Pioneers: Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, Still Imparting the Life Lessons of the Game
INTRODUCING: Kathy Ridgewell-Williams
COLLEGES — Western Washington University, University of California-Berkeley
TOUGH KID IN TOUGHSKINS — Growing up in Enumclaw, a rural farm community southeast of Seattle, Kathy’s only initial connection to soccer was the “Soccer Made in Germany” show hosted by Toby Charles on PBS in the early ’70s. “I am the youngest of four siblings who are all much older — so I had to do everything I could to keep up,” said Kathy. “We had a pretty competitive household, including my brother, Wally, who was four years older and super athletic, so by the time I started school I didn’t even think about what girls did at recess. It wasn’t really a question for me. I went to school dressed in Toughskins ready for any sport on the playground with the boys.” What she didn’t realize, at 5 years old, was that it had only been a year or two since girls weren’t required to wear dresses to school and that she also wouldn’t be allowed to play on the boy’s club soccer team. So, when Don Ryan, a local attorney, started a U9 girls’ team called the Auburn Devils a few years later, he found Kathy ready and waiting. She remembers watching the German men win the 1974 World Cup at 9 years old and having her first spark of the idea of a National Team — just for women.
THE REALITY CHECK — Playing with fellow future National Teamer Lori Bylin Sweeney on the Auburn Devils, their team won several consecutive state championships. The reign ended abruptly, however, when Michelle Akers’ team from Shoreline, Wa., moved up an age bracket to U16. “Michelle was a flat-out revelation,” said Kathy. “I mean, I thought we were pretty good until she came along. She just tore through our defense like we weren’t even there. Honestly, as aggravating as it was to lose, I think we all knew we were witnessing something really, really special. I suddenly knew there was so much more I could do to improve my game.”
THE COZARS CONNECTION — College was on her radar, but earning a degree from a high-profile school wasn’t a priority for Kathy when she graduated from Auburn High School. Only a handful of universities, the majority on the east coast, even funded soccer programs in 1983. At first, she migrated with a group of male soccer friends to the local Green River Community College — but again was only allowed to practice with, not compete, on the men’s team (no women’s team existed). Her life changed later that year when Booth Gardner, the soon to be governor of Washington, asked her to join his club team known as the Cozars, which he fully sponsored and coached. “That team was as close as you could get to being professional players at the time,” said Kathy. Traveling to tournaments that included trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas, she scored 38 goals in the first half of 1984 and made such an impression when the Cozars landed in St. Louis for the national club finals that the University of North Carolina and several other schools offered full scholarships. Kathy turned them all down. “Honestly, at that point, Cozars were offering me a level of play I didn’t want to give up and I thought to myself, ‘Why would I leave this?’”
BOOTH WHO? — The Cozars’ camaraderie, including their team relationship with the team founder, is legendary in women’s soccer. “Booth was a really special human being and did so much for the team. He was so down to earth, but also a Weyerhaeuser family heir and, by 1985, the Governor of Washington.” To this day Kathy loves reminiscing with the Cozars alum. “Booth would literally drain the gas out of the cars for his security detail to get away from them and show up alone at our practices. Or he’d show up to McDonald’s with us after our games, not have any cash on him because he was Governor, and he’d steal our French fries. It was hilarious.” A year later, Kathy would attend nearby Western Washington University with her best friend, Diana Inch, and several Cozar players including National Teamer Cindy Gordon, helping them to a NAIA Regional Finals berth. “The Cozars evolved over several years to have some of the most amazing talent and coaches, including Berhane Andeberhane, in women’s soccer at the time. It was unique, like the soccer universe aligned to bring everyone together.”
THE MOMENT OF A LIFETIME — In July of 1985, Kathy traveled to Baton Rouge, La., after being chosen for the historic Olympic Sports Festival tournament, from which the 17 members of the first-ever National Team were selected. Picked for the starting lineup in the inaugural game, Aug. 18, 1985, against the host team, Italy, Kathy said standing on the field and singing the national anthem was forever embedded in her lifetime of memories. “It’s one of those pivotal moments you look back on and say you wouldn’t trade for anything. It was truly overwhelming. It was a ‘Wow! I achieved my dream. I did it!’ moment. It was an incredible experience and a rare bond that we share. But for me, as a woman playing soccer at that time, I didn’t know if or when there would be more. It was like, ‘That was amazing, but now what happens?’”
