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Naomi Girma: It took a ‘village’ of people to achieve soccer success

The USWNT defender shares her incredible story on the NBC podcast, “My Favorite Futbolista”

Naomi Girma almost had to quit soccer as a young, budding star in the Bay Area. The reigning National Women’s Soccer League Defender and Rookie of the Year discussed her Ethiopian heritage, the “village” that helped contribute to her soccer success and more on the latest My Favorite Futbolista Podcast.

Girma, who plays for the San Diego Wave, is a first-generation American, with both of her parents being immigrants from Ethiopia. Girma explained that her mother came for school, but her father had to flee the country after fighting against a dictatorship.

“Him and the younger generation, they were not putting up with it. They were fighting, and he had to flee the country,” Girma explained. “I’m older than when they left, which is so crazy to me.”

As a young kid growing up in the San Jose area with her brother Nathaniel, Girma fell in love with soccer when her father, Girma Aweke — in Ethiopian culture, the children take the father’s first name as their surname — formed Maleda Soccer Club for the region’s Ethiopian community.

“He created that environment for me, and making it such a fun and safe space for me to fall in love with soccer,” Girma said. “I always say it’s the most low-pressure environment you could imagine. Half of the kids didn’t like soccer. I was there having fun.””

It didn’t take long for the defender to take soccer seriously. Girma started catching the eye of local clubs, including Central Valley Crossfire. She joined in 2010 and was even part of the Olympic Development Program (ODP). However, getting to and from training was a struggle with her parents working and the distance to get there.

“In that neighborhood, we had a babysitting co-op group,” Girma’s mother, Seble Demissie, said. “So the kids could play together or some of us were working and took turns with playdates… We’d get together and some moms exchanged information about school and other activities like that.”

“One of the biggest challenges was rides to training, as it went from two days a week to three days a week,” Girma explained. “I was getting rides from anyone who could take me. One of my really close friends, her mom would get my from my school, then get her daughter and then someone else, and we would go. They just saw a kid who loved playing soccer and wanted to help her out. They weren’t like, ‘Oh, she’s going to play for the national team,’ or ‘She’s going to go to Stanford.’”

Girma said that, eventually, she was asked to move to a top-tier youth club team. However, not knowing any of the new parents worried her and her parents, and how they would get Girma to matches and practices.

“They said, ‘No, that’s not a reason for her to not keep playing.’ They figured it out,” Girma said. “It’s really cool that multiple families, out of the kindness of their heart, would swing by my house, swing by my school, and get me. I am so thankful, because I maybe would’ve had to stop playing. I couldn’t drive myself, I was only 12!”

Girma said she hopes to be an example for young, first-generation Americans and their soccer dreams. Off the field, Girma is giving back, including work with United Women of East Africa. One of her top priorities is mental health, especially after the passing of her best friend Katie Meyer, a former Stanford goalkeeper.

“My best friend Katie Meyer passed away from suicide. So I think that, in her honor, starting something that she would be proud of, and that can help a lot of kids, especially in marginalized communities where mental health isn’t talked about, was big,” she stated. “That’s one of the things that drew me to United Women of East Africa. They work with first-generation kids in San Diego. They do a lot of things that, I think, could have been helpful for me when I was a kid. Some of that is resources for school, health and well-being. They prioritize mental health. For young girls, growing up in African communities, it’s not something you talk about.”

Now, Girma is in New Zealand with the U.S. women’s national team, preparing for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The team will kick off their World Cup, and the hopes for three-straight tournament wins, against Vietnam on Friday, July 21.

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