When Mira Wilde was 8 years old, she wanted to cut her hair like one of her idols, Ellen DeGeneres. So she did.
Fast forward two years, Mira, now 10, still has short hair — though now she’s mimicking a new idol, Abby Wambach, the 2015 World Cup soccer champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist.
About a year and a half ago, Stella Blau cut her hair short, too. Stella, now 11, also wanted to look like Wambach, as well as another idol, U.S. women’s national team midfielder Megan Rapinoe.
Adah Lacocque, now 10, was only four when she cut hers, mostly because she didn’t want to get yogurt in it or deal with the tangles. Now, it’s part of her identity.
All three play soccer on a Madison girls U-11 club team, the 56ers. What has taken the girls, their parents, even their coach by surprise is the impact of that style choice.
They’ve been ridiculed by opposing parents, coaches, even referees, all of whom refused to accept that they were not boys. At tournaments, they have been asked to prove their gender, and were told they didn’t deserve medals.
But instead of giving in and growing their hair out, the girls, with the help of their parents, coach and soccer club, are sticking with each other — and with their look. After a summer hiatus, they’re preparing for a new season beginning in September.
Molly Duffy, coach of the team the last two years, remembers holding a meeting at which parents voiced concern about people commenting on their short-haired daughters. She took it with a grain of salt.
“I thought this honestly can’t really happen,” Duffy said. “I didn’t take their warning as serious as I probably should have.”
One opposing parent went up to some of the girls and asked their names.
“My daughter responded with ‘Stella’ and the parent didn’t believe her,” said Tom Blau. “My daughter came back to my wife and just cried.”
Blau said it’s not uncommon for opposing coaches and parents to scold them for having boys on the team. They tell the girls the only reason they win is by cheating.
“People have said they’re afraid their daughter is going to get hurt playing against boys,” Blau said. “(Our girls) are just physical and are playing the sport the way it’s supposed to be played. When we tell a parent on the other team that they’re girls they just say, ‘Yeah right.'”
Once, the team went up to receive medals at a tournament, but didn’t get the congratulations that they thought they deserved. A referee told the girls they didn’t deserve to get medals because they played with boys on the team.
“They say, ‘They’re too good. They move like boys,'” Julie Minikel-Lacocque, Adah’s mom said. “All these players have experienced the same discrimination, and I really would call it that. From teams demanding passports and accusations of cheating. It’s incredibly damaging to the girls.”
Duffy said that before a player can be put on a roster or participate in a tournament, the parent needs to turn in a birth certificate to verify not only their age, but also their gender.
Yet at a tournament in the fall season, an opposing coach came up to Duffy and said it looked like she had boys playing for her team. Duffy provided the other coach with the playing cards of the girls, but after that incident, Duffy went to the parents and asked how they wanted her to handle the situation going forward.
Ever since then, she and the parents have made it part of their protocol to go up to parents, coaches and referees before every game to let them know that the team is made up of all girls.
Now, if the girls hear complaints, Duffy said, they often just shrug it off.
“For the lack of better words, my girls are bad ass,” Duffy said. “They’re faced with this kind of situation and they take on the attitude of: ‘You know what, we got this.’ They are confident in what they do.”
In June, the 56ers were touched by the story of a Nebraska girl whose youth soccer team claimed it was disqualified from a tournament because organizers thought she was a boy. The girl, Mili Hernandez, just wanted to have short hair like Wambach.
The incident caught national media attention, including Wambach’s and former USWNT soccer star Mia Hamm’s, who both spoke out publicly on the matter.
The 56ers sent letters to Hernandez with “be you” written all over.
“The girls all wrote letters with underlying tones of just be you,” Duffy said. “They let her know they had her back and said ‘Hey, you be you. We support you from Wisconsin.”
The team took it one step further and created “Sixer Strong” T- shirts to remind everyone that “power doesn’t come from a haircut, but from a passion for the game as well as the freedom to be who you are.” The front of the shirts says “Try and keep up,” with a reference to the Title IX ban on discrimination.
“I hope at the very least it makes people pause and think, ‘Hmm, maybe I should reflect on my bias views. Maybe I should think about what I just said or what I just did,'” Minikel-Lacocque said. “‘Or even better, ‘Maybe I should pause and not even go over there and say something.'”