COMPARING GENERATIONS — When considering the remarkable total of 13 players from the Seattle area who played for the National Team from 1985-1990, Kathy balks at the suggestion that today’s soccer players are fundamentally better than those of her era. “It’s tough to compare. An elite athlete is an elite athlete regardless of when they were born,” she said. “Maybe our era didn’t play soccer year-round as kids or have private trainers at 9 years old, but we had something just as good: we played with boys and men. That made us quicker physically and mentally, and technically sound at faster speed of play. If you’re an elite player, you know it; you have a hyper-drive growth mindset, you want to be better than the player next to you, woman or man, and that’s going to be true in any generation. Not to mention we had a long list of players with soccer IQs off the charts including Sharon McMurtry, Lori Bylin Sweeney and Shannon Higgins Cirovski.” Kathy was one of the players born in the 1960s who were named Washington state’s 50 all-time greatest players. That 2016 list also included all of her National Team teammates including Michelle — who Kathy believes belongs at the top of any list of women players. “I have loved watching so many great players come through. I’m really proud to see these young women have this opportunity and just dominate on a world stage. And as the pioneers, I think we are all amazed at how far the program has come. But Michelle was on another level. It’s kind of like Pelé. How do you compare Pelé to Ronaldo, or Messi? You can’t. If you saw Pelé and Michelle play in their prime or had a chance to play with them, you just know they’re different.” (NOTE: Michelle's story is a major component of our critically acclaimed new book, Raising Tomorrow's Champions)
A SUDDEN END: A torn hip flexor kept Kathy on the sidelines in 1986, but after six months of rehab, she returned for the Cozars season before appearing in two more games with the National Team in the summer of 1987. Targeted to join Colorado College that fall, Kathy changed course and followed long-time University of Washington coach Lesle Gallimore and National Team legend Joy Fawcett to the University of California-Berkeley, where Kathy became a third-team All-American in her final year of college eligibility. After graduating with a political economies degree, and with the Cozars disbanded, Kathy spent 15 months working and traveling in China. On her way back to the states, she was recruited by former National Teamer Gretchen Gegg Zigante to play professionally in Japan. Fatefully, she said, she turned Gretchen down. Returning stateside and training with a new Seattle women’s club team, Diadora, Kathy’s soccer future was instantly truncated a few months later when a driver sped through a stop sign and devastated Kathy’s car and body. “It was all neck and back injuries and my competitive days of playing, heading a ball and winning a tackle, were over. Just like that. But even so, I still am so grateful for the time I had at that level.”
EVER THE COACH: Despite playing in an era with little financial return from the game, Kathy has cashed in by turning those experiences into a professional career of coaching and managing business teams. After owning a couple of sports bars with her husband, Tim, and starting their family, she moved on to serve as a corporate manager and coach for Walgreens to help turn around financially struggling stores. She worked for many years after that consulting and managing private education programs within public K-12 school districts. Her last few years have been spent at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services consulting as a certified diversity executive and coaching leadership development programs for an organization of more than 16,000 people. She’s remained an avid student of the game and also coached many youth teams along the way — and sees little distinction between managing the game and business. “It’s amazing how many people lack basic team management skills,” she said. “What I learned from those early days and being a bit of a nomad in my playing career is that we didn’t all have to agree all the time as long as we all had the same strategy in mind. The most successful teams I played for had people with diverse perspectives and different ideas that were willing to learn from each other then flex enough to get the win. As a leader, coach or manager in soccer and in business, build trust and relationships, allow freedom to innovate and fail; that’s what will bring you success. We learned how to experiment, fail and be more adaptable in those small-sided pickup games, right? ‘Winner Stays On! or Last Goal Wins!’ How many times do you let yourself look foolish and fall, literally, flat on your face before you pull off a Maradona in a game and everyone goes crazy? You have to trust each other to be that vulnerable. By removing the barriers that prevent people from being creative and taking risks, you’re creating an environment where they're going to get better, faster and stronger no matter what they’re doing.”
National Teamer: My Story of Sexual Abuse
Cindy Gordon, a Pioneer of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team, Details a Lifetime of Suffering at the Hands of Her Youth Coach
WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF ABUSE. ANY PERSON UNDER THE AGE OF 18 SHOULD ASK FOR THE PERMISSION OF THEIR PARENT OR GUARDIAN BEFORE READING FURTHER.
THIS STORY WAS SUPPOSED TO BE a straight-forward celebration of the special career of one of soccer’s pioneers. Originally intended as an extension of our book, “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions: What the Women’s National Soccer Team Teaches Us About Grit, Authenticity and Winning,” the following words should have been about colleges attended, challenges overcome, and goals — the ones that gifted children attain through hard work and sacrifice on their fields of dreams. This story might have focused on the positive influences, coaches like Dan Swain, Booth Gardiner, Berhane Andeberhan and others who, collectively, made the state of Washington the unofficial birthplace of women’s soccer in America.
