If U.S. soccer star Alex Morgan could have written her own script for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, a stunning upset to Sweden in the quarterfinals would not have been part of the narrative.
But indeed, the U.S. team — three time World Cup champions and 2012 Olympic gold medalists — were knocked out earlier than expected last Friday and won’t see an Olympic medal this time around.
“This loss has probably been the toughest of my career so far,” said Morgan, 27, during a phone interview from Rio. “We had such high expectations for ourselves … but I feel like it was a wake-up call.”
Morgan said the loss, while a “humbling experience,” won’t define her, her teammates, or their careers. She took to Twitter immediately following the defeat, saying she was heartbroken for the team, the fans and her family, but that the loss would make winning “that much sweeter” down the road.
“Learn, grow and never forget,” she wrote on social media.
Pick yourself up and get back into the game, she says. That’s the message Morgan, a spokesperson for the #LikeAGirl campaign by Always, the maker of sanitary pads, wants to send to young athletes everywhere. She believes her team’s loss can serve as an inspiration, especially to girls who too often leave organized sports after puberty. Losing is part of the game, but makes you stronger, she said.
“It wouldn’t be sports if challenges didn’t come in our path every once in a while, or even more than every once in a while, but I feel like it’s most important to feel like you have that support and feel like you are encouraged to keep going,” said Morgan. “That’s why I put out a tweet right after losing the game because although I was disappointed and heartbroken, I felt like it wasn’t a game that was going to define me or hurt my confidence and I kind of wanted to show girls that they’re not alone with challenges that come up.”
Morgan highlighted the new video by Always called “Keep Playing,” which premiered back in June. The video showcases young girls sharing negative messages they’ve heard about being involved in sports and how they have ignored those messages to keep playing. By age 17 — after most girls have gone through puberty — more than half of girls (51%) will have quit sports, according to a recent survey of more than 1,000 girls ages 16 to 24, sponsored by Always.
Seven out of the 10 girls who quit during puberty said they didn’t feel like they belonged in sports, the survey found.
“I think sports should never be discriminating. I think everyone should be accepted into sports … and that is why this campaign is so great because I feel like girls especially … we have fought our way [in sports],” she said.
About those comments by Hope Solo
Morgan and her teammates have not only had to deal with a surprising loss, but they’ve had to face questions about the controversial and roundly criticized comments from their goalie, Hope Solo. After the match on Friday, Solo said the Swedish players were “a bunch of cowards,” with their defensive approach.
Morgan said she hadn’t spoken to Solo about those comments and didn’t weigh in directly when she was asked about them. Instead, the soccer star talked more generally about how it’s important to keep things in perspective, and how that’s not always easy, especially after a very unexpected loss.
“It’s hard in the moment to kind of comprehend everything that’s going on and try to make a positive out of a situation that seems so negative,” she said. “At the end of the day, although winning is so important to us and is what drives us, it’s not the only thing in this world and I feel like the careers that we have are so much greater than one loss.”
“It’ll take some people longer to understand that than others,” she said.
While the U.S. women’s soccer team won’t be making any more headlines on the field during this Olympics, plenty of other American women athletes will — and have been. We’ve seen Katie Ledecky shatter records and swim in a class by herself, and the Simones — Simone Biles and Simone Manuel — make history in gymnastics and swimming respectively. Biles is the first American woman to win four gold medals in gymnastics in a single Olympics, and Manuel is the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event for the U.S.
Morgan says these women are bound to be inspiring little girls all across the United States today, just as the 1996 U.S. women’s soccer Olympic champions inspired girls her age 20 years ago. That was the first year women’s soccer was an Olympic sport.
“Before I even knew there was a World Cup, I knew there was [the] Olympics,” said Morgan. “I remember when I was 6-years-old and it was like the most exciting time in my life. I thought it was so amazing to see these Olympians just being so successful, these females … that I had never seen before on TV.”
Watching those women in 1996 sparked the passion to play soccer and to play sports, she said. “You are seeing that today … this is when those dreams start.”
Just take a look at the Twitter feed of Aly Raisman, Olympic gold and silver medalist in gymnastics. She retweeted a picture of a little girl with her arms and legs extended while watching Raisman compete on television. Who knows? Maybe she’s a future Olympic gymnast.
“So precious,” wrote Raisman. “I remember being that little girl too.”