A lot of people ask me how I came to move 5,000 miles away from home when I was just 12 years old — leaving behind my mom, my friends, my language, my culture, everything.
Well, it’s a long story. But in three words? If you only have time for three words....
Googling Mia Hamm.
Got time for the longer story? O.K..…
I was born in Brazil, and like a lot of Brazilians my earliest memories are of soccer and the pure, unadulterated joy it brought me. Playing with friends in the park, or sitting at school waiting for the recess, counting down the minutes and sprinting as fast as I could to secure the courts before the older kids. From the time I was six years old, I just wanted to play all the time.
From the time I was six years old, I just wanted to play all the time.- Catarina Macario
I have my dad to thank for making me the player I am today. It was his realisation that I had potential — real potential — that started this whole journey. And that journey began, even before we get to Mia Hamm, when we used to go to my older brother’s practices. I would constantly bug my dad on the sidelines while we watched, “Come on, play with me!” We’d do all types of drills together, like first-touch and passing. But what I really loved was shooting. He would roll the ball to me, this little toddler basically, and I would hit it back first time as hard as I could.
Your dad’s your dad, you know? You think they are impressed just because you’re their daughter, but after a while I could see it in his eyes. He really knew I could be special, that I could do things others couldn’t — things the boys couldn’t.
But it would take work. A lot of hard work.
He knew the odds were stacked against me from the start; this little Black girl from a small island in Brazil, in a world full of boys. If I was gonna be anything, I needed to be the best. And boy did he let me know it!
“Kick it back to me harder,” he would demand.
“Now over here…. Now, a little bit further out…. Focus on getting it in the air…. Now, hit the target!”
We would do a lot of that. Just me and my dad.
For him to see his daughter, competing with the boys — there were no girls’ teams where we lived — was the most amazing thing in the world, but the more he saw how good I was, the more he would push me.
The better I got, the greater the pressure and the tougher his feedback would get.
Even though I came to resent my dad for his harshness at times, I had to learn how to deal with our differences. My mom is a doctor and she worked crazy hours. Even before I moved to the U.S, it was often just me and my dad — on top of one another. We definitely missed that buffer sometimes!
But no matter how hard he pushed me, I didn’t quit. I took that frustration out on the field.
I would shoot harder.
“Is that good enough?!”
I didn’t feel frustrated at just him though. The truth is, it’s sad how many people in Brazil didn’t know how to handle a young, Black girl who just wanted to play soccer. Some of the things that I heard at a very young age were … Well, it was very upsetting.
I remember the comments from the sidelines when I would go to take corners. The way people snarled and screamed things in order to demean me.
“Look at this monkey.”
“Look at this lesbian.”
It wasn’t just a few people on the sidelines. It was everywhere at school too. I found it sad and immature, but I channeled it. I used their hate as fuel.
“Oh yeah? You’re gonna call me that? Watch this corner. Check out this shot. Watch the net rip!”
My mindset whenever I experienced racism and hatred was basically: O.K., you can call me what you want but that doesn’t mean I am any less than you. That’s a fact.
My mindset whenever I experienced racism and hatred was basically: O.K., you can call me what you want but that doesn’t mean I am any less than you. That's a fact.- Catarina Macario
That mentality allowed me to thrive on the pitch, but the thing is ... the games end, right? You still have to go home and sit with that. You can gain grit and determination from abuse, but I also needed role models. Female role models.
In Brazil, there was Marta, of course, and I could see my own experiences reflected in hers, but I was like, “O.K., who else is there?”
So, that’s when my dad went to Google and typed the words: best women’s soccer player ever.
And, right there on the screen, up popped Mia Hamm.
The ’99ers did their thing the year I was born, and Hamm had retired not so long after, so we missed watching that generation live. But thanks to YouTube, my dad and I became addicted to watching video after video. We watched everything. We studied her game but also the way the crowd reacted to her.
We saw entire stadiums full of people, screaming, “Mia! Mia!”
That’s a very powerful image for a young girl — even one sitting in Brazil, in front of the computer.
It wasn’t just her though. It was the whole USWNT team across generations: Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe — these amazing, badass women — that the whole nation was getting behind. They could be themselves, represent what they wanted, stand up for what they believed in, and the crowd loved them for it.
The team was playing on another level and setting the bar in women’s soccer.
From as early as 10, I knew that this was where I needed to be. And so did my parents.
When I turned 12, I wouldn’t be allowed to play with the boys anymore. To avoid the risk of my talent ending up completely buried and, most importantly, to give my brother and me a better education and a better future, my family decided to take this incredible leap of faith.
I can’t pretend it all happened overnight, just like that, but America became our collective goal.
While my dad researched the best locations for me and my brother in this brand new world, it was decided that my mom would stay behind to provide for us — even if Brazilian reals couldn’t compare to dollars.
So, because of a dream that started with shooting drills with my dad and watching Mia on YouTube, we moved 5,000 miles away, to a new home, a new language, a new everything.
Now, a lot of people are probably reading this thinking that this whole story sounds ridiculous. You really MOVED to another country for this dream? But you have to understand, when I saw the infrastructure, the investment, and the players on the USWNT, I knew I had to go.
I felt as though America really was the promised land.
So, on New Year’s Day 2012, my dad, brother and I moved to San Diego, California.
