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Scaffolding A Dream: The Story of Nikki Marshall

Nikki Marshall did not skyrocket to the top, and that was the greatest thing that could have happened to her.

It’s hard to comprehend the speed, power, and creativity involved in a professional soccer match. Those who have played soccer all their lives think they know, but unless they have ever played professionally they really have no idea. Nikki Marshall of the Portland Thorns was one of the select few privy to that knowledge. She knew all about how a player could seemingly teleport with the ball at her feet, how she could bowl you over one second and then bend in an audacious shot the next. She knew all that, and was concentrating on it now more than ever. That’s the only way anyone can guard Sydney Leroux of the Seattle Reign and United States Women’s National Team; they must do it with complete concentration. 

35 minutes into the game, that concentration was put to the test for the umpteenth time. Leroux cut with the ball at her feet. All of the sudden she was on a break away. This was not the first time Marshall had been on the receiving end of such a move. It was a part of the game. Attackers attack, defenders defend, and that’s exactly what she planned on doing. Marshall called on every ounce of her athleticism in order to catch up with the streaking Leroux. She demanded the world from her body, and for the first time, it let her down. 

“I heard it in front of 13,000 fans. I heard it. I felt it. I knew exactly what had happened.” Her world-class athleticism had struck her down, destroying the very thing that it relied upon to function: her knee. There was no denying what had happened, no need for doctors and MRIs, although all that would eventually come. No, what Marshall really needed was on its way. She needed what everyone needs when things spiral out of control. She needed support.   

Photo: wikipedia

“A little town with a big future” - Mead town slogan.

Mead is a small town in Colorado, not too different from any other small town in middle America. 3,500 people, living in an area that most would have a hard time believing was established over a hundred years ago.

For many of these families, Mead is the embodiment of the American dream. The town is middle class. Many of its homes are hardly older than the middle-aged couples that reside in them. There are shopping centers and open land, an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. Mead, Colorado is decidedly American, and decidedly not a springboard for soccer.  

It should then come as no surprise that Marshall was not infatuated with the game to begin with. Her first love was softball, but it was a miracle that she fell in love with a sport at all. Young girls in middle America — in any part of America — are not pushed to become superstar athletes: not by their neighbors, and most certainly not by society and mainstream media. They are reminded again and again that sports is one world in which they do not truly belong. There are pitifully few athletic heroines celebrated by the media to look up to, and so they often look toward the heroes that their male counterparts and media alike adore. But even idolizing Derek Jeter, Michael Jordan, or Thierry Henry is a constant reminder of what roles society expects women to play, or rather, to watch. Mead wasn’t an exception to this rule. If a hotbed for female athletic achievement existed anywhere in the world, it was not located in Nikki Marshall’s small town.      

Being a woman, a young girl, and falling in love with sports is a romantic notion, but too often girls become disillusioned with the possibility of becoming a professional athlete because of the way our society values women’s sports. That much is clear to Marshall now, and she says as much over the phone. “The support and the development part of the women’s game is just far less than what it is in the men’s game.” But luckily for her, home provided what Mead could not.

The daughter of a loving parents, member of a loving extended family, Marshall was supported in everything that she did, even sports. Her father, an athlete and sports enthusiast to this day, made sure of that. In such an environment, her passion had found a cradle in which to burn. Despite all that was working against her, Marshall kept her love of sports, even if it was a love that changed its mind a few times. 

Simply put, the individualistic nature of softball was not enough for Marshall. She craved a team environment, and soccer satisfied that craving in ways that softball never could. But for everything that it provided her, the town of Mead did not. There were no real facilities, no truly competitive teams. It quickly became clear that chasing her dream demanded moving outside the provincial town. The nearest club that offered what she wanted, what she needed, was located an hour away in South Denver. She knew where she had to go, she had a team to play for, but none of that meant the rest of her journey was down hill.  

It is often easy to trivialize youth sports as easy going and void of responsibility, even though that is so often the opposite of reality. In club soccer, players face very real logistical, financial, and emotional demands. They have to be able to travel, more often than not covering hundreds of miles in a year; they have to be able to financially support spending that can reach thousands of dollars per year; and they have to be willing to visit new places, meet new people, and often for the first time in their lives work with a group of complete strangers.

