Runs in the Family

“The basis of anyone who excels in a specific field begins with good genes but it’s what a person does with those genes that sets them apart from others.”

RUNS IN THE FAMILY: A story of how two sisters came to win Olympic gold
As a professional soccer player and a long-time member of the U.S. Women’s National Team, I often get the privilege of speaking with young players across the country. I like to share stories about my soccer upbringing, give them some insight into my youth soccer days and explain how I was able to achieve my goals of playing at the highest levels. These stories, of course, always include my older sister Gillian. She was my role model, my best friend, my biggest rival and my toughest critic.
Whatever Gillian did, I had to do better. Whatever I did, she had to match or exceed.
So was it a surprise that after she won an Olympic gold medal in softball, I wanted to win one as well, but in my chosen sport of soccer? Still, the odds of two sisters from the same family winning Olympic gold medals in two different sports are certainly long and in fact, as far as we know, it’s never happened before. The rarity of this happening is what got me thinking. What made us so different from other sisters? To get a better insight I asked my mom and sister what factors made it possible that two siblings could have so much success in two different sports, success that took them to the top of the podium on one of the world’s greatest sporting stages – the Olympics.

When I asked my mom what qualities she thought Gillian and I had in common, what drove us to excel, she was quick to say, “competitive, independent and stubborn.” In saying that, what surprised her most was how competitive we always were with each other. My sister and I were four years apart, had different friends and were at different stages of our lives, yet we competed in everything.
I believe it was because we were competing for our mothers’ attention. The way I saw it, as we got older, the more accolades one daughter got over the other determined who was the number one.
My sister believes that while we are two individuals with distinct personalities we are very much cut from the same cloth. A strong, independent, single mother, who provided the foremost influence in our lives, raised us. She was the one that inspired us to be the best we could be in anything that we tried. It only made sense that as we continued to excel we would compete with each other.
Yes, we were blessed with good genes but my mom also believed we both had this ability to understand how to play a game, whatever game it was, and how to find ways to win.
She gave me two examples:

The first was when I was four years old and played on an all boys basketball team. I was too small to throw the ball up to the rim of the basket to score. She said that I soon figured out that I could dribble down the court and pass it to someone bigger who could shoot.
The second was when I was a very young soccer player. My mom said that I never went into the classic youth soccer “swarm” of players. Instead I would wait on the outside for the ball to pop out to take it. If you have ever seen or coached soccer with young kids, you have realized how difficult a concept that is to teach them, but somehow I figured out that going into the middle of the swarm wasn’t going to help me score goals. I honestly think that watching my sister in sports played a huge role in my athletic development. Even when I was too young to play, and so frustrated that I couldn’t be out on the playing field. I would watch her intently and pick up ideas on how to excel at that sport.
When I asked my sister about what she believes set us apart she said, “The basis of anyone who excels in a specific field begins with good genes but its what a person does with those genes that sets them apart from others. Those who make it to the next level are people who recognize that they have a skill, who work hard to perfect it, and maybe get a lucky break or two, but who ultimately make both easy and tough sacrifices along the way. Oh yeah, there is also an absolute love of the game that also sets us apart. I think we had all of the above…and more!”

Listening to my mom talk about my upbringing led me to ask Gillian and myself a few questions as well. What do we remember as our driving force? What put us on the correct path to success?
Whether it was a combination of the love I got from my family, the role model I had in my sister, or the opportunities I had to play many sports as a girl growing up, one thing was clear: I seemed to always have a confidence in my abilities. Deep down I knew I had the ability to succeed and I just needed to find the path to get there. Even with setbacks, and there were many, I never wanted to quit. Even if someone or something set me back, I didn’t allow that to derail where I wanted to go. I knew better than that. I think my mom saw this quality in me at a very early age. When I asked her when she first thought I had the talent and mentality to be successful she told me about a soccer game I played when I was about 10 years old. It was a really hot day and she remembers me being so tired and hot that I probably needed to be subbed out for a water break. But I stayed in the game and I was playing all out. She remembers me pushing forward and finally getting a goal and then immediately staggering off the field. One of the dads came up to her after and said “If she plays this way when she is this little, think what she will be able to do when she gets older.” My mom realized then that I could do something special in this sport. My sister’s response to what drove her wasn’t far from mine. She said looking back on her younger years she was driven by her desire to do her best and finish ahead of those that were competing against her. She said she wasn’t sure where that drive came from, but realized that it was and still is a huge part of who she is today. As she has gotten older she has learned to curb that “have to win” attitude into something a little less aggressive. She admits she still “competes” in life, i.e. does her best, but she has learned that the end result doesn’t always have to be winning, that the journey along the way is the true prize.