This narrative, instead, focuses on topics our book never contemplates: the coach as a predator, the influencer as a rapist, the mentor as an almost lifelong nightmare. National Teamer Cindy Gordon, who has kept this part of her life buried beneath the façade of a smiling face and successful professional life for nearly four decades, asked us to help her reveal her truth publicly for the first time. “Parents need to hear my story. My hope is that it will help parents and their daughters make better decisions about who to trust,” she told us. “If parents don’t think something like my story can happen to their children, they’re just wrong . . . Tragically wrong.” After much consideration, and weeks of conversation with Cindy, her friends and teammates, this is what we choose to share.
A LITTLE CITY BY THE SEA: Located on the eastern shore of Puget Sound, at the midpoint of the drive between Seattle to the north and Tacoma to the south, the enclave of Des Moines, Wa., is relatively new, even by American standards. Incorporated as recently as June 17, 1959 — about three years prior to the birth of its most accomplished female athlete — Des Moines seemed like the kind of place where you didn’t need to lock your cars and houses, where people knew each other’s business, or at least thought they did, and where neighbors looked out for each other’s children. The water was, and is, central to life in the area, especially the marina where everyone’s favorite soccer coach kept his sailboat moored.
The beautiful game, to be sure, was both king and queen to the residents. When the Highline Soccer Association launched a girls youth soccer team, the Demons, in 1972 in response to the landmark legislation known as Title IX, Cindy Gordon and her friends, Kim Milner and Robin Rowland, were three of the first to sign up at ages 9 or 10. When the original Seattle Sounders team played its first season in 1974, Des Moiners flooded north to the stadium; the Demons even got to scrimmage during halftime of one of the games at the Kingdome. “We just loved the game; my whole family did,” said Cindy, the second oldest of five siblings. Two of her younger brothers were allowed to play years before she was. “I remember standing on the sidelines of their games watching and secretly hoping somebody would get hurt and they’d look around and say, ‘Hey, girl, do you want to come play?’ This, of course, never happened. But then they started a girls’ team and, man, I loved it. It was just a really good fit for me because I was a pretty active kid and soccer was a good combination of just being able to run, and to be physical, in a way that was frowned upon for girls.”
Kim, who lived six blocks farther from the waterfront than Cindy, but right next to the soccer field at 16th Street, still sounds in awe of watching her friend blossom into one of the area’s first female soccer stars. “By middle school, it was really clear that Cindy was becoming someone really, really special with the ball at her feet,” said Kim. “You just knew. Plus, Cindy had some things going on at home, so I think she turned to soccer as her escape. I remember hours and hours of her juggling with the ball and being amazed at what she could do.”
DADDY’S GIRL: From the outside looking in, the Gordons were living the model Des Moines life. David, an aeronautical engineer, was beginning a long career at Boeing, which still employs more than half the town. He kept a boat in the harbor, took his children camping and fishing, and though he didn’t play a lot of soccer with his soon-to-be prodigy, he seemingly loved a good backyard touch football game with his two oldest sons and self-professed tomboy daughter. Not long after Cindy discovered soccer, however, David coincidentally began turning away from his family and moved progressively toward alcohol. He and his wife had married in their early 20s, when Patricia Gordon was two months pregnant with Cindy’s older sister, Valerie, and Cindy surmised that David had grown disillusioned with family life in his early 30s. When Cindy was 13, he sat his two oldest children down at the kitchen table and told them he was leaving the home for good. Cindy remembers crying uncontrollably.
“That was utterly devastating,” she said more than 40 years later. “Because I was so active, because I was that tomboy, I felt closer to my Dad in many ways than I did my Mom. I guess I knew he was drinking heavily, but that didn’t matter to me. I just didn’t want him to leave.”
To fill the void, Cindy relied more than ever on her friends on the Demons. A 1973 photo posted to Cindy’s Facebook page shows 13 girls in total, with Kim Milner in the front row, far left, and freckle-faced Cindy also in the front row, second from right. The girls would have been 10 years old, in fourth grade, and it’s noticeable that Robin, a fifth-grader standing next to an equally tall teammate in the back row second from left, was already nearly as tall as the coach, her mother Beverly. “Robin was a badass, and I mean that in a good way,” said Kim. Serving primarily as the team’s goaltender, Robin was often first to the practice field to help her mother set out the cones. Cindy would walk the six blocks to Kim’s house; then the two girls would walk briskly together in eager anticipation of practicing shots on their goalie. “The best memories in my life all involve Cindy,” said Kim, who now resides in Maryland. “Cindy and soccer. Soccer and Cindy. Practicing under the lights, getting to the field early and taking shots against Robin and just, you know, that whole feeling of being outside with the other girls from the school. To this day, I drive by soccer fields all the time and the lights are on and kids are there and it’s still the greatest feeling. I think to myself, ‘Yes!’ Those were great days.”
