Our Girls Academy Home: Why We Are Skipping the Club-Hopping Party
THE JOCKEYING HAS BEGUN. It’s the dance that inevitably commences right after New Year’s Eve for soccer parents everywhere when they shake off their proverbial hangovers — only to be only to be confronted with the aching question: “Where should my child play next season?”
Though not unique to the game that most of the world calls football, the phenomenon known as club-hopping is especially prevalent in areas of the country where clubs offering an “elite” soccer experience significantly outnumber the quantity of actual “elite” players available to fill the slots. My daughter could try out for at least 15 so-called travel clubs within an hour’s drive of our house here in Maryland. And even though the next season doesn’t officially begin until August, commitment letters and contracts often go out in March or April.
“We love this team,” a parent told me recently. “But we need to keep our options open.”
Not us, I tell them.
“We are staying right here.”
THIS IS NOT A DECISION I made lightly. In fact, I don’t feel like I really made it at all. The Girls Academy, and most importantly my daughter, have built a safe, professional, competitive and fun environment together. When she tells me, “I don’t want to play anywhere else,” I can’t fathom a reason other than gas prices that would ever make me want to try to change her mind. Since no other Girls Academy club exists within any kind of reasonable distance from our home, her soccer team is her home away from home. Period.
For the uninitiated to the crazy world of club soccer, you should understand that girls who envision themselves becoming players at the highest levels of the collegiate or professional game typically have limited options for competitive leagues. In the past 12 years, the Elite Clubs National League has emerged as the dominant force in the game in terms of numbers. ECNL, which also offers boys’ leagues, provides local, regional and national playing opportunities. For a few years, ECNL’s main competitor was known as the Development Academy run by U.S. Soccer. The Development Academy offered a connection to the professional teams in many markets and, since it was run by the same people who picked the beloved Women’s National Team (think Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd), the Development Academy also owned a significant psychological marketing advantage.
In other words, if you thought your child was good enough to be chosen as the best of the best, then the Development Academy appeared to be holding the aces.
THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT when I brought my daughter to her first Girls Academy (GA) identification session for the local Metro United club that runs out of northern Virginia. U.S. Soccer had just dissolved the Development Academy for girls and boys at that time, but a committed group of club managers and coaches across the nation moved exceedingly quickly — in less than a month — to re-form as the Girls Academy (On the boys’ side, incidentally, many of the players from the prior Development Academy moved to a new league called MLS-Next). National Teamers, or women and men with professional and college experience, jumped in to help.
“I watched an incredibly dedicated, passionate group of people work around the clock to hold something together and it really tugged at my heart strings,” said Lesle Gallimore, the longtime University of Washington women’s soccer coach who agreed to step up and serve as the national commissioner of the GA.
As I detailed in Raising Tomorrow’s Champions (Inspire Media, 2021), the book of soccer parenting lessons that I co-authored with National Teamer Joanna Lohman, we already knew one of the Metro United coaches from my daughter’s days at her first travel club. My daughter and our family walked away from Jonah Schuman’s team back then because he didn’t care much if the girls won or lost as long as they were having fun and learning. To his credit, he always took the high road, including his parting words to her: “Maybe we’ll see you again, Angie. Let’s keep in touch.” In the end, we realized he was right.
In addition to Jonah, Metro United retained the same coaches from the Development Academy with strong connections to U.S. soccer scouts and colleges. Like the rest of Girls Academy, they also made lemonade out of lemons by instituting a girls-first mentality in their management philosophy, as well as prioritizing family and school time, referee standards, and individual player development. Winning games, especially prior to age 16, still doesn’t matter much, but giving the girls a voice, as young as age 12, is a key part of the culture. All teams in the Girls Academy have a representative on the players’ Advisory Panel that looks at everything from substitution rules, to coach behavior, to unique community service opportunities — our club recently participated in a Menstrual Product Drive, for example — to whether or not teams should ban white shorts outright.
“I think you really need to think first and foremost about the environment you put girls in, how they’re being coached, how they’re being treated, what they’re learning from the game,” said Lesle. “To set those standards within the league and uphold them is challenging because there’s always this pressure on winning from the parents, sort of looking over their shoulder and living in fear of what some other club might have that your club doesn’t.”
