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The Lowdown: Is Joanna Lohman the most interesting player in NWSL?

Joanna Lohman has made soccer her life, partly because she loves to play, and partly for the platform it gives her to be a champion for human rights (photo courtesy: EVOKIST Photography)

Joanna Lohman has made soccer her life, partly because she loves to play, and partly for the platform it gives her to be a champion for human rights (photo courtesy: EVOKIST Photography)

On July 19, 1999 the U.S. national team accepted president Bill Clinton’s invitation to the White House to celebrate their World Cup championship. Their win nine days earlier and the World Cup that preceded it were landmark events for women’s sports. Now known affectionately as the 99ers, the team’s residual effect on the female athletes that followed them is untold.

One of the future athletes reached that day was also at the White House. Joanna Lohman was 17 and her youth club was one of several from the area invited to take part in the festivities. Lohman had already been playing soccer for 11 years and was being recruited for a Division I scholarship. But being at the White House with the World Cup champions gave her a window into a world she remains in nearly two decades later.

“At a certain time the women’s national team started to become more popular so although I didn’t know I could be a professional soccer player in this capacity, I thought I could one day make the national team. But that was more of a distant goal,” Lohman said during an extensive interview late last year.

“It wasn’t until the ’99 World Cup where I really thought ‘This is powerful. There is something here that we can grow on.’”

Seventeen more years—plus a few months—have passed since that fateful day. During that time Lohman has not only made it as a professional, she has carved out a unique niche for herself. Over the last 17 years she has been a college star, played for the national team, been engaged to a man and to a woman, and overcome a serious back injury to get to the brink of a World Cup roster. She has kept company with heads of state and played sand soccer with the children of Botswana. And she has become a powerful advocate for LGBT rights and acceptance.

Joanna Lohman has never been the best player in the world and has rarely been the best player on her team. But one thing is clear to us – Joanna Lohman has had the most interesting career of any current NWSL player.

Finding a love for the game

Joanna Lohman grew up in a small community called Robinhood. Her formative years were the mid-to-late 1980s before cell phones, CNN, and other elements sent suburban kids indoors.

“I feel like I was so lucky in the way I grew up. I could walk to my elementary school; I could walk to my community pool. I grew up in a day in age where there were no cell phones. So all you did was just play with your friends all day long.

“When they say it takes a village to raise a child, I had a village that raised me.”

A self-professed tomboy who said she was athletic by age 2, a young Joanna Lohman befriended mostly boys. She also had an older brother and would often hang out with him, usually playing sports with their friends at every possible moment.

Her best friend Robbie Hibbert’s mom was coaching a team and Jo signed up to play. “I did it just because I loved it and it was a way for me to be around my friends. I just loved to chase the ball. I think I was six years old.”

As Lohmam gets ready to enter the back half of her 30s later this year, her love for the game is as strong as ever. The easiest evidence comes in the wonderful season she had in Washington last year, but Lohman’s love for the game extends well beyond just playing professionally.

Many afternoons following training, recovery, and some lunch, Lohman slips out of her apartment, grabs a bag of soccer equipment from her trunk and scoots across the street and through a barely perceptible trail in the woods to a small field. It is more of a baseball field than a soccer field, but Lohman spends time each day working one-on-one with young players, many of whom have dreams of playing professionally or for the national team.

“I’m passionate about the game and I’m passionate about building self-actualized human beings,” she said.

Lohman says that coaching is part of being creative in order to make a living playing for less than ideal pay on offer from NWSL (at 34, she has left host families behind and makes a go of it sharing a two-bedroom apartment with her best friend Charlotte), but to watch her in action, the passion is tangible. The parents of the players I was invited to watch spoke glowingly of Jo and some have become Washington Spirit fans just so they can watch her play at the Maryland SoccerPlex.

When the Spirit are in season Lohman tends to do more directing during coaching sessions but in the offseason, “I’ll tend to train with my clients, everything they do I’ll do with them.”

She takes a genuine interest in the players she trains and in turn, they are eager to share their own experiences about playing soccer or even some of the usual minefields that come with the territory of growing up.

“If I can get out on the field and use soccer as a vehicle to build strong, independent teenagers into women, that’s something that I value a lot.”

spreading her love around the globe

Lohman’s jaunts to the field at the other end of the wooden trail are hardly the only way she spreads her soccer wings. Last fall she went to the other side of the world to train young Batswana girls as part of a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. After getting her passport up to date and taking the requisite pills to ward off typhoid fever, malaria, and a few other maladies native to Botswana, Lohman made the trip to south central Africa and spent two weeks mostly imparting her wisdom on 12-16 year old girls and their coaches. She also took some time to go on safari in Zimbabwe (which required just a little more preparation) and attend the Marine Corps Ball.