THE DIRTY SECRET: By the time the girls were in high school, graduating from the Demons to the Dirty Dozen was a Des Moines soccer rite of passage. Led by its charismatic coach — who some of Cindy’s teammates credited for their success in their interviews with us — the team was already used to winning frequently. “(His) British accent gives him an edge in drawing his young players’ wandering attention,” said a 1978 article in the Seattle Times that celebrated the team’s many victories. Cindy recalls going out of her way to earn the much older man’s praises; the coach was 53 and the player was 14 when she joined his team. “Yeah, I was totally into him, the accent, the charm, and his knowledge of the game,” she said. “I definitely took note when he would put his hand on my shoulder on the sideline when I was getting ready to go into the game, or he was giving me instructions. I think that’s where it all started . . .”
As the next year progressed, the coach began to give his newest star player more and more attention, staying late with Cindy after practice and, eventually, offering rides home in his cigarette-stained and smoke-filled blue Ranchero. Sometimes Kim and Robin would also cram, thigh-to-thigh with a man three times their age, into the modified coupe-style pickup truck with no back seat. By the spring of her freshman year, the coach began inviting Cindy out to his sailboat with his wife, the mother of his two teenage children.
Robin said the coach was a regular at The Yardarm Pub and Cindy and Kim said it was open town knowledge that the coach always kept a pint of rum close at hand, though they don’t agree on the brand. Cindy says it was Bacardi 151; Kim recalls it was Myers’s. “He was a maintenance drinker,” said Cindy. “I don’t think I ever recall seeing him drunk.” The night after the team won the Washington state championship in 1978, one of the players threw a party at her home — and the coach arrived with more than enough rum, champagne, cherry brandy and vodka for everyone. Cindy said it was the first time she had ever consumed alcohol, but the parties and her consumption of booze and marijuana would soon become a habit. Notably, she doesn’t think any of the players’ parents ever suspected anything nefarious and, even if they did, they just looked the other way. “It was a different time back then in the ’70s; I don’t think parents paid that much attention,” said Cindy. “I know my mother didn’t. She had to get a job and raise five children when my father left, so she had her own issues to worry about.”
By their sophomore year in high school, the alcohol, marijuana and the sailing began to mix. Cindy and other players joined impromptu cruises that launched from the marina, traveled past the town beach and then out into the open Sound. Sometimes the coach would just anchor off shore and pass his rum while the players fished and swam. One night, with the tide going out and Cindy and Robin on board, the coach ran the boat aground on a sandbar. The coach, sounding duly alarmed, called the Coast Guard and asked the dispatcher to alert the girls’ parents about what had happened. In retrospect, Kim now sees the whole escapade as a clear ruse. “I think he absolutely did it on purpose,” she said during a conversation in early April of this year. “He had sailed in that area hundreds of times and knew exactly where to be, or not.”
Before heading to higher ground on the beach, while waiting for the tide to change, the coach retrieved his bottle of rum and a blanket from the cockpit of this boat. Positioning himself between the two girls, Cindy 15 and Robin 16, the 54-year-old man began passing the bottle back and forth with his right hand, while keeping his left hand hidden under the blanket. Quietly, he unzipped his pants. He then waited patiently until Cindy brought her right hand under the blanket next to his, then slowly pulled her hand toward his penis. “I had never touched one before,” she said. “It was kind of exciting if I’m being honest.”
FOREVER HAUNTED: Like so many of her teammates who stood on the field in Jesolo, Italy, in August of 1985 and listened to the Italian fans lustily chant “USA, USA, USA” — yet pronouncing it “Ooosa, Ooosa, Ooosa, Ah” — Cindy Gordon recalls the first-ever U.S. Women’s National Team game as one of the proudest moments of her life. Hearing the National Anthem played on foreign land gave her goose bumps and brought tears of joy to her eyes. Sometimes that memory still does. “Cindy was a special, special player who I loved having in front of me,” said National Team goaltender Ruth Harker. “She was so cerebral; she knew the game as well as anyone.” Several members of Cindy’s soccer sisterhood from Washington state were on the field in Italy that day, too. “Cindy was so quick and so tough,” said Kathy Ridgewell-Williams, who grew up in Enumclaw, Wa., 40 miles to the east of Des Moines. “She was one of the people I had the most chemistry with. I mean, she was pit-bull tough, so tenacious on the field, and you always felt comfortable having her out there with you.”
