The US Women's National Soccer Team's recent World Cup victory elevated discussions of equal pay and the power of female athletes to the national stage. It also drew sharp criticism, particularly against the post-goal celebrations in the early game against Thailand. Yet the biggest impact likely was on the girls and women who watched the grit and tenacity of their heroes through seven hard-fought games.
Every single one of those girls and women has a different story about how the World Cup impacted them. For some it fueled their dreams about their own future athletic pursuits. For others, it recalled, or even triggered, experiences from their past. One such story, from a former D1 field hockey player, was shared with us recently, and we would like to share it with you. While the sports are different, the themes that run through Emma's commentary are likely present for many of us in the women's rugby community.
By Emma Caviness
I grew up playing soccer, then field hockey for 10 years. My first best friends came from the rec and then high school teams. I remember countless days when I ate all 3 meals in the minivan in between games. The locker room was a safe space. As an energetic spaz, there were only a few places in my life that I could go 100% all out, rev in 5th gear, run around like I could. That place was the turf.
Sometimes people ask, “did you party in high school?” and my answer is a blunt, nope. Nope— because on weekends I’d be spending 6 hours training with the USFHA Futures program, weeknights I’d be at my high school team’s practice, and Friday nights I’d be starting and playing the full 60 min in games under the lights.
I learned my physical limits, the joy of being in sync as a team, and the ultimate satisfaction of working hard and achieving a goal, or goals, or a hat trick. Input, output. easy, peasy.
Committing to play D1 in the fall of my junior year of high school gave me a year and a half to relax while others were just beginning their college searches. Instead of relaxing however, I got to work quick, building a fragile tower of expectations for myself that led to inevitable, out of my control disappointment.
I was a top recruit, but before the first season even began I knew I was going to be a bench warmer, and I was relegated to the practice squad with little opportunity to improve, and little space to find a place to fit in on the team. Suddenly, the mechanism of self-satisfaction I relied on crumbled. The work-hard, achieve-success equation wasn’t shooting out the same results I was used to. This complication sent me spiraling, then sent me exploring the ways that the hard-work equation I relied upon replicated in other aspects of my life.
Furthermore, how was I supposed to manage the weightlifting schedule that was making my arms bulge out, while also fitting into crop tops to flirt with boys at my first college parties?
The conventional work ethic taught to athletes from the beginning of their sports careers is a deeply American one: If you work hard, then you can be whatever you want to be, a defender a forward, even a goalie. It’s a mini American dream. For the most part, as a white girl coming from the suburbs of Massachusetts, I had been cruising on autopilot within a bubble of privilege, with my moral compass oriented by the American dream.
Arriving into college with new independence, demanding D1 NCAA athletics, and with the social pressure to look good for men bubbling to the forefront of my mind, contradictions began to arise as my bandwidth was pushed to the limit.
Questions that used to drift by when I was younger suddenly became more urgent: why is that the only thing we talk about in the locker room, as D1 Ivy League students no less, is petty gossip? Why were we engaging in sport, an exercise of female strength, while we were focusing on making ourselves small enough to attract the attention of boys? Why is scrimmaging, playing against each other in practice, more terrifyingly aggressive than actual games? Why did we claim to be a family, but were barren of generosity, with drama and gossip the glue holding the team together, rather than love and support?
A quick shot at an answer: every ounce of our energy was used towards survival mechanisms; being a girl in college is hard. But, I was starting to see how so many of those survival mechanisms were designed to help us survive within a system of conflicting demands.
Field hockey was never as popular as soccer for women in the US. It began in my town as a sport for the athletic girls gone rogue who jumped ship from the institution of soccer. With chilling accuracy, the popularity of soccer was reflected in the popularity of the girls themselves; carpool groups to club practice laid the foundation for lunch room cliques, “sexy seven” squads and discomfort for the rest of us not quite out of it, but certainly not in it.
Don’t get me wrong, they were fierce. All these women that fall within the broad descriptions I’m using are badass and unstoppable. I admired the lunch room cliques and the swagger and unrestricted confidence they exuded, just as I admired, even fangirled, the seniors on the university field hockey team the year I was was a freshman, who filled any room they entered with their personalities so large, I’d feel plastered to the walls. I’m by no means shy or soft, but I’d become a wallflower in their presence.
Our American society is laced with influences that pressure women to turn their power against each other. As a former female athlete hailing from suburbia, boy am I familiar with it. I’ve channeled all my energy, including much fretting in mirrors, shit-talking other girls, and picking croutons out of salads, towards surviving within the system. But, I’ve realized the system is bullshit. The rule book of: input of hard work, output of success isn’t real, this mechanism of success the American dream relies on is a type of fairness that only straight, cis, white men are afforded. The rest of us with identities that are a little stretchier, a little less ready-made, a little queerer and little less white, are stuck with paradoxes and oxymoronic societal pressures teaching to be strong but to make ourselves small.
The system is bullshit, okay? Got it. The American dream has given women a wee slice of space to exercise their proficiency as athletes. The danger of arming girls with the tools to tap into their inner strength, is the possibility of them using it.
So, without further-a-do, let me gush about my celeb crush, my idol, my sudden everything, the American flag I now salute: Megan Rapinoe’s US Women’s National Soccer Team.
Today, I watched Ashlyn Harris’s 10 minute long Instagram story of chugging champagne on the float through NYC, and then I turned on my screen recording and watched it again.
Did I avidly follow the whole women’s cup? No. (But here is where I started to catch up.) Frankly, I can’t watch women’s sports these days with out getting antsy. It hits a little close to home to see close ups on players 70 minutes in without a sub having to sprint for a ball, a type of stress and exhaustion I can relate to in a way that is just uncomfortable enough to avoid. Furthermore, I don’t have to keep my eyes glued to every game to know I’m witnessing utmost excellence. You don’t have to be a soccer fan to revel in the glory of this team.
That said, my eyes are super-glued to their celebration, and I am 100% watching recaps, and play-by-plays of Alex Morgan spraying champagne all over the crowd.
No, I’m not a bandwagon fan. I’m just here for the women.
I’m here for women taking up space. I’m here for women who are claiming their DESERVED pay. I’ll say it again, DESERVED, as in THEY DESERVE THIS. WE DESERVE THIS. I’m here for women in suits, who are sexy as hell and no one can deny it. I’m here for women being silly and strong at the same time, beautiful but not for you, superhuman-skilled and also just human, women who fiercely love their squad, and support all women, femmes, and men, too. I’m here for the women that are the celeb couples we’re swooning over. This isn’t about equal pay or LGBTQIA+ rights because I’m not here to persuade you about those things. As Sue Bird (a legend), Megan Rapinoe’s girlfriend said in her Players Tribune Op-Ed, “If you’re not on the right side of this fight, and advocating fiercely for equal pay — whether it’s in soccer, or basketball, or in any other industry, and across every intersectional boundary — then I just straight-up feel bad for you. Because you’re sad, and wrong, and going down.”
I’m here because the rowdy, full force, unapologetic women of the USWNT are exuding the power of the high school lunch room soccer cliques and intimidating D1 field hockey captains in a different direction. These women are working hard and achieving success within their OWN system. They OWN their own rule book.
There is power in gossip, cliques, bitchiness and drama queens. As Ashyln Harris put it, “you’re f*cking welcome for this content, bitch!” The USWNT is giving me a glimpse of an American dream I can salute.