Christine Nairn of the Orlando Pride shares the joys and tribulations of being a female pro soccer player
Every time someone asks me, “When are you going to get a real job?” I want to punch them in the face. My name is Christine Nairn, and I’m proud to be a professional soccer player for the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League.
Every since I was young enough to stand on my own two feet, essentially serving as a human cone while my older brothers T.J. and Kevin weaved around me with a soccer ball, I wanted to be a soccer player. My older brothers didn’t care that I was a few years younger, or 30 pounds lighter, I was fair game. We went to war on the soccer fields of Maryland. I have the x-rays from my broken wrists to prove it!
At that age, there wasn’t even a women’s professional soccer league yet. Then the 1999 World Cup happened. If you’re too young to remember that game, you have no idea how much it changed the lives of women across the country.
I remember that final game, how the U.S. women carried themselves, and all I could think about was that I wanted to be like that someday. I especially loved to watch Aly Wagner. She wasn’t the biggest or fastest player, but she was always so smart on the field. To this day, I try to emulate her game.
Then the Washington Freedom of the WUSA came along. My mom and dad, my brothers and I were always at those games supporting the team, whenever we didn’t have games ourselves. I had the posters on the wall. Everything.
Going into college, I already had to start making tough choices. While my friends were going off to schools around the country, and I had the opportunity to play at Penn State, I was chosen to represent Team USA in the Under-20 World Cup. So while everyone was enjoying their college experience, I was home training and waiting to compete.
I was fortunate to be part of that team that won the U-20 World Cup, and that experience helped fuel my competitive fire when I returned to Penn State. Before long, I would get called up to train with the U.S. Women’s National Team, and I was on cloud nine. It was then that my coaches at Penn State called me in to have a talk that changed my life.
They told me that my attitude could be my biggest asset or my biggest downfall. If I wanted people to be around me and to become a complete player and a good person, it was going to depend on the attitude that I brought to the field every day. So I was either going to have to adjust my attitude or find something else to do. At that time, I was my own biggest enemy. I went home that summer and looked in the mirror. If this was something I wanted to do, I was going to have to push myself harder than ever before.
During my junior and senior year at Penn State, I started taking German classes, because I thought that would be the place I may have to go to play. The two previous women’s pro leagues in the United States had folded. After my career at Penn State was over, I was told that a new league was being formed, called the National Woman’s Soccer League (NWSL). The timing couldn’t have been any better for me. I remember talking to several of the teams who expressed interest in me. Then on the day of the draft, I sat home and waited, constantly refreshing my Twitter feed. That’s right. The first ever NWSL draft took place on Twitter. There were no fancy green rooms. No dramatic cell phone calls. It was just me, watching as Chicago picked first, then Washington, then Kansas City. When New York picked sixth and I still hadn’t been selected, I thought to myself that maybe this was it. Maybe I’ll never get drafted. Then the Seattle Reign took me with the seventh overall pick, and I knew I was packing my bags and moving to the other side of the country.
The road to being a professional athlete, especially for a woman, is fraught with all kinds of pitfalls, obstacles and exit ramps. You’re always one untimely injury away from not playing and falling out of favor. An opportunity to play may take you to another country where you’re the only American on the team, and no one speaks your language. I’ve seen really talented players walk away from the game, because the economics of being a pro are such a grind, that they couldn’t deal with the struggle of making a living any more. I couldn’t blame a woman for saying that they couldn’t live on a $1,500 a month stipend to pay my rent and food and training expenses.
For me in Seattle, I shared an apartment with my teammate and goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer, to save on rent. I was doing a lot of one-on-one coaching for girls to help make ends meet. I was going to do anything I needed to do, because I could not believe that someone was paying me to play soccer. It was my dream come true.
After a year in Seattle, I got a call and was told that I was being traded to the Washington Spirit. I was shocked. I had just finally begun to found some stability and routine in Seattle, and then, it was gone. When I was told I was being traded for Kim Little, a Scottish international player who was one of the best players on the planet, it eased the pain a little bit. Seattle was getting a great player, and I was getting a chance to go back home and play in front of my friends and family.
For the next three years, I actually lived at home while I played for the Spirit. At the time, I may have been one of the few NWSL players who was actually able to save what they were making. The third year I was there, I was the team MVP and we made it all the way to the championship game.
During that time, the league started to become a bit more stable. Where we were once afraid to complain about playing on a terrible field, we were able to stand up for ourselves a little more. The money started to get ever so slightly better. We were all in it together, fighting for our league and our place to play.
When you aren’t earning enough to make soccer your full time job, it creates other problems that fans don’t get to see. For example, when we go back home for the six months of offseason, it’s hard to get a job, because our employers know we are going to be leaving again in six months. Dating becomes really difficult when you can only see someone for a month or two, and then you are off to play again.
Despite the challenges, despite the absolute grind of it all, there is no place else I want to be. I’m now playing for a great club in Orlando, one of the best teams in the world. We have international stars like Marta, who now want to come play here in the U.S. for the challenge, the physicality, for what we are building here.
Almost every day, I hear from young women who are dreaming the dream I once did when I was their age. I tell them all the same thing, “If you really want to do this, you have to love it. You have to be obsessed by it. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be so rewarding.”
I’m in my sixth year as a pro now, the same amount of time that the NWSL has been in existence. I’m continuing to learn and grow every day. I’ve made fitness a much bigger part of my game than it has ever been. Someday, when I’m done playing, I want to open a gym so that I can help kids, athletes, grandmas, anyone that wants to come in and live their best life.
I’ve even started a little side business in a clothing line called Finding Euphoria. It’s a gift in life to find something that makes you so happy that it fuels your existence. Soccer has been that for me. So every time you come to a NWSL game, or watch us on television, you’re not only helping me and other women live our dreams, you are creating the foundation for millions of other girls to pursue their dreams as well. If that’s not finding euphoria, I don’t know what else is.