Cindy played every minute of those first four games in Italy and, by some accounts, might have been considered a National Team fixture for years to come. It would be just a year later, however, when anxiety attacks — hidden from others — began to surface. Cindy played two more games for the U.S. in 1986, but was left home by new coach Anson Dorrance when the team headed to a tournament in China that year and was never invited back to try out ever again. “Looking back, I can see it now. For as good as she was, the self-confidence always seemed to be a little bit lacking, yet you never knew why,” said Ruth, who is the only National Team teammate with whom Cindy has shared her story until now. “When you begin to understand what she went through, and also understand the pressure of trying to make that team . . . it’s just so, so sad. Knowing what I know now, it just boils my blood.”
Cindy recalls driving through Bellingham, Wa., on her way back to Des Moines when her mental state began having physical implications. With the road blurring and seemingly starting to spin, sharp pains jabbed at her chest. Assuming she was having a heart attack, she managed to steer her Corona safely to the side of the road. “That was my first full panic attack, which I never had previously,” said Cindy. “I had started having those more often and I ended up going to a therapist. She gave me the book on how to handle panic attacks, which was totally useless, because they say, ‘Oh, just relax, breathe deeply.’ Well, that’s an impossible thing to do in that moment.”
As much as she had tried to suppress the memories from years earlier, they only seemed to come back stronger. The incident with the marooned boat had only been the beginning of a two-year pattern of manipulation that escalated the very next day when the coach invited Cindy back onto the boat, telling her his wife would be there. When Cindy discovered the coach was alone when she arrived at the dock, she knows now that she should have turned away then and never come back; the guilt for staying has been overwhelming her for decades. “The truth is I was a 15-year-old girl who thought I was older than I was,” she said. “He was an older man showing interest in me and it felt exciting. That’s what I probably struggled with the most, because it didn’t feel like abuse in the moment. My head was filled with fantasies and fairytales; he never said it to me, but I thought that, since he was paying all this attention to me, he must love me.”
IN PLAIN SIGHT: The rides home from soccer practice began to take on a predictable pattern in the weeks and months after the first physical encounter. Most times, the coach would bring Robin Rowland home first, even though she lived by far the farthest from the field and he could easily have dropped Kim and Cindy off along the way. Circling almost all the way back to the field, he would then bring Kim home before finding a side road, a church parking lot or a wooded area to stop the car. He asked Cindy for oral sex at first, and soon progressed to intercourse.
When the weather warmed, the coach would take Cindy to his boat instead. On one occasion, which she recalled from a diary entry she has kept for all these years, Cindy said an older soccer player came to the boat with her. The coach tried to entice Cindy to follow him to the berth area below deck; when she resisted, he brought the other girl instead. “I thought we were trying to keep a secret,” Cindy said. “When they came back up top, he said to me, ‘I would have taken you down there instead of her, but you didn’t want to go.’”
Further evidence that Cindy was not the coach’s only victim would come just last year when Cindy called Kim to reveal her experiences. According to Kim’s recollections conveyed to us, on more than one occasion she, too, was assaulted on the sailboat by the coach while Cindy waited on the deck above. Then, she said, Cindy would take her turn with the coach, or vice versa. “I don’t remember it that way, because I just don’t recall ever going below on the boat when someone else was on board,” Cindy told us. “It’s troubling to me that she has memories that I don’t have, because I wonder what else I might have repressed.”
As more time passed, with her consumption of alcohol and marijuana increasing, Cindy recalls moments of jealousy, yet also growing paranoia about having the relationship revealed. One night, at the church near her home, a passerby banged on the windows of the coach’s car during an assault. On another night, with adults and teenagers all drinking together on Blake Island during an overnight camping trip, Kim recalls the coach walking up to Cindy amidst a crowd of people, taking her by the hand, and leading her off into the dark woods. "Nobody said a word," said Kim. Cindy also vividly recalls having a conversation with the coach about his son, just two years older than Cindy, who had grown suspicious of his father’s extramarital activities. “He told me his son said, ‘Dad, you better not be doing anything with her,’” said Cindy. “I remember that actually felt good to me . . . that someone was actually looking out for my interests.”
By her junior year in high school, overwhelmed with guilt and shame, yet still occasionally succumbing to the coach’s advances, Cindy said she began cutting her upper thighs and arms with a razor blade — a common self-harm behavior among victims of sexual abuse, according to many experts. “I remember just feeling so many different emotions and confusion and pain,” she said. “I was just so tired of lying to my mother, even to my father, and it felt like that cutting myself was the only way to focus that pain somewhere physical.”
PAY TO PLAY — National statistics and various non-profit organizations state that between 2 and 8 percent of young athletes are sexually assaulted in the U.S. — though others say that number may be higher due to the lack of reporting by victims, especially boys. SafeSport is funded by the federal government to focus on these issues and an organization known as Safe4Athletes, founded by Olympic swimmer Kathleen Starr, works to educate American families about the risks that have always been there in the complex relationships between coaches and athletes of all sports and ages. Safe4Athletes offers educational programs about four differing types of sexual misconduct in sports: pedophilia, sexual harassment, sexual abuse and athlete domestic violence — the latter being the most complicated, because it involves an adult older than age 17 who can legally consent to intimate behavior.
“Sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes have become a serious problem,” states the National Collegiate Athletic Association in its official policy manual on the subject of coaches and players in a romantic relationship titled “Staying in Bounds.” Coaches dating players is a common occurrence, even though highly discouraged by the NCAA, and banned by the policy guidance of many colleges and universities. When older adult coaches have sexual relationships with students under the age of 18, however, there is no gray area, legally or otherwise; it’s pedophilia, harassment and abuse all rolled into one illicit act.
“It’s horrific and it’s criminal, and I’ve come to believe it’s an epidemic,” said Cindy, who said she doesn't believe the problem only existed in her generation. A recent search of headlines across the nation indicates she's right. As recently as March of this year, two separate cases in New York involved male soccer coaches, one aged 29 and another aged 57, abusing girls aged 14 and 12. Last year, soccer-related cases in Missouri and New Jersey involved an 11-year-old girl and a 33-year-old man, as well as a 16-year-old girl and a 32-year-old man. Truly horrific soccer cases in Maryland in recent years involved children, a girl aged 7 and boy aged 8, once again indicating that young boys are in no way immune.
The patterns of behavior are almost always similar: the assaults follow often long periods of grooming to gain trust of the players, and usually their parents, and can often be accompanied by the quid pro quo of gaining favor with a coach in exchange for playing time. Cindy’s case was textbook. By the holiday season of her junior year in high school, Cindy said she finally found the strength to tell the coach she wanted to end the physical relationship. He, in turn, immediately put her on the bench. Though she was clearly one of the Dirty Dozen’s best players, a forward who would soon score 50 goals during her record-setting career at Western Washington University, she was suddenly an afterthought in most of the team’s games. “In my mind it was over and I just tried to wrap everything up and put it in a box and stick it in the corner of my head never have to think about it again — except that I still had to play for him,” said Cindy. “He made it very clear to me that if I wanted to play in the game, I needed to pay his price.”
Desperate to perform in the Coca Cola Skills Challenge in the spring of 1980 so she could showcase her talents for college coaches, Cindy turned one last time to the coach for a ride to and from Lake Washington near Seattle. As they approached her house on the way back from the event, he veered his car toward the church where they had stopped dozens of times before and popped the clutch, which abruptly stalled the car’s engine. “The car battery must be dead,” she recalls him telling her. She said she immediately gripped the door handle as tightly as her hand could squeeze while her long-time assailant stared in her direction. Just as she was preparing to jump out, he started the engine and drove her home.
Heading into her final year of high school that fall, after nine years of playing with virtually the same group of girls, Cindy made a decision that was just as hard as trying to stay away from the coach; she quit the Dirty Dozen and joined one of their arch rivals, Team Adidas, from Tacoma. “My lifelong friends were furious with me, and I couldn’t even tell them why I needed to do it,” she said. “I couldn’t tell them that (the coach) would show up at the seafood place, Moby Doug’s, where I worked and try to talk to me, then just sit there. I just had to get away. . .”
LIGHTING ONE CANDLE AT A TIME: “By any account, Cindy is a person who has her shit together. . . successful soccer career, her professional career, and friends who care about her,” said Amy Carnell, a fellow Washington state soccer star who served as the first general manager of the Seattle Reign, one of the 10 member teams of the National Women’s Soccer League. “Like many survivors, the corrosive aftermath of abuse is kept out of plain sight.” When Cindy was not invited back to the National Team after 1986, she continued to play soccer for the legendary Cozars team founded by Governor Booth Gardner and coached by Berhane Andeberhane, among others. She was a key player on the area’s over-30 national club championship team and left behind enough of a legacy and impression that, as recently as 2016, she was voted along with Hope Solo and Michelle Akers as one of the top 18 players in state history in a poll of regional experts commissioned by the Washington Youth Soccer Association.
Cindy has indeed enjoyed a significant and stable post-soccer profession. After receiving her biochemistry degree from Western Washington University, where she’s a member of the school’s Hall of Fame and still ranks as its third all-time leading scorer, she joined the staff at the biochemical genetics lab of Seattle Children’s Hospital. More than three decades later she’s a laboratory development scientist who helps create diagnostic testing for testosterone and estradiol levels in youth who are contemplating gender transitions. It has been a fulfilling life and work, she said, yet lonely at the same time. She has never married or had children; her last attempt at a romantic relationship with a man ended more than a decade ago.