Marshall dealt with this all, but she was not alone. Whether by blind luck or inevitable coincidence, Marshall had befriended a few other girls who lived in Mead and nearby Longmont who shared her love of soccer. These friends were the final column of support that neither her, nor her family, nor money could replace. The importance of this has never been lost on Marshall, “In the beginning I played for my friends…we kind of all played for each other I think.” She was fortunate to have found such balance in her support, but her fortune was the norm for countless boys her age. What they saw as a right of passage, she sees now as the fruit of a thousand blessings. 

Marshall and some of the dreamers that travelled to South Denver. Photo courtesy of Nikki Marshall.

Counting your blessings isn’t just a platitude, it is a life skill. And that is exactly what Marshall found herself doing in the immediate aftermath of her injury.

“I was so blessed because my aunt, my mom, and my sister were all visiting that weekend to see the game,” says Marshall. “It was just so good having them there.” Her family and her teammates were all there for her. Her coach had even personally escorted her off of the field. She was thankful for them, and for the fact that she could now just be another patient. The pressures of chasing a dream for which the odds were stacked against her gave way to the things that really mattered. So as she laid on the hospital bed in the hours after her injury, she began to contemplate the realities of the present, and the knock of the future at her door. 

Most 26-year-olds in 2015 are not forced to think about retirement after tearing their ACL. Their careers either do not depend on their physical ability, or advances in surgery have made a full recovery not a reality but an expectation. But a female professional athlete is not like most 26-year-olds.  

Just a year ago, she might have welcomed the prospect of retirement. Granted, back then, it would have been on her own terms. The hard truth for her, for all women, is that the life of a professional female soccer player is unsustainable without exceptional circumstances and simple luck. Unless they happen to be a marketable star, pay is poor — laughable when compared to their male counterparts. A second job is not an option, it is a necessity. When the responsibilities of family and friendship are factored in, as they so often are, players are often left with not enough time in the week to live, and a future for which the demands of the present prevent them from properly preparing.

Life after soccer for female athletes in America has no golden parachute. Their male counterparts may go broke at an alarming rate once they retire, but they at least have the money to blow once that milestone comes along. Female professional soccer players in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) command salaries in the range of $6,000 to $30,000 a year. If they want to reach the top, they must go all in, devote themselves entirely to their craft with the knowledge that success does not ensure financial stability. Sacrifice is the norm. “It’s a hard lifestyle. It’s a very difficult lifestyle.” 

Photo: womensfootie_id | Twitter

Nikki wanted to make the United States National Team. But she had to decide between chasing a dream, one that she knew that if she hadn’t achieved by her age, had very little chance of ever coming to fruition, and her future. If she stuck with soccer, she would be sacrificing everything for a league that didn’t pay well, worked her to death, and would spit her out by the age of 35 with precious few professional advantages to speak of. Even before she got injured, retirement wasn’t a failure, it was a smart life decision.

Her decision to forgo retirement was fueled by a mix of loyalty, luck, and love. Marshall cherished her 2013 NWSL season with the Portland Thorns. The city is one of the few true soccer cities in the U.S., and its passion for the game extends to the women’s side as well. “I would never choose to play anywhere else…if every [city] could be like that city then women’s soccer would sustain itself easily.” She had found the perfect place for her career, and not long afterward she found the perfect man for her life: boyfriend and future fiancé Tom Malone. But for a time it looked like all of that good fortune would be for naught.

Marshall had been traded twice in the offseason, and her rights had landed with Seattle. If she wanted to play, she had to leave the city, and the man, that she loved. But luckily, then-newly appointed Thorns head coach Paul Riley demanded Marshall be brought back to Portland, and she never had to choose between soccer and life.

Riley’s trade seemed to be a sign that everything was finally coming together, and for a while it was. The lows of the 2013 off season were thoroughly trumped by the highs of 2014. Marshall even got called up to the USWNT. She achieved her dream. Life, for all intents and purposes, was awesome. But then the injury happened.

