How Naomi Girma broke football’s systemic barriers and became a USWNT star


AUCKLAND, New Zealand – The strange email landed unannounced in Seble Demissie’s inbox on her final weekend of innocence. She opened it on a Sunday morning in August 2014 when her football world was still small and her daughter Naomi Girma was still asleep. “Dear athlete,” it began. “Congratulations! You’re among the first group of players to be rostered for the upcoming US Soccer U14 Girls’ National Team training camp.” Demissie read it and read it again, confused.

It was of course meant for Naomi, a teenager destined to find fame at the Women’s World Cup.

But when Mama entered her bedroom early in the morning, she didn’t come to celebrate the invitation; she was confused.

“My mother thought it was fake,” says Girma. “I didn’t know it was real.”

They both knew she was a precocious, graceful midfielder and eventual defender, but neither knew that an U-14 national team even existed – because they traversed an exclusive, convoluted path that so often eludes first- and second-generation Americans like Naomi.

As the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants in San Jose, California, she began to love the game but struggled to understand the systems that control it. “There wasn’t a path like this that we had seen,” says Girma; and her parents, who came to America in their twenties, had never settled there. They didn’t know where to find a competitive club or a presence in youth football’s alphabetical soup of leagues and sanctioning bodies; And even if they did, they would need rides and money to access it.

Ultimately, they gained access through sacrifice and support. The teammates’ parents carpooled; Coaches showed chances. Naomi found out about a trial in the Olympic Development Program, got picked up on her regional team and landed on US Soccer’s U-14 radar. When she received the national team’s invitation, she shrugged and focused on her game that day, 30 minutes away in Palo Alto; But Demissie showed the email from her local club team’s manager, Jill Baldwinson, who responded immediately: “Wow, congratulations!” (In other words: Yes, that’s real!)

So two weeks later, Naomi flew to Florida. She settled in for a welcome meeting and her eyes widened with astonishment. Already she felt out of place surrounded by girls from the vaunted Elite Clubs National League; Head trainer April Kater then flipped to a PowerPoint slide depicting a pyramid. It illustrated the path from clubs through youth national teams to the USA women’s national team. “Wow!” Thought 14-year-old Naomi. “That’s crazy!”

Naomi Girma made her World Cup debut as a starter in the USWNT vs. Vietnam on Saturday, July 22, 2023 at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

She soon climbed the pyramid and now sits at the top as the undisputed USWNT starter. She made her World Cup debut on Saturday at the age of 23 and “looked like she had three World Cups under her belt,” said USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski. “So comfortable and spotless.”

But she still thinks about the rise; about the dozens of generous people and fortuitous events that made this possible. She reflects on the socioeconomic barriers she has overcome; but also about the thousands, maybe millions, of children who cannot overcome it because they do not receive similar support and are never allowed access to the base of the pyramid.

“I feel like I’ve been really lucky,” Girma said in an interview with Emox News earlier this year. “Because, like that, with one If the person isn’t there, it could have been me.”

I feel like I was really lucky. Because if one person wasn’t there, it could have been me.

‘She would pick up such things’

The story of Naomi Girma begins far from USWNT, in 1970s Ethiopia, an East African country plagued by conflict and authoritarianism. Girma Aweke, Naomi’s father, was a young leader of a secret group opposed to the Derg dictatorship. As violent crackdowns intensified and his friends were killed, 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 attend school and pursue a career. They had a son, Nathaniel, in 1997; and three years later a daughter, Naomi.

And they soon realized that she was gifted.

She followed Nathaniel to the local YMCA or a nearby park, jungle gym, or basketball court and learned without being taught. “She watched what he was doing,” Demissie recalls. “And she would pick up on 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 gatherings. Ethiopian-American children scurried about in oversized jerseys, divided into three groups: large, medium and small. Meanwhile, her parents barbecued and helped each other to cope with life in a foreign country. Like millions of other immigrants, they found it difficult to decipher various American institutions. And one of many was youth football.