She called her time in Botswana, “extremely fulfilling for multiple reasons,” and quickly realized how different and how similar she is to the players who arrived for a five-hour day of playing soccer in 105 degree temperatures sans shoes.

“They (were) legitimately barefoot,” she said. “I was shocked. Maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked because they play in their villages and their fields are mostly sand. So that was a challenge. I never thought I would be coaching players that didn’t have any shoes. And simple things like sports bras and equipment that are second nature to us–I would never think they wouldn’t have them–they didn’t have these things.

“It was inspiring and heartbreaking all at the same time because you realize just how little these girls have.”

Lohman, who said she was honored just that the players met her at the top turf field in the area for the simple reason that many rarely if ever leave their villages, was quickly able to find the common ground she knows best. Soccer.

“It never affects their attitude,” she said of the Batswana girls not having so many things we take for granted as staples in much of the United States. “They’re always so excited and passionate about the game and have a strong desire to learn. They think it’s so neat that they’re there with a professional soccer player that’s come from America and given their time and energy for that given day.”

Lohman also gave a coaching clinic to try and leave some of what she brought to Africa with those who will continue working with the players in the weeks and months that followed.

“For me it’s so important to educate the educators,” Lohman said of what she called one of the highlights of her trip. “I’m there for one day. They see them every single day. I know, having played the sport and being around it for so long, coaching and being around women’s sports and trying to inspire and empower these young women, it’s a hard job. There can be very little support from your community. You’re almost like a pioneer.

“When I had the coaches clinic I sat in there in front of all the coaches that I just met that day and I said to them, ‘I’m not going to sit here and tell you exactly what you go through but we’re all on the same mission of trying to empower these young girls and trying to build their leadership skills just to make tomorrow better than today.

“When you empower a woman, you empower a community.'”

The Botswana trip happened less than two months after Lohman’s Washington Spirit suffered a crushing defeat to the Western New York Flash in the NWSL Championship. One of the things that helped her through the moment was being able to get hugs from her mother and father.

“We’re coaches and we’re parents and we’re there as figureheads to try to lead them, but at the same time we’re there to love them and hug them when they’re sad and point them in the right direction.”

Lohman said she felt good leaving the coaches clinic and was amazed she was able to use soccer to get the girls laughing. She feels like her short stay was enough to help break down some of the cultural barriers the youngsters were facing whether they be gender, political, or socioeconomic.

Perhaps the moment that did the most to knock down those barriers was when the U.S. Ambassador and several Batswana dignitaries took the field and played alongside the girls—and Lohman.

“It puts life into perspective,” she said. “At the end of the day we all want to feel loved and connected to one another. It was really neat that I was able to provide that type of experience for them.”

Down the road, Lohman would like to put together a global curriculum for coaches from all over the world to reference. Two important things she took away from Botswana were: 1) most of the coaches there are less soccer lifers and more local leaders playing catch-up on techniques; 2) whereas a typical training session in the U.S. is likely to have more soccer balls than players, teams in Botswana are thrilled to have a ball to play with.

“How can you create a more realistic curriculum that represents their circumstances, drills where you have 30 kids and one ball? How can you still work on passing and dribbling? How can you still impart the nuances of the game when you don’t necessarily have the ideal environment to coach?”

from wusa heartbreak to thriving in nwsl

In order to become an ambassador, Joanna Lohman needed a platform. That platform has been professional soccer. She is still going at 34 even though the national team is planted firmly in the rearview mirror. At an age when most players are slowing down, many believe Lohman was never better than she was in 2016. But 13 years ago, Lohman’s dreams shattered.

After the White House in ’99 she became more serious about picking a college. She chose Penn State (over Duke, Michigan, and Virginia) and graduated as a two-time NSCAA first team all-American as well as being a MAC Hermann Trophy finalist as a junior. No one was projecting her as anything but a 1st round pick.

Then one September day she was walking through the campus quad when one of the men’s assistant coaches stopped her. “(He) told me the league (WUSA) folded. I didn’t have any idea.”

By that time Lohman had already deferred the Spring semester in order to play in the league and it was too late to backtrack.

“I was fully prepared. I had already made the decision that that league was going to be around and I was going to be one of the top draft picks. It definitely was a shock to me. I still stayed out that semester and just traveled with the national team and just focused on soccer. I went back to school that fall. But all of a sudden you’re scraping figuring out what you’re going to do next.”

Joanna Lohman scores on a bicycle kick on opening day of the 2016 NWSL season (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Joanna Lohman scores on a bicycle kick on opening day of the 2016 NWSL season (photo copyright EriMac Photo for The Equalizer)

Lohman went back to the D.C. area and played for Jim Gabarra who had kept the Washington Freedom alive by taking them into the W-League. She also spent some time with the national team winning a total of nine caps.

