You have surely heard of Joanna Lohman, the Washington Spirit’s midfielder with an incredible haircut, who is making a difference on the field with one of the most successful teams of this season. We spent a halftime with her: welcome to our new series!
For club, country and women’s soccer
If you’re looking for her on the Maryland SoccerPlex field or any other pitch where the Spirit plays, it’s easy. Joanna Lohman looks like a warrior. Serious gameface on, JoHawk ready, scoring goals with awesome headers. At 33 years old, she is one of the Spirit’s heroes of this season. This season, the Washington Spirit is showing its best face. Ever wonder why? In front of the net, when Lohman has the ball at her feet or somewhere she can reach in the air, the answer stands in two words: hard work. Training everyday. Pushing the limits. But we all know that it takes 23 players to win a game – unless you’re at the Olympics. So what’s new with the Spirit?
First, it’s the only team to have made only a few changes in its roster after the two drafts and the trading period of the NWSL. So they got to know each other quite well frompast seasons. “We have a great chemistry both on and off the field. The love we have for each other is our strength on the field. When we’re down 1-0, we’re gonna have the collective character to never give up. That’s something I’m really proud of. We want to be better and we want to be better together”, she confirmed. What about the loss of Ashlyn Harris? “There’s been some kind of a void, Ashlyn’s such a big personality. But you learn to move on and take the team to the next step. It’s part of your job, people get traded. We have two great goalkeepers and they’re doing an amazing job in her absence. At one point, you don’t worry about who you’re missing but you think about what you have.” The result is quite obvious: the Spirit is currently fighting against the Thorns and the Red Stars, both of which have played 7 games against 6 for the Spirit, due to postponing because of the weather in Houston (well, having Ali “Hurricane” Krieger as the team’s captain, is that even surprising?).
A new chapter for the Spirit. 2016 is also some kind of a turning point in the US Women’s National Team. The game is changing. Abby Wambach’s retirement is one of the important marks of the change : “She was the most dangerous player in the air. And I think we will never see someone like Abby Wambach ever again. The game is changing: the traditional number 9 does not need to be a big, tall and physical player in the air. And the US team is adapting well: we have smaller players for a faster pace of game.” And what is the main asset of the USWNT? “Athleticism. We might not be the best on the technical aspect but no country is as athletic as us.” More than the athleticism, the US still have the mentality that makes the difference on the field, whether it’s to fight until the very last second like in Germany in 2011 or keep their cool in big games like in 2015. “In the US, the girls are trained at a very young age to believe in themselves and be whoever they want and that’s empowering. They know how to win and how to face huge challenges.” It’s something that we should try to understand and get in France.
Retirements. For players like Wambach, Boxx or Rampone, it’s easy to understand. Some of us believe that younger players’ retirements shows that the league is not able to offer a stable environment to the players. Lohman has a different point of view : “I don’t think it’s a statement for the league. It’s at its best point yet. We’ve reached the moment when we know it can be sustainable.” For a player who has seen the WPS and the WUSA, this is a real statement. “Each player has personal reasons to step away from the game but at one point, you feel when it’s the right moment.” So the league is fine, thanks for asking. From a French point of view, it really looks so. The quality of the games and the teams is outstanding. Though the physical level has always been the natural strength on American soil, the technical aspect is getting stronger and stronger: we can see moves and combinations that can easily rival the French teams more and more often. If we don’t notice that and step up our game, going to Europe as an American player will not be a valid option anymore, because the NWSL will provide the environment they need.
Leaving the US at a young age to discover other countries and other soccer culture is anything but unknown to Lohman. In 2009, she left the US and the Washington Freedom to train in Japan with her then-Freedom’s teammate and Japanese legend Homare Sawa. After a disappointing season with the Freedom, she needed to refuel her passion for the game. “I’ve always liked to expand my confort zone in putting me in uncomfortable situations. It was an incredible opportunity that comes around once in a lifetime. I was constantly the worst player on the field every single day. But when you train in an environment like that and you see how hardworking they are, there is no way you can’t get better. It was one of the most rewarding moment in my career, because I was pushed to my limits. Each culture is different and enjoyable for its own reason but Japan is so different than the US that it’s a cultural shock. But I enjoy being shocked and it was a memorable experience both on and off the field. I came back as a different player but as a human, you learn how to be compassionate and you realize that we’re all different but we learn to appreciate each other for who we are”. She also went to Spain in 2011. What makes European football so different? The culture: “In the US, we play many different sports and we sometimes realize later that we will be soccer player. In Europe, you’re born with football. You breath and eat and sleep football.” This difference is here: on the one hand you have young girls who have been trained since a very young age to be good at a lot of different sports and gain an athletical ability that is their first asset and makes them that versatile on the field, on the other, you have girls who work on their technical skills early to make a difference.