Cindy’s assailant died in 2006 at the age of 82 — which is why we have opted not to use his name in this story out of respect for his family — but she said she has never really been able to shake the memories associated with her secret. She feels her low self-esteem led her to accept unreliable, even abusive, treatment from men and that the idea of another relationship seems like “too much work.” She has turned instead to her dog, Elsa, and, sometimes too often, to alcohol. “Am I an alcoholic? Well, I don’t call it that,” she said. “I call it a substance abuse disorder. But, yeah. In fact, I got a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) in 2009. I actually stopped drinking for five years because I was on a deferred prosecution plan. And then I started again because it was obvious to me if I could stop drinking for five years, then I didn’t have a problem with alcohol. The problem is that I was introduced to alcohol at such a young age, as an early teenager, that somehow it triggered something in my brain that if I drink at all it’s like it’s never enough. I just feel so good, so out of my own head, that I just want to keep it going.”
A cleaner, more clear pathway began to present itself in May of 2019 when Cindy came across an article shared on-line about Dr. Laura Anton, a pediatrician from Dallas, who had come forward with a story that sounded all-too familiar. Dr. Anton, once a national caliber soccer player who earned a scholarship at George Mason University in the mid 1980s, had been groomed by her youth team soccer coach into a long-term sexually abusive relationship. “Her story was my story,” said Cindy. Then, in 2020, Cindy also read Amy Carnell’s revelation. Lured into a soccer club by a coach who openly bragged about having coached National Team legend Michelle Akers during her Washington state youth career with a team known as the Shoreline Thunderbirds, the Carnell family never picked up on the clues that Amy was also being drawn into abuse. “I Needed to be Rescued,” read the headline in Cindy’s hometown newspaper, the Seattle Times, that broke Amy’s story and brought forth a flood of others who reached out. For the last several months the three women, Cindy, Amy, Dr. Anton and others have formed an informal support group of “soccer survivors” who meet regularly on ZOOM calls. The other women in the group, excited about the progress Cindy is making, have encouraged her to come forward and share her story.
“She’s been left to suffer in silence, until now,” said Amy. “I’m so proud of Cindy’s courage.” Dr. Anton said Cindy’s recognition that she was, in fact, abused is the most significant step toward recovery. “It’s almost universal that victims of this kind of trauma try to put it away, to package it as a child would, then put it in the dark recesses of the brain,” she said. “It festers, creating shame and dysfunction and depression and anxiety. And so the only path to healing is to first recognize that you were a victim—and then trying to release yourself from this life of lies.” Dr. Anton said she won’t forget the first time Cindy contacted her. “She said something in my article had stuck with her when my therapist kept saying, ‘Laura, you can be one of those first candles. You light your candle in the darkness, and then your candle lights another girl’s candle in the night and then she lights another girl’s candle — so you start to spread light into the darkness.’ It’s monumentally important for Cindy to come out of the darkness for herself, to step out of the shame and start healing. Cindy’s candle will be a very, very powerful one, for herself and so many others who will hear her story and say, ‘Me too.’”
WE NEED TO DO MORE: Having made the decision to come forward, to try to leave behind the guilt and any notion that any aspect of her childhood story is her fault, Cindy still can’t help but wonder what might have been. What if, for example, her father had stayed connected to his family? “I can see now, as an adult, that my mother and father were not a well-matched pair,” she said. “But I do think that, when you make the conscious decision to bring children into the world, that also means you’re making a commitment to be there for them.” What if, she wonders, her coach “had simply been a decent human being?” Maybe she would never have helped the National Team win World Cups in 1991 and 1999 like Michelle Akers or Mia Hamm, but she dares to go there in her mind. “Sure, I do think about how far I could have taken soccer in my life,” she said. “Because I really, truly love the game with all my heart. And he took that from me, not the love of the game, but the ability to become the best version of myself within the game.”
Robin Rowland wonders too. She has been friends with Cindy her entire life and, until that night sitting under a blanket on that sandbar in the Puget Sound, the worst trouble they had ever been in together was sneaking onto the high school field and turning on the lights so they could practice more soccer after hours. “She was so funny, so smart, so much fun to be with,” said Robin, who was a mere two-feet away when her best friend’s life began to unravel. Robin, too, said she bears guilt for not doing something to stop their coach in his tracks. “You look back and say, ‘I should have seen the signs,’ but I had no clue,” she said. “I just had no clue. If I did, I would have decked him right then and there.”
Cindy said she would occasionally search on-line find out bits and pieces of information about her assailant’s whereabouts and she learned, for example, that his wife filed for divorce in 1980 while Cindy was still in high school. “I used to think about ways to confront him and inflict pain, like the pain he inflicted on me,” she said. “But now that he’s dead, and I’m meeting with these other women, I realize I’m luckier than some of the other survivors of abuse whose perpetrators are still walking around, in some cases still being allowed to coach young girls.”