Now, with the prospect of rehab, a year off, and starting over at the age of 27, Marshall’s determination was being given yet another test. A miracle disguised as good fortune had kept her in Portland, and now she had been struck down by a misfortune of equal magnitude. She had been a competitor all her life, but what she was fighting for was being flung further and further away by powers that were completely out of her control.  

Sometimes the hardest thing in life is walking away. We always espouse the greatness of those who keep going, and they are worth looking up to. They show courage in the face of adversity, but too often we refuse to realize that it takes just as much courage to know enough is enough. This was the struggle that plagued Nikki Marshall’s mind as she lay on that hospital bed, and it was a struggle that she could not run away from, knee or no knee. She had reached her darkest hour, and that night, her greatest ally would give her its ultimate gift. 

Photo: OrtizKicks | Twitter

The Olympic Development Program is the most prestigious youth soccer initiative in the country, aimed at one thing only: to gather the best young players in the world and groom them for international competition. In the grand scheme of things it is nothing but another step towards a dream, but for many players it is the first time in they are hit by the realities of competition. Players who have been local standouts for their entire lives are suddenly average, and many hometown heroes never make it. Having established herself in high school, Colorado’s ODP team was the next step for Marshall, and it was one that often seemed like she would never ascend. 

It’s hard to chase a dream that life repeatedly tells you you aren’t good enough to achieve, but that is exactly what Marshall did. She tried out for the Colorado ODP team a total of 10 times. 10, and she would only make it once. That’s 10 times that she worked hard, put it all out on the field, and was told the best she had wasn’t good enough. It takes a special kind of person to persevere through that kind of denial, a person with inner strength. Marshall had that strength, and it would pay off in the end. She would make the team in her last hurrah, as a U18, the last age group for which tryouts are held. 

Her struggles in making the team had left her confidence shaken. She began to wonder, if that last step was so hard to make, how hard would the next one be? Would she be up for it? Playing for a Division 1 college was the next step ahead of her, and after the trials and tribulations of making the ODP team, it seemed all the higher still. She understood what would be demanded of her, and that knowledge almost turned her victory pyrrhic.

“You just never really know. When you jump from one level to the next it’s just such a huge change, and you never really realize what a huge change it is. The speed of play is different. The creativity is different. You have to be a leader. It’s just humbling, very humbling.” She didn’t know if she could make it. Luckily for her, others did. 

The greatest coaches are not renowned for their ability to drill players to robotic perfection, or condition them to peak athletic condition. They are known as the best because they create a culture of belief in which their players are free to be the best that they can be. That is what Marshall needed, and it is exactly what Paul Hogan and Bill Hempen gave her during her time with Colorado’s ODP team. So many young players succumb to self-doubt, and for women, with society constantly telling them that sports are not what they are meant to do, its pull is even greater. If making the ODP team was almost her ironic downfall, then her coaches turned it into the springboard to a bright future.  

“Just having a coach or a couple coaches who invest in you and believe in you…is what propelled me to realize that maybe I could play at a higher level,” says Marshall. “[People like them] push you to be the best you can be mentally and physically at all times. And teach you how not to just be a better soccer player but be a better person.”

Through Hogan and Hempen, Marshall would be recruited by and end up playing for the University of Colorado’s Division 1 women’s soccer team, where she would go on to establish herself as perhaps the greatest women’s soccer player in the school’s history. She would hit highs, she would hit lows, but above all she learned what it took to believe in herself.   

“You just have to learn that there are going to be highs and lows. It’s just part of the trade…if you don’t learn how to deal with them early you are not going to succeed, you are not going to make it to the elite levels.”

And with such an illustrious college career, those elite levels inevitably came calling. Marshall was drafted in the first round of the 2010 WPS Draft by the Washington Freedom. It was the proudest day of her life. She had made it, and in doing so had learned more about life than she ever could have imagined. The lessons she had learned had helped propel her to the highest level of women’s soccer, and they would prove to be just as useful in dealing with defeat as they were in leading her to victory. 

A show of support for Marshall after her injury. Photo courtesy of Nikki Marshall. 

