AUCKLAND, New Zealand – The curious e-mail dropped unannounced into Seble Demissie’s inbox on her last weekend of innocence. It opened on a Sunday morning in August 2014, with her soccer world still small and her daughter, Naomi Girma, still asleep. “Dear athlete,” it began. “Congratulations! You are part of the initial group of players selected for the squad for the upcoming US Women’s U14 National Team training camp.” Demissie read and reread, perplexed.
It was, of course, intended for Naomi, a teenager destined for Women’s World Cup stardom.
But when Mom walked into her room early that morning, she didn’t come to celebrate the invitation; she came confused.
“My mother thought it was fake,” says Girma. “I didn’t know it was real.”
Both knew she was a precocious, graceful midfielder turned defender, but neither knew there was an under-14 team – because she lived within a unique and complicated path that so often eludes first- and second-generation Americans like Naomi.
As the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants in San Jose, California, she came to love the game but struggled to understand the systems that govern it. “There wasn’t, like, this path that we saw laid out,” says Girma; and her parents, who came to America in their 20s, never sailed there. They didn’t know where to find a competitive club or exposure in the youth football alphabet soup of leagues and sanctioning bodies; and even if they did, they would need a ride and money to access it.
They eventually gained access through sacrifice and support. Teammates’ parents organized rides; coaches flagged opportunities. Naomi heard about an Olympic Development Program tryout, made the regional team, and got on the US under-14 soccer radar. When she received the call to the national team, she shrugged it off and focused on her game that day, 30 minutes away from Palo Alto; but Demissie showed the email to local club manager Jill Baldwinson, whose reaction was immediate: “Wow congratulations!” (In other words: Yes, this is real!)
So Naomi left for Florida two weeks later. She prepared for a welcome meeting and her eyes widened in amazement. She was already feeling out of place, surrounded by girls from the vaunted National League of Elite Clubs; then head coach April Kater opened a PowerPoint slide depicting a pyramid. He illustrated the path from clubs to youth teams and the US women’s national team. “Wow!” Fourteen-year-old Naomi, he thought. “This is crazy!”
She soon climbed the pyramid and is now at the top of it, as the undisputed starter for the USWNT. She made her World Cup debut on Saturday, aged 23, and “looked like she had three World Cups behind her,” said USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski. “So comfortable and spotless.”
But she still thinks about the climb; about the dozens of generous people and chance events that made it possible. She thinks about the socioeconomic barriers she has overcome; but also about the thousands, perhaps millions of children who cannot overcome them, because they do not receive similar support and never get access to the base of the pyramid.
“I feel like I got really lucky,” Girma told Yahoo Sports in an interview this spring. “Because, like one person who wasn’t there, it could have been me.”
I feel like I got really lucky. Because, like, with one person not being there, it could have been me.
‘She took things like that’
Naomi Girma’s story begins a world away from the USWNT, in 1970s Ethiopia, an East African country plagued by conflict and authoritarianism. Girma Aweke, Naomi’s father, was a young leader of an underground group that opposed the Derg dictatorship. As the violent crackdown intensified and claimed the lives of his friends, he fled – first on foot to Sudan and eventually to the United States. He settled in the Bay Area, where he later met Demissie, who also came from Ethiopia to study and pursue a career. They had a son, Nathaniel, in 1997; and three years later a daughter, Naomi.
And before long, they could tell she was talented.
She would follow Nathaniel to the local YMCA or a nearby park, to the monkey bars or the basketball court, and she would learn without being taught. “She watched what he did,” recalls Demissie. “And she took things like that.”
She also played soccer once a week on Saturday mornings. Her father would organize the games. He called them Maleda Soccer, but they were really community meetings. Ethiopian American children ran around in large T-shirts, divided into three groups: large, medium and small. Her parents, meanwhile, barbecued and helped each other navigate life in a foreign land. They, like millions of other immigrants, found many American institutions difficult to decipher. And one of the many was youth football.