Naomi came home from elementary school one day and asked Demissie: “Mom, can you sign me up for soccer?” [her friend] jena?”

Demissie knew nothing about football registrations, so she asked Jenna’s mother, a neighbor and family friend, who broke the unfortunate news: “You just missed the trial.”

But the opportunity soon presented itself; The team had become thinner and one seat had become vacant. Naomi jumped into the back of Jenna’s grandparents’ truck and drove to her first official soccer practice session. Demissie, who worked 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at a bank, came to pick me up after work and learned that Naomi had impressed with her skills. 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 that none of them understood.

Naomi Girma celebrates USWNT’s 3-0 win over Vietnam in the opening game of the World Cup. (Photo by Lynne Cameron/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Navigate through the youth football labyrinth with a lot of help

There was also a red Crossfire team and a white team. “There was a top team, a middle team, and a bottom team,” Girma explains today, but back then even that arbitrary hierarchy seemed “strange”. The club eventually promoted Girma to the red team. But the jump came with side effects, challenges faced by countless working-class families in a football industry largely headquartered in suburbs.

“I think people underestimate how difficult it is to get rides when both parents work full-time and training is at 3 or 4 p.m.,” says Girma.

Other parents eagerly volunteered, sometimes making multiple afternoon stops—one at Girma’s public school, another at their daughter’s private school—to pick her up and get her to practice. She knows thousands of children across the country don’t get comparable elevators. “Sometimes people don’t even want to ask for help,” she notes, because they’re “ashamed.” She is grateful that her parents spoke up.

She is also grateful that she had a Crossfire trainer, Bob Joyce, who knew the dates and times for ODP test training.

She eventually learned from her fellow players that she could “guest” at elite clubs while staying true to Crossfire, which she did.

She is grateful that her mother was willing to take her across the bay to soccer events in her turn-of-the-century Toyota Camry whenever possible.

She’s grateful that US soccer found her off the beaten path and that teachers and school administrators were accommodating when youth national team outings kept her away from class.

“Somehow the right person came at the right time in every phase,” Demissie marvels.

And if not?

“Oh my god,” says Demissie. “Maybe she would still be playing in the park somewhere.”

Girma’s authentic self shines in World Cup debut

Of course, at each stage, Girma’s talent propelled her to the next. She rose from U-14 to U-17 and then to Stanford. She captained the Cardinals at a national championship. She became the #1 overall draft pick. As a rookie, she picked up the National Women’s Soccer League’s Defenseman of the Year award and secured her spot in the USWNT starting XI. Along the way, teammates and coaches raved about her smooth ballplay and precocious maturity.

They also praise her soccer IQ and all-around intelligence. Girma studied “symbolic systems” – a mixture of computer science, psychology, philosophy and linguistics – at Stanford and graduated with an average grade of 3.92. She is currently pursuing a part-time master’s degree in management science and engineering. Even as a World Cup rookie, she uses her platform to advance a mental health initiative and maybe save lives.

“You can tell she’s not just one of the best central defenders in the world,” said Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe, executive director of Common Goal USA, who helped Girma launch the initiative. “She’s one of the most vocal advocates I’ve had the pleasure of working with. It’s incredible.”

But perhaps her most famous trait years ago and now is her calm.

And the source of that, ironically, is her upbringing. It protected her from pressure and gave her an opportunity to love the game. Her parents never pushed her to get a college scholarship or study professionals. “That,” says Demissie, “wasn’t our plan at all.”

Instead, she told young Naomi: “If you can do it, you can do it. No stress. just do your best And whatever it is, make sure you have fun.”

Girma recalled that advice here in Auckland on Monday. It’s now ingrained in their approach to football. Before her World Cup debut, she felt the usual nervousness, “but when the final whistle blew,” she said, “I felt this calm, this self-confidence.”

“My mom always tells me, ‘Just be yourself and have fun,'” Girma repeated. “And I’ve held onto that since I was a kid.”

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