NEW YORK - With a blockbuster 2023 that shows no sign of slowing down, United States forward Mallory Swanson has shed her early "wunderkind" image and unveiled what she calls a "Mal 3.0" version of herself ahead of this year's Women's World Cup.
The 24-year-old flicked her seventh goal of the year into the net at the SheBelieves Cup last month in an astonishing run that underlined her claim to a spot in the squad when the U.S. seek an unprecedented third straight World Cup title.
ABSOLUTELY SWANSATIONAL!!!! pic.twitter.com/4BIHZb1F4F— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) February 23, 2023
But her meteoric rise has come with hard-fought battles. She was hailed as the future of U.S. soccer when she made her national team debut aged 17 in 2016. Months later, at 18, she became the youngest U.S. player to score at an Olympics during the Rio Games, a performance that saw enormous expectations placed on her young shoulders.
"I feel like (I was) labelled as something, when I first started playing soccer and I didn't really realize that as that was going on," she said.
Swanson earned a spot on the 2019 World Cup roster, helping her team to their fourth title in France and basking in a victory parade through Manhattan with her teammates. But the job grew harder. She suffered injuries that kept her off the field for long stretches in 2020 and 2021. When she was on the pitch, her performances were labelled "inconsistent."
When head coach Vlatko Andonovski named his squad for the 2020 Tokyo Games, she did not make the cut.
"One of the toughest conversations that she probably had in her career was with me when the Olympic roster was announced," Andonovski recalled to reporters at last month's SheBelieves Cup. "I'm glad she took the direction that she did."
Through the ups and downs, Swanson said she has learned to care less about how the armchair experts and critics view her career.
"I've learned that people are going to write a narrative about you and whatever that narrative is that doesn't have to define you," she added. "So I feel like now I have a whole different narrative on myself. And that's just to be Mal."
The 24-year-old has embarked on what she and her trainer are calling "Mal 3.0" — a newcomer no more — after he called her "Mal 2.0" following the 2019 World Cup.
"I feel completely different (than in 2019), to be honest. I feel like obviously I have grown up. I have some years under my belt now. I know what a World Cup takes and what happens," she said. "I feel good right now and just want to help lead and inspire as much as I can."
Her latest effort to that end is a new partnership with Cracker Jack and the Women's Sports Foundation (WSF), who this year are distributing a $5,000 award to nine young female athletes to fund their sporting ambitions. While she is all but assured of a raft of sponsors before the month-long World Cup begins in Australia and New Zealand on July 20 this year, the program known as "I Am Cracker Jill" would be uniquely fitted to Swanson, who spent her formative years in the pressure cooker of competitive sport.
"If you start comparing yourself or start saying, 'Oh, she did this, but I did this', you know, I feel like that's where it can kind of get into a dangerous, dangerous place," she said.
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Ken Ferris)