One day in 2006 she took a ball down with her chest and quickly turned to play it to a teammate when she heard a pop. “Being the player that I was, I was just like ‘Oh, that hurt and I’ll ice it.’ I played all week long.”

Little did she know, every time she stepped on the field the damaged nerves in her back were getting worse. The next weekend in a match at the SoccerPlex she literally fell to the turf while dribbling the ball. “I went to see a doctor the next day and he said ‘You need to see a spinal specialist.’ He said ‘You can try to rehab it or you can have surgery to remove the herniated portion of the disc which maybe a faster recovery.’ I said ‘Let’s have the surgery and get it done.’”

A funny thing happened on the road to recovery. Joanna Lohman realized that she was—and is—the type of player that has to be constantly working. The time off allowed her back to heal but it caused her game to atrophy. She wound up being drafted by Saint Louis Athletica in WPS but by then doubts about her ability to stay healthy had led her to begun dabbling in commercial real estate. Athletica were nice enough to trade her to the Freedom where by her own admission, “looking back I wasn’t in the Freedom’s plans for ’09 so it was a really rough year for me because I didn’t play (7 appearances total).”

Lohman decided to spend the offseason training in Japan with Rebecca Moros. They were not official members of the NTV Beleza team that then included Homare Sawa, but they trained every day. She calls it one of the best experiences of her life.

“They’re a culture that is just so industrious. They work so hard. Technically they are what you aspire to be. You could drop a ball from an airplane and they could take it down no problem. So I go to Japan and I’m thrown in the deep end. No one speaks English. I gotta learn the language. The coach doesn’t speak English. I’m the worst player, literally, every single day on the field. That is extremely humbling. I just adapted. I found my love for the game.

“I wasn’t on the team so I didn’t get to play in the games. So there’s no pressure to mess anything up that much. I was given the opportunity in that safe environment to grow. That’s what I really needed. I needed to be pushed in a way that, no offense to the United States, I couldn’t be pushed like that here because they train so differently over there.”

Lohman said the difference between the United States and Japan is that the U.S. game is based on athleticism while the Japanese game is based on technique. Neither is better she said because both cultures train to their strengths.

“What I needed to work on, my greatest weaknesses, I was able to work on and strengthen in probably the best training environment in the world over there.”

Lohman eventually picked up on enough of the language to get by. When asked, she claimed to have retained almost none of it before quickly launching into an impromptu Japanese lesson. When she returned, she had been drafted by the Philadelphia Independence in the WPS expansion draft and twice played in finals in that league.

Philadelphia is also where Lohman met and began dating teammate Lianne Sanderson. They became engaged in a relationship that lasted until the pair were teammates for two years with the NWSL Boston Breakers. The relationship ended near the end of their time in Boston. Dating a teammate is a venture Lohman would just as soon not delve into again.

“Working and sharing a business with someone (I’m dating) is something I would never want to do again. That is just my personal choice. It has nothing to do with who that person is. I don’t want to share those pieces of my life with my significant other.”

She said there were many challenges associated with dating a teammate but that for the most part, she, Lianne and their teammates were able to put it all aside and just train or play when that time came. Besides she added, “It’s quite prevalent now so it’s not like anyone is ever shocked or caught off guard.”

This April will be the start of Lohman’s third season in Washington. She is loving playing back near her family and childhood friends—her old friend Robbie and his wife recently had twins—and she maintains a strong relationship with Spirit owner Bill Lynch who has taken much of the public heat for the club’s offseason roster shakeup.

“From my personal interactions with Bill, I would never get that impression about him,” she said when asked about the now widespread belief, fair or unfair, that Lynch is a homophobe.  “He’s been nothing but kind, supportive and extremely respectful to me as a person and as a player. He’s made me feel valued as a part of this organization. I think he knows what I bring both on the field and off. He lets me be unabashedly myself. I couldn’t ask for anything more from him.”

More importantly she is ready to give it another go, even if last year’s agonizing miss of both NWSL trophies serves as the closest she’ll get to being a club soccer champion (she was part of Gabarra’s W-League Championship team but spent most of that season rehabbing her back.)

“I feel good physically. I feel good mentally,” she said. “I love playing back home. I think when you’re happy as a whole you’re a better employee, a better professional. I love being around my family and my friends from high school. My life is well balanced. I hope if you ask my teammates, I always come to work with a smile on my face and a positive outlook.”

Becoming a leader in the fight for gay rights

Joanna Lohman says she does not make it back to Penn State all that much. “I look back at college with very fond memories although I don’t go back very often and I’m not one who bleeds blue and white like a lot of these Penn State people do, I think it served its purpose for who I am now and built me to the player I am today.”