Although it’s not the main difference that she spotted in Europe. “In the US, having a muscular, compact and athletical body is admired. Being an athlete is sexy. In Europe, people looked at me like “Why do you do push ups? Why do you look like that?” Prejudice. We can feel it in France, where the French federation tried, a few years ago, to attract people’s attention thanks to a campaign where three main players posed naked. Even though the main message was “do we have to be naked to get your attention?”, the visual says it all: you still have to be desirable and fit the French labels to be taken seriously. Otherwise you’re a freak. Or a lesbian. Which is considered as something that cannot be bankable and that scares people. If you need another clue, check this out: in the French roster, there are 23 straights players. It might be a French thing to go against the odds, but still. Which leads us outside of the field…
Make the difference: out of the confort zone.
Let’s face it: being an openly gay, bisexual or transgender athlete is still difficult in 2016. It’s a question of culture and it looks like despite the “human rights country” label that France holds since 1789, we don’t have it. Yet. In the US, it’s another story. When people cheered for Wambach’s last game and held big signs with friendly reminders of her achievements, they were cheering for a person, regardless of her sexuality. Joanna Lohman is part of this empowering community of out and proud athletes and she takes the role very seriously. “Being a professional soccer player is the best job in the world: we’re paid to chase a ball. People are spending their money to watch us play and they want our autographs which constantly blows me away. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to do what I love and share it. But we’re more than that. Knowing that I can change lives is such an incredible feeling and I’m so grateful to have this plateform. And that means the world to me because people will never forget how you make them feel. And I have the opportunity to make people feel fantastic. I can be someone’s hero and I didn’t think it would be possible. It’s such a beautiful feeling.” Using her voice to create a better and safer environment.
She doesn’t only speak out. She acts. She went to India to bring women’s soccer to young girls – she spoke about her unique experience in her inspiring TedTalk. She worked with GO! Athletes to improve the environment for LGBT athletes. And it’s important: “I’ve always been confortable with being out and embrace myself. Luckily, I was in the primary acceptance scheme and fans support me for who I am. I think people are happy to know that there are pionneers to make things easier for the next generations. But everybody has his own journey with coming out.” But she also knows that it’s not the case everywhere. “Having the freedom to be out or to decide not to talk about your sexuality and be accepted for who you are is crucial. Talking about France, though it’s going against the odds, it should not be an environment safe and supportive enough for them to feel confident. Wherever it is – on the field, in a team or even at work – you can’t be at your best if you are not able to be who you truly are.” Don’t get her wrong: it has not always been easy. “I’ve been discriminated against, in Europe and in the US. It always feels like a punch in your stomach, right? As I’ve always been fine with being out of my confort zone and pushing the boundaries, I think it’s part of the change. You’ll always encounter resistance. You’re gonna get people who are scared. The natural reaction is to push back. So you need to be patient and try to create an environment of understanding. Hopefully we can make progress and it won’t be an issue anymore.”
But it gets better. It always does. If the game and the environment are changing, the fans are changing as well, in a good way. “I’ve seen this after the 2015 WWC victory. There is more people in the stands, they don’t only watch us play, they want our autographes and a pic with us, they are wearing our jerseys and they know the players. They are understanding the issues and it’s an incredible feeling. I’ve never seen thing like that. To know that I’ve been a part of this and to be able to see this evolution… It’s something I’ve always wanted. We have more interactions with our fans thanks to social media and it’s so much fun. We’re definetly on a good way.” So we cannot wait for the next big steps. And to watch some more JoHawk magic in NWSL.
Many thanks to Joanna Lohman for this interview! And thanks to Rachel W., for the help with the English grammar.
Follow Jojo Lohman on twitter
Credits : Washington Spirit // Chris Colvin // Rob Sanborn