My favorite place in the world is just south of Phoenix.
It’s a 20-minute drive from where I grew up. It’s a mountain. Well, it’s Arizona’s version of a mountain. It’s kind of what you’re picturing in your head right now — dry, cactuses everywhere, lots of sand and dust swirling in the air when it gets windy.
If you stumbled across it, without really knowing it, you might not give it a second thought. But for me … that’s my spot. That’s where I’m in my zone.
It’s called South Mountain Park. When I was little, maybe seven or eight years old, my dad and I would go there for hikes. My mom was a nurse, and she and Dad had a schedule sort of worked out between the two of them as far as who was going to keep an eye on my older sister, Mel, and I. It was perfect. During the day, Dad would keep us active when we weren’t at school. That’s how we found South Mountain.
Dad was the athlete of the house. He just had this incredible work ethic for anything he set his mind to. If he wanted to fix something around the house, it was getting done THAT day, you know? Or if he wanted his daughters to be great athletes, he and Mom were going to put us in the best positions to succeed.
My parents didn’t know that much about soccer when I first started playing, so our training was a bit … unorthodox, you could say. But I loved it! For example, we had a trampoline in our backyard that we used for some sort of high-tech agility training (or that’s what it seemed like at the time). My dad would get this plastic stick or pipe, and he would swing it under our legs while we jumped back and forth between spots on the trampoline. I’d be right beside Mel, just trying to avoid the stick longer than her.
Courtesy of Julie ErtzThat’s some O.G. training stuff right there. You won’t find that on a DVD, I promise.
And then as I got older, the South Mountain hikes turned into South Mountain runs. I started to go on my own, too. I was getting into more intense levels of club soccer and different things that, as a young player, can add a lot of stress to your life. South Mountain helped me clear my head. I knew I wanted to go to college and play, and I knew I didn’t want my parents to pay for it. They had helped me so much — sacrificed so much — that if I could earn a scholarship, that would be a good way to start repaying them.
One day, on a hike up the mountain, I saw my first name acid-washed on the face of a big rock. To this day, I have no idea who did it . It certainly wasn’t for me … but there it was.
I’d like to think the mountain wrote it. Or God did. Or something. That maybe it was a sign telling me that if I went away for college, and wherever I went after, that a part of me would always be on that mountain.
(It was probably just some teenagers. Bless the youth.)
Courtesy of Julie ErtzSo I left to play soccer at Santa Clara University in California. The mountains were different there, but I just fell more in love with the game. Even more than I could ever imagine. In 2012, I went with the U-20 team to Japan for the World Cup. I captained the team and that just put the sport into a whole new light for me. The girls on our team were so incredible. And just that feeling of wearing your nation’s colors — especially being so far from home — was amazing. And, oh yeah, we won the whole thing, too! To win a World Cup, at any level, there’s no beating that.
It’s addictive, too. When the buzz of the victory starts to wear off, I was sort of just like, I’ve gotta do that again. Soon.
Because, above all else, you don’t want to take any of it for granted. There’s hard work, and there’s luck, and there are highs and lows and everything in between before those final 90 minutes.
I think some people, outside of the national team, look at our squad and think we’re going to have a chance to win just by showing up to a World Cup. But the margins are so thin — every session, every drill, every tactical lesson matters. That’s what I learned when I got the call to my first camp in 2013.
One day I’m in a computer class at Santa Clara, ignoring a call from a number I don’t recognize. (It was the team director for U.S. Soccer.) And next thing I know (after checking my voicemail) I’m in Jacksonville at my first senior team training session — with a bunch of my heroes preparing for a World Cup that’s two years away.
There’s a focus in our team this year, too, that I remember seeing before the World Cup in 2015 — a belief, you could call it.
It’s similar to one of my favorite mottos.
“Believe in yourself so much that other people can’t help but believe in you, too.”
I always come back to that. Because any team is, of course, just a collection of individuals. We’re all different, but that’s what makes us strong. Not every girl on this team grew up jumping over plastic sticks on a trampoline, or running up dusty trails on South Mountain — but we’re here now, together. And we’re going to France this summer on a mission.
Photo by Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoI can’t wait to get there. I want to see the stadiums. I want to see our fans.
I want to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the world stage again.
Every time I hear the anthem play before our matches, no matter if it’s a friendly, or a World Cup final, I feel the same thing: gratefulness. I’m grateful to my dad, my mom and my sister, to my husband, Zach, and all the rest of our friends and family, for playing a role in my life. And just as important, I think, I’m grateful for the opportunity to wear the red, white and blue and represent our country. Toward the end of the anthem, I look at the fans, start to shake my legs out a bit and get ready to go.
Then the anthem ends, and it’s time to believe.
Up the mountain we go. Again.