AUCKLAND, New Zealand – The curious email slipped unannounced into Seble Demissie’s inbox on her last weekend of innocence. She opened it on a Sunday morning in August 2014, with her soccer world still young and her daughter, Naomi Girma, still asleep. “Dear athlete,” it began. “Congratulations! You are part of the initial group of players selected to the U.S. Girls U-14 National Soccer Team’s upcoming training camp roster.” Demissie read it and read it again, confused.
It was meant, of course, for Naomi, a teenager destined for stardom at the Women’s World Cup.
But when Mom came into her bedroom early that morning, she didn’t come to celebrate the invitation; she came confused.
“My mom thought it was fake,” says Girma. “I didn’t know it was true.”
They both knew she was a precocious and graceful midfielder-turned-defender, but neither knew an U-14 national team even existed — because she lived inside an exclusive, complicated path that so often eludes first- and second-generation Americans like Naomi.
As the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants in San Jose, California, she grew to love the game but struggled to understand the systems that govern it. “It was not, for example, this road that we had seen broken up,” says Girma; and her parents, who came to America in their 20s, had never sailed it. They didn’t know where to find a competitive club or exposure within the alphabet soup of youth football leagues and sanctioning bodies; and even if they did, they would need travel and money to get into it.
They eventually gained access through sacrifice and support. Parents of teammates organized carpools; coaches scored opportunities. Naomi found out about an Olympic Development Program tryout, made her regional team and lit up on the USA Soccer U-14 radar. When she received the invitation to the national team, she shrugged it off and focused on her game that day, 30 minutes away in Palo Alto; but Demissie showed the email to their local club team manager, Jill Baldwinson, whose reaction was immediate: “Wow, congratulations!” (In other words: Yes, this is true!)
So Naomi left for Florida two weeks later. She settled in for a welcome appointment and her eyes bulged with surprise. She was already feeling out of place, surrounded by girls from the glorified National League of Elite Clubs; the coach then, April Kater, turned to a PowerPoint slide with a depiction of a pyramid. He illustrated the path from clubs to national youth teams to the US women’s national team. “Whoa!” 14 year old Naomi thought. “That’s crazy!”
She quickly climbed the pyramid and now stands atop it as an undisputed USWNT starter. She made her World Cup debut Saturday at age 23 and “looked like she had three World Cups behind her,” USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “So comfortable and flawless.”
But she still thinks about climbing; to the dozens of generous people and serendipitous events that made it possible. She reflects on the socio-economic barriers she overcame; but also for the thousands, perhaps millions, of children who cannot overcome them because they do not receive similar support and never gain 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, me A the person who wasn’t there could have been me.”
I feel like I was really lucky. Because if one person wasn’t there, it could have been me.
S ‘he would take things like that’
Naomi Girma’s story begins a world away from the USWNT, in 1970s Ethiopia, an East African country wracked by conflict and authoritarianism. Girma Aweke, Naomi’s father, was a young leader within an underground group opposing 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 had also come from Ethiopia to pursue school and 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, the monkey bars or the basketball court and learn without being taught. “She would watch what he did,” Demissie recalls. “And she would take things like that.”
She also took football once a week, on Saturday mornings. Her father would organize the games. He called them Maleda Soccer, but they were really community gatherings. Ethiopian American children would flock in oversized jerseys, divided into three groups: large, medium, and small. Meanwhile, their parents barbecued and helped each other get through life in a foreign land. They, like millions of other immigrants, found it difficult to decipher the various American institutions. 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 knew nothing about football records, so she asked Jenna’s mum, a neighbor and family friend, who broke the unfortunate news: “You just missed the test.”
But opportunity soon knocked; the team was depleted and a spot opened up. Naomi climbed into the back of Jenna’s grandparents’ truck and headed to her first official soccer practice. Demissie, who worked a 9-to-5 job at a bank, arrived after work to pick her up to find that Naomi was amazed at her ability. So she filled out the paperwork to make Naomi’s spot on the Central Valley Crossfire blue team official. And together, they went into a world that neither of them understood.
Navigating the youth soccer maze, with plenty of help
There was also a red Crossfire team and a white team. “It was the top team, the middle team, the bottom team,” Girma explains now, but at the time, even this arbitrary hierarchy seemed “weird.” The club eventually pushed Girma into the red team. But the jump came with side effects, challenges that countless working-class families have encountered in a soccer industry based largely in the suburbs.
“I think people underestimate how difficult it is to make a trip when both parents are working full-time and training is around 3 or 4 in the afternoon,” says Girma.
Other parents volunteered and sometimes made multiple afternoon stops — one at Girma’s public school, another at their daughter’s private school — to pick her up and push her to practice. She knows thousands of children 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 her parents spoke up.
She is also grateful to have had a Crossfire coach, Bob Joyce, who knew the dates and times for the ODP exams.
She eventually learned from her peers that she could “guest play” for elite clubs while remaining loyal to Crossfire, which she did.
She’s thankful her mom was willing to ferry her around the Bay Area to soccer events in their turn-of-the-century Toyota Camry whenever possible.
She’s grateful that USA Soccer found her off the beaten path and that teachers and school administrators would accommodate her when national youth team trips took her away from the classroom.
“At every stage, somehow, the right person would come along at the right time,” marvels Demissie.
And if they didn’t have?
“Oh my,” says Demissie. “Maybe she’d still be playing in the park somewhere.”
Girma’s authentic self shines through on World Cup debut
At each stage, of course, Girma’s talent pushed him to the next stage. It accelerated from U-14 to U-17, and then to Stanford. She led the Cardinal to a national championship. She became the choice no. 1 overall draft pick. She received the National Women’s Soccer League Defensive Player of the Year award as a rookie and earned her spot on the USWNT starting 11. Along the way, teammates and coaches raved about her silky ball skills and precocious maturity.
They also hail her football IQ and all-round 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 towards a Master’s degree in management science and engineering. She is also using her platform, even for the first time at the World Cup, to spearhead a mental health initiative and possibly save lives.
“You can tell she’s not just one of the best center backs in the world,” says Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe, the executive director of Common Goal USA, which helped Girma launch the initiative. “She is one of the most vocal attorneys I have had the pleasure of working with. It’s incredible.”
But perhaps her most famous attribute, years ago and today, is her calmness.
And its source, ironically, is its education. This shielded him from pressure and gave him room to love the game. Her parents never pushed her toward a college scholarship or the pros. “That,” says Demissie, “wasn’t our game plan at all.”
Instead, she would say to young Naomi: “If it works, it works. No stress. Just do your best. And either way, make sure you have fun.”
On Monday here in Auckland, Girma recalled that advice. It is now ingrained in her approach to football. She felt the usual nerves ahead of her World Cup debut, “but as soon as the whistle blew,” she said, “I felt that calmness, that confidence.”
“My mom always tells me, ‘Just be yourself and have fun,'” Girma repeated. “And that’s something I’ve stood by since I was a kid.”