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The Girl from the Airport

24 Jun 2019
Photo by
Karen Wangare Leonard
Photo by
Karen Wangare Leonard
I

am the girl Crystal Dunn of the USWNT met at the airport. It was Dulles Airport in Virginia. I am 19 now, and meeting her changed my life.

There is a power in representation. When you first realize there are others out there that look like you, and are doing the same things you do. I remember when I first saw her. I was in the U.S. at the time and had turned on the TV to watch women’s football. There was someone on the pitch who looked like me and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her. She was short, she was black, she was doing what I wanted to do and she was doing it at the highest level of the game. I saw Crystal Dunn play. That moment was revolutionary for me.

I was adopted at a young age from Kenya by white, American parents. They did all they could to provide me and my older sister, Anisa (who had also been adopted from Kenya six months before me), with images, stories, history, and people that we could see ourselves in. Thus, all the books on my bookshelf and many movies I watched contained black people or people of colour. Another important thing my parents did was they showed us women’s sports. I cannot say that I have even any distinctive memories of watching men’s sports growing up (save for the Phillies because my father is die-hard fan). So I had a firm idea that it was attainable to be a woman and play sports at a high level. I was an active kid, playing football, basketball, and riding horses. I did dabble in other sports as well, but football had my heart. There is just something about this beautiful game that has made me want more.

I played club football in the USA until I moved back to Kenya when I was 11, after my parents got teaching jobs at an American school in Nairobi — they wanted to spend more time in Kenya. They missed the country and wanted my sister and me to reconnect with our roots. There I only had the option of playing on my school’s girls team. It took me a while to realize how much it had impacted me, being one of the only people on the pitch who looked like me. In the USA, I had been one of the only black girls on my squads. And in Kenya, while I was no longer the only black player, I was the only girl who was playing with the guys in my off-season and on the weekends. There is a sense of needing to play for more than just the game when you are breaking into places where you are the anomaly. I was playing because I loved it, but every time I joined in with the boys, I also played like I had something to prove. And I did.

Courtesy of Karen Wangare Leonard

When I was 17, I was flying from Virgina back to Kenya to join my family. I was sulking because I was missing a camp where I had hoped to get noticed by college recruiters.  Then I looked up from my seat in the airport and saw Crystal … in that moment I thought my heart stopped for a beat. She was just sitting there a few feet away. I said hi to her, got a selfie and then put two and two together — she was flying to London to join her Chelsea teammates and I was connecting through London to Kenya. That’s why she was on my flight. I ended up writing her a rainy day note, the kind you read when you’re down and you’re not sure which way is up. I let it all out: She was my hero, on the pitch and off.

On the pitch she is everything I want to embody. But what most people don’t see is how strong you have to be off the pitch to even step into an environment where you are a minority. I know I felt that every time I was sitting on the sidelines debating if I was going to hop in with the boys. When I declined offers to hang out with my girlfriends because I wanted to train with the guys. When I would leave after a game and say to myself, I really just did that. And I didn’t mess up. It can take its toll. But still, we always return to the game we love. Crystal Dunn always returned. And that is perhaps the thing I admire most about her.

On June 20 I was at a friend’s house in Kenya mindlessly scrolling through Instagram when I saw that The Players’ Tribune had published an article by Crystal Dunn. I automatically started reading. Right around the time she started telling the readers how impactful it was for her to see Serena Williams play I started fantasizing, Maybe she’ll write about me. The more I read the more my fantasy was becoming a reality. Then she started talking about meeting a girl in an airport. I fell off the couch and started screaming for my friend, tears running down my face. “Crystal Dunn just wrote about me in The Players’ Tribune!”

This was blessings on blessings. A few hours later the video was posted. Crystal Dunn was talking about meeting me. She understood. She really did. There are a few moments in life that I can point to and say, without a waver in my voice, that I had felt seen. When I met her was one of those times. Her telling the story of how we met is another. And for that I am profoundly grateful.

Here’s the thing about representation: It allows your dreams to get a little bigger. It lets you move with your head held higher. That is what Crystal Dunn did for me. No longer did I feel crazy for wanting to play, and to play at a high level. I stopped feeling bad about saying no to my girlfriends because of training. I had some informal discussions with the coach of the Kenyan women’s national team, but I am a U.S. citizen. I’ve also had two recent injuries, so I am still figuring out what my next step in the game will be. I want to pursue football to the highest level that I can play. It is a situation of playing wherever you can, and training as much as you can, for whenever an opportunity arises. I’m just waiting to see what my options are going to be, whether it is college or playing overseas.

I think of Crystal every time I lace up my boots. And when the guys I sometimes play with do not pass me the ball, I am learning to demand it. I am following in her footsteps, resilient in the face of obstacles that threaten to steal my love for the game. I don’t know where this journey will take me. But by God’s grace I will find the ball at my feet with room to run.