I think back to when we were kids and wonder, why did we play? How did it make us feel? What made us want to play sports so much? Although I think I initially wanted to play sports because I saw my older sister play and I wanted to be just like her, as time passed I found out that I just loved to compete. I loved the idea of running around. The games didn’t even have to be organized. In fact, it was better if they weren’t. I remember going to the park and playing tag or pick-up football. We played basketball, waffle ball, dodge ball and sometimes we’d just make up games. Competing was and is a part of who I am. If I couldn’t compete, I don’t know if life would be as fun. Not that I have to win at all costs. I have, over the years, learned that losing can be a good lesson too. Of course, I would always like to win, but I think losing makes me even hungrier to get out there and try again. I have found that it’s primarily the act of competing that I love. Playing sports has given me confidence, and it’s taught me about leadership and how to deal with adversity. It’s given me lasting friendships and most of all it’s taught me to be selfless, that the team is greater than the individual. For Gill, playing sports made her feel good and she had fun doing it. It didn’t matter if it was the organized baseball or soccer game or playing tag at the park across the street. Playing sports was always comfortable for her. It was something where she found a common thread with others. Even when she started to get recognized for her abilities, she still played not for others but for herself. There was always a challenge on the horizon that she wanted to tackle. Playing sports was simple, pure…and fun.

I will always be indebted to my sister for my athletic success. She pushed me without even knowing it. When we were young, we “hated” each other. I was the younger sister who always got in the way, but one place I could always try to beat her was on the athletic field. I remember before I started high school, she challenged me to beat her in the amount of varsity sports letters I could earn. By my senior year I had accumulated 11 varsity letters to her nine. As we got older, our competitiveness with each other slid away and a friendship began to form. To this day she is still my number one role model in everything she does. I admire her ambition and her desire to succeed. I was so proud to watch her play in her Olympics. It was the first time I thought how cool it would be if I could do that too. When I finally did make the Olympics, she was the first one I called. She seemed so much more proud of me getting there than when she went herself.

After all these discussions, one thing is clear: the backbone to our success is our mother. None of this could have happened without the support she gave both of us. Although she was a single parent with a full time job, she found a way to be there for both my sister and me. I don’t ever remember a time when she said I couldn’t play a sport because she didn’t have the time or the money. She never pushed me to do one thing or another in sports; she just guided me along the right path. She taught me to be humble when I won and to keep my head up when I lost. She was the one person I could go to and ask how I honestly played. She also believed in finishing what you started. Gill remembers a time when she was in high school and wanted to quit playing club soccer in the middle of the season because she felt like she was stretched too thin, but our mom wouldn’t let her. She told my sister if she didn’t want to play the next season that was ok, but that she had to finish the current season. It’s a lesson Gill tries to follow to this day.

Our mom has been there through it all…the good and the bad. She gave up a lot of her free time to allow us to pursue our dreams but when I asked her what she missed out on the most during our sports upbringings, she simply said, “sleeping in on the weekends!”So, what conclusions did I come to about how one family could have gold medalists in two different sports? Well, in the end, it’s all about the family. It’s about the love and support through the ups and downs, about the people who guide you when you need it, and those same people letting you figure things out on your own when you need that. It’s about being born with good genes and then having the confidence and desire to do something with it. In the end, it’s about a family that created, whether on purpose or not, a nurturing environment for a young kid to pursue her dreams.