Naomi came home from elementary school one day and asked Demissie: “Mom, can you sign me up for soccer like [her friend] Jenna?
Demissie didn’t know anything about soccer registrations, so she asked Jenna’s mother, a neighbor and family friend, who broke the unfortunate news: “You just missed the test.”
But the opportunity soon knocked; the team had thinned and a vacancy opened up. Naomi jumped into the back of Jenna’s grandparents’ truck and headed to her first official soccer practice. Demissie, who worked 9 to 5 at a bank, arrived after work to pick her up and learned that Naomi had been impressed with her skill. So she filled out the paperwork to formalize Naomi’s place on the Central Valley Crossfire blue team. And together, they ventured into a world neither of them understood.
Navigating the youth football maze, with lots of help
There was also a Crossfire red team and a white team. “It was a top team, a middle team, a low team”, explains Girma now, but at the time, even this arbitrary hierarchy seemed “strange”. The club ended up pushing Girma to the red team. But the jump came with side effects, challenges that countless working-class families faced in a soccer industry based mostly in the suburbs.
“I think people underestimate how challenging it is to get rides when your parents work full time and training is at 3pm or 4pm,” says Girma.
Other parents enthusiastically volunteered and sometimes made several stops in the afternoon – one at Girma public school, another at their daughter’s private school – to pick her up and take her to practice. She knows that thousands of kids across the country don’t get similar lifts. “Sometimes people don’t even want to ask for help,” she notes, because “they feel embarrassed.” She is grateful that her parents spoke.
She is also grateful to have a Crossfire trainer, Bob Joyce, who knew the dates and times of the ODP tests.
She eventually learned from her peers that she could “guest play” in elite clubs while still remaining loyal to Crossfire, which she did.
She is grateful that her mother is willing to drive her across the bay to football events in her turn-of-the-century Toyota Camry whenever possible.
She is grateful that US Soccer took her off the beaten path, and that teachers and school administrators accommodated her when youth national team travel took her away from classes.
“At each stage, somehow, the right person appeared at the right time,” marvels Demissie.
What if they didn’t?
“Oh my,” says Demissie. “Maybe she’s still playing in the park somewhere.”
Girma’s authentic self shines through in World Cup debut
At each stage, of course, Girma’s talent also propelled her to the next. She accelerated from U-14 to U-17 and then to Stanford. She captained the Cardinal to a national championship. She became the #1 overall pick in the draft. She captured the National Women’s Soccer League Defender of the Year Award as a rookie and earned her spot in the USWNT starting 11. Along the way, teammates and coaches praised her ball skills and early maturity.
They also praise his football IQ and general intelligence. Girma majored in “symbolic systems” – a blend of computer science, psychology, philosophy and linguistics – at Stanford, and graduated with a 3.92 GPA. She is now working intermittently on a Masters in Management Science and Engineering. She is also using her platform, even as a World Cup debutant, to spearhead a mental health initiative and perhaps save lives.
“You can tell she’s not just one of the best quarterbacks in the world,” says Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe, executive director of Common Goal USA, who helped launch the initiative. “She is one of the greatest advocates I have had the pleasure of working with. It’s amazing.”
But perhaps its most celebrated attribute, years ago and today, is its calmness.
And its source, ironically, is its upbringing. It protected her from the pressure and gave her space to love the game. Her parents never pushed her towards scholarship or the professionals. “That,” says Demissie, “wasn’t our game plan.”
Instead, she would tell young Naomi: “If you can do it, you can do it. No stress. Just do your best. And whatever it is, make sure you enjoy it.
Here in Auckland on Monday, Girma recalled that advice. It is now ingrained in his approach to football. She felt the usual jitters before her World Cup debut, “but as soon as the whistle blew,” she said, “I felt that calm, that confidence.”
“My mom always tells me, ‘Be yourself and have fun,’” Girma reiterated. “And that’s something I’ve had since I was a kid.”