She is a different person now though. Notably, when she was in college she was, in her words, “still straight.” In fact she was engaged to be married to a man before she began to tackle some deeper feelings and realized she was gay.

“Looking back, I may have had some signals, crushes on friends or teachers,” she remembers laughing. “But it wasn’t until I was about 20, 21 that it came to a point when I was like, alright I need to deal with these types of feelings.”

There was no big announcement or outing about being gay, but rather it was something that happened organically as she saw and spoke to people. Some already knew while others more or less took the journey with her as she explored her feelings and realized her true identity. One thing she never did though, was try to hide that she was gay once she came to her own terms with it.

“Like I do most things in life, I do it 100%. So I came flying out of that closet. I didn’t give people a chance to second guess me. I was like take me or leave me.”

Today Lohman lives in two spheres. In her career she has found women’s soccer to be one of the most welcoming and accepting environments for gay females whether they be players or part of the fandom. “I’m also so lucky that I get to go to my job every day and completely be myself. A lot of people go to (other) jobs and you have to act a certain part to fit in with the company. Here it’s so beautiful because I can be myself and people love me for being myself so I try to return that favor to them.”

Off the field she has “definitely been discriminated against.” Whether it be a barber refusing to shave the sides of her head, or getting strange looks from women in airport bathrooms, Lohman tries her best to take these incidents in stride.

“For me personally when I’m confronted with discrimination or a weird look, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re not staring at me out of malice they’re staring at me out of interest. I try to be extremely patient and try not to snap at them. I want them to know that I’m like everyone else and want to find acceptance and belonging and love. We’re kind of all similar in that way.”

Lohman is also willing to be a leader in the fight for gay acceptance but more importantly for gay equality within the law. “I don’t think everyone is going to be accepted all the time in every place. There’s always bias. We need equal rights to start. We still don’t have that yet so we gotta keep talking about it ’til we do. I have a platform to impact through professional soccer and I want to use it for a positive purpose.”

And she is not just lip service to the cause. By her own admission she is willing and able to push the boundaries of social acceptance, and she is also willing to be the one to take the body blows if the end result is a softening for those who walk behind her.

“If someone mistakes me for a man and I have to correct them, it definitely is like a punch to my stomach. But if someone behind me who looks similar to me doesn’t get asked that same question by that same person because they realize there is more diversity in this world then they originally expected and that they shouldn’t come to quick judgments without looking someone in the eye or hearing them speak, then I’m willing to be that person or pioneer.”

The good news, she says, is that things are indeed changing. Lohman relayed a story about being discriminated against at her grandmother’s retirement home, but she does acknowledge seeing an opening of minds across the generations.

The younger generations are much more accepting and aware of the LGBT community. I think this comes from increased exposure in many aspects of life. To see the progress in the transgender community is an example – it was basically non-existent when I was a kid. When you begin to put a face to a label, it humanizes it and you start to see we are not that different after all.”

On the flipside when Lohman was in Botswana, she asked a few people she got close with if any of them had assumed she was gay only to find out that it was only recently that they learned a word for it. And they learned it from America. She returned to happily report to her mother that she could be a short-haired, muscular woman in Africa without being immediately singled out or stereotyped.

Ultimately Lohman feels it is important to stand up and be counted as a gay person. She hopes to see the same thing begin to happen in men’s sports but believes the two sides might just be waiting on each other to move forward. “It’s a question of does the horse lead the carriage or does that carriage lead the horse. Do people not come out because they don’t feel like there will be enough acceptance? Or do we need more people to come out for there to be more acceptance?”

Joanna Lohman is nothing if not out. Few players embrace their fans the way she does whether it be taking time out of almost every day to keep her fans posted on her life through social media or arriving at Spirit games early enough to stop by the Spirit Squadron tailgate and shoot the breeze with the team’s most ardent supporters for a few minutes. In turn she receives constant letters and gifts, sometimes from LGBT folks asking advice or thanking her for being so out there, and sometimes just from fans wanting to talk soccer.

“I’m consistently taken aback by the impact I can make on another person just from being me.”
***
June 12, 2015. Joanna Lohman was back at the White House. This time she and the Spirit were watching the United States play a World Cup match against Nigeria as guests of President Barack Obama.

“They invited a lot of young players to meet us. And they asked me to speak and I stood up in front of them and just thought, ‘This is so powerful that I’ve actually achieved my dreams.’ I was here meeting the national team as a kid and I thought to myself ‘That’s who I want to be and what I want to become.’ Sixteen years later there I was standing in front of these girls as someone who achieved their dreams. It’s moments like that when I look back and am like, wow this is really cool. That was a really special moment for me.”

Find out more about Joanna Lohman and her initiatives by visiting joannalohman.com

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