The night after tearing her ACL, after spending the day in the hospital surrounded by her friends and family, Nikki Marshall decided to go out. She didn’t revert back to some crazy college mentality and drink ’til the sun came up and her eyelids slid down, she simply went out with one thing in mind: to have a good time. It was one of the best decisions she had ever made, one of the highlights of her life. 

The night that Marshall had wasn’t perfect because it was an incredible adventure, or because she met someone new and amazing. It was incredible because she was herself, completely comfortable and living in the moment, not worrying about the future or fretting about the past. 

“That was the end of my season and I knew it. And so I was just able to kind of enjoy the people around me, and they were all my best friends and my family…It was a cool moment…A cool night.” 

Cool, not the aloof kind, but a zen-like kind that allowed her to just be. She talked, laughed, and didn’t force herself to act a certain way. She was surrounded by everyone that she loved, that had given her so much throughout her entire life, and that had allowed her to believe and compete and be the best person she could be. In the face of a potentially career-ending injury, under the weight of knowing she might never be able to compete again, it would not have been unnatural if she had found herself caught up, restlessly uncomfortable in the unknown, fretting this way and that over what had happened and what might be. Instead, she spent the night on the other side of the pillow. 

That kind of acceptance can be incredibly rare and fleeting. People, ironically, spend their lives chasing after it, as if it is some kind of goal to strive for, and not something that they inherently have, and have to simply acknowledge. The luxury of Marshall’s life is not that she was a talented world-class athlete, it was that her entire life had prepared her for that night. 

Her support system had always been there for her. Whether it was her father pushing her towards sports in a society that constantly told girls they weren’t for them. Or, her ODP coaches that were able to pick her up when she needed it, who were able to foster her belief. Her childhood friends with whom she set out to chase a life of soccer with, a life outside of Mead, and who were there for her when the only thing she could take with her was a dream and their friendship.

The greatest gift that these people gave her went so much deeper than simply being there for her. It wasn’t the support itself, it was that they allowed her to realize that she had everything she needed in herself. The end of her playing career was not a failure, it was a beginning. All of this came to her that night in the bar. It was pure acceptance, a high that no amount of pain or uncertainty could diminish, no amount of beer could dilute. 

The Marshall and Malone families. Photo courtesy of Nikki Marshall. 

Now, months after that night, Marshall has made her retirement from professional soccer official. It was a hard decision, acceptance doesn’t insulate from reality. The weeks surrounding it have been trying and full of emotion, but just like when her place with the Portland Thorns fell into question, a bright spot emerged, and it just happened to come from the very same source that had helped her out back then.    

“I was reflecting on my career and everything I was gonna miss about it. And then something brand new and amazing to look forward to happened…My fiancé, [Tom], proposed this weekend.”

Let it be said, Mr. Malone has great timing. 

Marshall is ready to give back to the game she not only loves, but that has given her so much. 

“I love the game…It’s been so good to me…My favorite part of my job as a professional athlete is seeing those young girls, inspiring them…We play for these young women who are dreamers. Who have a dream like we did when we were younger…I think you can do that just as much as a coach.”

Marshall can now provide the kind of support that she was so fortunate to receive throughout her entire life. 

“I have been able to compete at these levels first and foremost because I have had the most incredible supporting family. I’m not just talking about my parents, although they have been my biggest fans, but my aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas and cousins. They have just been an unbelievable support system. And I’m just so grateful.” 

She can be the role model that young girls and women look up to, someone who can teach them what it takes to succeed. 

“Being humble is one thing, and that’s very important, but I also think that being confident, and preparing yourself so that you are confident [is important.] No matter where you are right now, you can play at that level. You can tryout for ODP 10 times and never make it and then still play at the Division 1 level. I think that’s something that’s cool about my story, and that I want to share with these young girls. There’s always an exception to the rule.”

And she also, finally, just gets to be a fan of the game.

“I’m excited for this World Cup coming up. I’ll actually just get to enjoy the game.”

A girl from Mead, Colorado, with her mind on Canada, retired at 26, and starting the career her whole life prepared her for. Now that’s a balance worth striving for.