.
The jammies have been packed.