My first memories of our new home are of nice paved roads with no pot holes and big, fancy cars. Everything was new. Only my brother spoke any English at all.
The hardest part though was that my mom had stayed behind. I was just 12 the last time we lived together. I missed her a lot. It was tough, as you can probably imagine, being a teenage girl in a new country without her mom. Before I left, I still wasn’t eating vegetables or picking out my own clothes! And believe me, my dad wasn’t exactly the sort of person to go to when I got my first period! For that, I ended up texting two girls from my grade being like, “O.K. what do you actually do here??” There are times, as a girl, when you need your mom.
There are times, as a girl, when you need your mom.- Catarina Macario
I missed her a lot and that absence added to the building pressure. If I had bad games or bad practices, I would think, “I have someone else that’s working their ass off for me on another continent and I’m just doing horribly over here!”
Even at that young age, the competition in the U.S is unbelievable. It was one thing to be the best in Brazil, where I didn’t know any other girls who played. Here, I needed to do more to stand out.
My dad knew that too. He was my biggest supporter but also my toughest critic. During car rides after games and practices he would never fail to tell me exactly what I had done wrong.
His way of critiquing me reminded me of those memes, you know the ones: “I just think it’s funny how….”
As a teenager I hated it!
It actually got to the stage where I started begging my teammates to give me rides, so I could avoid him at least until I got home — especially if I knew I’d had a bad game
He had a thing about me scoring more, which as a forward is important, right? But I knew that sometimes if I played well without scoring that was just as useful for the team.
At San Diego Surf, I actually ended up breaking the all-time goalscoring record in the Elite Clubs National League, in part thanks to him and his constant comments.
I would literally beg the other girls to assist me in scoring, just so I didn’t have to hear it from my dad afterwards. At first, they found it strange. Like, come on, everyone wants to score, right?
But after a while they came to understand. They got to know my situation and the pressure I faced and could see what was up.
My relationship with dad got better when I got my own driver’s license and could take myself to and from soccer. Although, I have to tell you, the first time I tried to go to practice without him, I found him trying to hide in the trunk — seriously! Haha!
To be clear, I love my dad, but your relationship with your parents is already difficult when you’re that age — let alone when you’re trying to make it in another country!
One time at college, he asked me, “Why does every other daughter go to their parents straight after the game, and you don't come over to me?”
And I said, “Why do you think that is?!”
We’ve talked it out since and our relationship is much stronger for it. The pressure I felt on me back then was always about a lot more than one person, one game or one bad practice.
We had separated our entire family to come to a country where we didn't even know the language. We were risking everything for this. For me.
It was not good enough to be good. I needed to be the best.
Only the best would make coming to America worthwhile.
Only the best would help my mom to stop having to provide for us.
There were times when I wanted to go back home to Brazil, but at the same time I didn’t want to fail her. I wanted to make all her sacrifice worth it.
The struggle was tough, but was it all part of the journey that led me to Oct. 8, 2020.
I made it through the pain of missing my mom, through those awkward car rides with my dad, I made it through high school and on to Stanford University, and on that autumn day, I finally became a real American.
The date will forever stand out as one of the most important in my life. Even more important than getting my own driver’s licence!
It’s comical, really. After nearly a decade of striving and dreaming of this moment, the process of getting my citizenship was all over in 30 minutes. In and out, done. “Thank you, next!”
They asked me just six questions, that was it.
● How many voting members are in the House of Representatives?
● Who was the first president?
● What are two national holidays?
● When was the War of Independence?
● Which states border California?
● Who are the U.S. senators for your state?
I’d practiced for the test and there was no stopping me. I didn’t get a single one wrong!
And, just like that, I was officially an American citizen and a member of the USWNT. All in the same day!
Everything since then — making my international debut, scoring my first goal for the National Team and signing as a professional for Lyon … it’s been a whirlwind. To have the chance to play alongside some of the badass heroes I’d idolised as a kid, it still feels like a complete dream. Everything I dreamed about since I was 10 years old, it feels like it's all happening. But at the same time, this just feels like the beginning, you know?
If you go online and google Catarina Macario — just like I used to google Mia Hamm — the statistics show that I was here and I scored a goal for the U.S. I think about that a lot. I know it sounds simple, but it’s so huge for me.
No one can ever take that away from me.
Now that the pressure of getting here is finally off, there’s a different kind of pressure.
But to be honest, I want more.
Everything I dreamed about since I was 10 years old, it feels like it's all happening.- Catarina Macario
It’s like getting into college you know? It might be a struggle just to get in but that’s not the ultimate goal, right? It’s what you’re going to do with that opportunity.
I hope this is just the start. The start of more statistics, more trophies, more goals, more assists, more memories, more everything. I hope that I can be an inspiration for the next generation of little girls who love soccer. No matter where they are in the world, watching us on YouTube.
That’s why I wrote this story in the first place — as hard as it was to be this honest about my family and my life.
My story is not perfect. It’s been complicated. It’s been a bumpy road to those paved American highways I first saw when I was 12.
But, in the end, it’s definitely been a dream. More than a dream.
I just hope that I’ve made my parents’ leap of faith worth it.
I hope that I’m making them and my country proud.
So, that’s the long version of my story, at least for now.
Give it a while and google Catarina Macario and maybe I’ll have some more to tell you.