She sees the next phase of her life as a work in progress, with good days and bad. During the weeks of conversations in preparation for this story, Cindy asked for breaks at times when the reliving the memories was just too painful, or when having a drink seemed like a better idea in the moment. She went for a long walk with her father in late March and, for the first time in her adult life, asked him about his own drinking and how he found the strength to quit more than 20 years ago. “I told him, I admitted really, that I was still struggling,” she said. “He said, ‘I know it’s hard, because I just started drinking Diet Coke. I had Diet Coke everywhere.’ It was a simple answer, but it was really kind of nice to talk to him about it — being something I never felt comfortable telling him or anybody in my family. It was sort of my shameful secret, but I guess I’m trying to be more authentic with people.”
She said her biggest focus, nearly 36 years after hearing the National Anthem play in Italy, will be to use whatever platform the National Team has given her to spread the word that everyone in soccer needs to do more to stop a silent plague. “Parents need to be educated and children need to be warned,” she said. “That coach you think is being really nice to your daughter, or your son? Maybe they are just being nice. There are definitely some really great, amazing coaches in this world and I played for some of them. But for your children’s sake, you need to assume that no child is safe when left alone with a coach . . . as sad as that may sound, it’s advice that can literally make, or break, their lives.”
I’D FEEL REMISS IF I didn’t take a moment today to honor the living, breathing life lesson that is Carli Lloyd, the author of the Foreword for our book, “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” She played in her 300th game yesterday, April 10, 2021, for the U.S. Women’s National Team, venturing into territory only ever matched by two other women: Christie Pearce, at 311 games, and the indomitable Kristine Lilly, who played for 23 years and 354 games. I don’t think it’s outlandish or hyperbole to predict this out loud: no one else from the U.S. will ever join this club.
Part of that is because times have changed. As Kristine noted in our book, she joined the National Team at 16, an age so young that she once arrived late at a U.S. training camp because she chose to play a high school softball game instead. Christie, four years younger than Kristine, played in an era when kids still participated in whatever sport was in season; by all accounts she was the embodiment of The Natural, leading her high school in scoring in basketball, field hockey, track and soccer. Others have theorized that she could have been an Olympic pentathlete if the National Team hadn’t swept her exclusively into soccer.
Carli, however, came of age in the era of sports specialization — after Kristine and Christie, along with Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Briana Scurry and others made making the National Team part of the American dream for legions of young girls. Carli was never the best athlete. She wasn’t even the best player in the eastern region of the country; that designation, back in the day, went to my co-author, Joanna Lohman, who beat Carli to the National Team by four years.
That’s why I think Carli Lloyd represents one of the great American success stories. Period. A master of reinvention, she rebuilt herself and her game when an Under-21 coach named Chris Petrucelli told her she lacked the fitness and the mental fortitude for the National Team. “Ninety-nine percent of the players you tell that to will blame the messenger,” Chris told us in our book. “To Carli’s credit, she owned it and she did something about it.”
It can also be argued that no one in National Team history has had more big-game goals than Carli, yet her starting position — even her place on the team — has been in doubt virtually her entire career. She’s gone from striker and scorer, to defending midfielder, to attacking midfielder and back again more times than most people can count. She breaks down her body and rebuilds herself the way Tiger Woods used to re-tool his golf swing every few years. “You can never, ever get complacent for one second or someone will take your spot,” she told us in one of our many interviews.
Even after “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions” was written and ready for the printer, we caught wind that Carli was in the midst of yet another personal makeover. This time, she said, she was going it alone in training for the 2021 Olympics — without the mentor to whom she dedicated her 2016 book — and she was also reconciling with her parents and siblings after so many years apart. At her request, we stopped the presses and re-wrote an entire chapter. The final photo inserted into the book was Carli with her parents and two siblings at Thanksgiving of 2020. Her life lessons are scattered throughout our pages, from “speak your mind,” to “stay loyal to your friends,” to “stay focused, even when everything else in life will try to pull you away from your goal.” Her latest message, however, was equally important: at the end of the day, even as you approach 300 appearances and 16 years proving and re-proving yourself to all the doubters, family matters a hell of a lot.
The prognosticators are having a field day in trying to guess the 18 players who will represent the U.S. in Japan this July. Carli still, after all this time, figures she needs to improve. I personally think there’s no way the coach leaves the most dependable player of the modern era home for what will almost assuredly be the last big tournament of her career. She has earned it — but she also knows that’s not how it works. “The biggest lesson you can share is that nobody in this life hands you anything,” said Carli Lloyd. “I’m living proof of that.”