March is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ third annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world.
Becky Sauerbrunn is a Team USA defender and co-captain who has seen the explosion in interest in women’s soccer.
A defender, Sauerbrunn, 31, has been part of teams that won the gold medal in the FIFA World Cup in 2011 and the Summer Olympics in 2012, as well as a silver in the 2015 World Cup. She was not a full-time starter in 2011 and ’12, but has grown into a cornerstone of the national team program and has become a spokeswoman for equal pay.
She also has played professionally overseas and in the United States — winning defender of the year the last three seasons in the National Women’s Soccer League.
Her combination of physical ability, smarts and commitment to “constantly finding a solution to a problem in front of you” has made the best center back in the world.
Sauerbrunn spoke to USA TODAY High School Sports about how she found soccer, why she stills loves it, the state of the game and her advice for younger players.
GIRLS SPORTS MONTH: See more athlete interviews here
Q: When did you know sports was going to be part of your life?
A: I would say in middle school. I was 14 and I was watching the 1999 Women’s National Team win the World Cup. I remember thinking, Man, I really I want to experience what those players are experiencing right now. They just seemed to happy and so joyful. I had to know what that was like it. That was the moment I that decided this is it for me. I’m dedicating myself. I need to know what that feels like.
Q: Did you play other sports in high school and why did soccer speak to you?
A: Through high school, I played basketball, volleyball and soccer. I dabbled briefly in softball, but found out right away, that was not a sport for me. Why does anyone take to anything? I just loved it. When I would go outside to play, it was with a soccer ball. My parents noticed that. They were a great support system and helped me along the way to make that a possible option for me. I loved the sport and took to it really early.
Q: From your experience, where do you stand on whether kids should play multiple sports or specialize?
A: There are benefits to playing multiple sports. I also think there are benefits to just going outside and playing around. I’m not a great proponent specialization, especially at a young age, because you do see that it leads to injury or burning out early. I also think it’s great for your body to experience physically but just learning a new game, the tactics and strategy and being on a new team with new teammates and making that work. I am in favor of playing as many sports as possible.
Q: Having been with the National team for a number of years, what’s your sense of how the way fans and the sports world have reacted to the team over that time?
A: It’s definitely trending up. I remember right before the 2011 World Cup and we would have games in the United States and we would have a decent amount of fans. Then we go to the 2011 World Cup in Germany and when we come back, all of a sudden people know who we are. They know the team and they watched the games. Then winning at the 2012 Olympics, it was another level higher — more people know who we are and we’re getting asked for interviews. Even now, the game continues to grow. We’re pushing both and off the field for the sport to continue to reach new levels and break new boundaries. I hope to continue the trend going forward.
Q: One of the issues that came up after the team won the World Cup was the pay disparity between men and women and the team filed a wage discrimination action against U.S. Soccer. What impact do you think that had on how the system was viewed?
A: It’s opened people’s eyes. You see us in 2015, winning the World Cup and a lot of the topics that were brought up and a lot of the questions that were asked were, Hey, did you realize if you were a man, you would have made this amount of money compared to what we made, which was incremental.
We have continued to fight and negotiate for equitable treatment and equitable compensation. We’re fighting for the players’ economic and social welfare and pushing the boundaries and raising the bar so others can do the same in sports and in business and anywhere.
Q: We are in the midst of the dispute between USA Hockey and the women’s national team over pay. Is there an applicable comparison or is that not your fight?
A: It’s everyone’s fight. If one team gains a little success when it comes to equal treatment and equitable pay, that’s one battle. Hopefully that’s motivation and inspiration for others to fight for their value. Hopefully it doesn’t become just women’s hockey or women’s soccer, but women in general fighting for better pay and better treatment.
Q: You have played in the Women’s Professional Soccer league and now play in the National Women’s Soccer League. Where is women’s pro soccer in the United States?
A: We’ve had leagues come and go. The way this league is structured is a good step. That we’re entering a fifth season is also a good sign of the sustainability. We have to take incremental steps. Make every team as professional as it can be, but now where it breaks the bank. Every team, every season, are the facilities there? Are the players being taken care of on and off the field? Do we have the right medical staff? Do we have the right coaching staff? We have to be asking the right questions and be sure we’re implementing the procedures.
Q: What should young players know about trying to make a living as pro soccer player?
A: It’s not an easy job. From the beginning, you have to find the fun in between being challenged. In soccer, you learn a skill and then you work on it and then work on it until finally one day you execute the skill. It’s a great feeling. The feeling of accomplishment is extremely empowering. It gets harder and harder as you go progress through the sport. You have to find the fun and continue to learn and adapt to the game and adapt to what your abilities are. It’s a difficult process.
Q: Is finding that fun what keeps you going?
A: The game is always changing. I’m getting older. Maybe I’m not as fast or as strong as other players so I have to find new ways to make sure I’m at my best. It’s constantly finding a solution to a problem in front of you. It’s extremely fun and addictive and definitely a reason I have stayed in the game this long.
Q: The Swedish women’s national team recently replaced the names on the back of their jerseys with empowering slogans during a tournament in Portugal. What did you think of that?
A: I thought that was great. I saw a few pictures on social media. If a little young woman is seeing those quotes and feeling empowered, that’s awesome. Every little bit helps. Maybe one little girl sees that and says I want to be a soccer player. I want to have that effect on somebody. That’s huge.
Q: A number of communities are hamstrung by not having the facilities or field for kids to participate. What advice would you give them?
A: You should do research and look into programming that’s offered. The U.S. Soccer Foundation has wonderful programs whether it’s an area that doesn’t have fields or something else. There are programs out there that are doing amazing things. It’s just finding them and getting into contact them. … Look at Marta. She said she grew up playing in the streets of Brazil and she’s five-time FIFA player of the year. There is no excuse. All you need is a ball and a wall and you should be set for hours.
Q: Anything else you want young athletes to know?
A: We need to find a way to redefine what failure is. I think a lot of young women initially fail at something and immediately decide that’s not for me. We need a way to show failure is feedback. You didn’t execute it that well that time, but who said you can’t do it if you just show up and again and again. It’s important to make sure failure isn’t seen as the end all be all, but just one little step in a long process.