I GOOGLED THE PHRASE “GA vs. ECNL” to see what opinions existed on-line about which league represented the best opportunity for girls. A Joe Campos 2020 article, theorizing that the debate among parents about one league or the other is a fundamental problem in youth sports, led me to pick up the phone for a feisty chat with an attorney with strong opinions. Americans, said the former Marine, have it all wrong.
“In Europe and elsewhere, soccer players are developed by soccer clubs,” said Joe, the founder of the Eagleclaw Football Club of Washington state. “Often times, European children stay with the same clubs for most of their youth experience and that’s where the education and nurturing happens. Here, the focus is on what league your daughter or son plays for, so people move their children from club to club. No league has someone who picks up a phone and calls your daughter and says, ‘Hey, how are you feeling today? How’s that ankle? Have you been working on that left foot? Hey, I noticed in that exercise you were doing the other day that you were kind of doing this and maybe you should be doing that.’ No league will do that for you.
“A league is simply a testing hall. You take your education from the club and you put it to the test. If someone comes to me and says, ‘I’m taking my daughter to this league or that league because steel sharpens steel or iron sharpens iron,’ I say, ‘Good luck.’ It comes down to this: if you are happy with your coaches, if you feel your club has a pervasive educational context, then you’re one of the lucky ones. You are at a good club. It is hard to do. And because it's hard to do, it’s even harder to find. So if that’s what you have, then stick with it.”
WRITING THE BOOK afforded me the opportunity to speak with more than 100 women who played for the National Team, many of whom shared common experiences and opinions. All of them told Joanna and me of an unrelenting desire to win from a young age, with the recognition that winning a game or tournament at the youth level is of little future consequence. Many of them talked about putting yourself in the most challenging environment that you can handle, but reiterated that none of those challenges should come from dealing with a coach who behaves inappropriately.
Amy Griffin and I have covered all of this and so much more in numerous phone calls in the past two years. A former National Team goalie and former college coach with Lesle Gallimore at the University of Washington, Amy now coaches the U.S. Deaf National Team and serves as national president of the GA. Launching a new league hasn’t been easy, she said, but keeping the focus squarely on what’s best for the girls gives her the confidence that the 80-club league will slowly, but surely, grow into the future. The league total will rise to more than 90 clubs in 2022-23.
“We’re not comparing ourselves to ECNL. Our focus is purely on the environment and standards to uphold that environment to create a safe, challenging, enjoyable place for talented players to continue to improve,” said Amy. “I would say that, to us, success is defined as the girls taking their sport back into their own hands. A lot of the initiatives, from the apparel that's chosen, to advice on logos, a scholarship fund and nationwide community service have been initiated by the players. It’s really cool, yet it’s hard to believe no one has asked them before.”
Among the more difficult subjects Amy and I have discussed previously involve issues of coach abuse, whether it be verbal, emotional or even physical. She said that giving the players a voice in league governance has already produced tangible results that include a partnership with STOPit Solutions, which features an anonymous reporting system.
“Now you see these girls asking tough questions and actually helping drive their league,” she said. “Players have literally called Lesle, the commissioner, and said, ‘Hey, is this right? This is how one of our coaches is behaving and I don’t think it is OK.’ We say, ‘You’re right. It’s not OK. Thanks for letting us know.'”
AT THE END OF THE DAY I have the same goals, and therefore the same anxieties, as every other parent who is spending $8-$10,000 year in club fees, gasoline and hotels in pursuit of my daughter’s soccer dreams. If I’m being honest, I do hope there’s a payday at the end in the form of a college scholarship. “The average parent begins with a question: ‘What does my child need to do to be seen?,’” said Joe Campos. “It’s the question that can drive grown men and women into an absolute panic.”
Even though I now know that’s not the most important reason for my daughter to be playing all this soccer for all of this time and money, I do want to be sure her experience checks the right boxes:
Will my daughter be evaluated by college scouts? The answer is yes. The GA’s regional and national showcase events attract dozens if not hundreds of qualified eyeballs. Eight of the 32 players at the recent Under-15 National Team identification camp came from the GA, which — given the size discrepancy between the GA and ECNL — is a significant achievement.
Is my daughter getting adequate practice time? Yes, again. The team trains four days a week spring and fall, and typically three times in winter, with an adequate balance of fitness, skills and strategy. Her practice sessions are attended by several coaches simultaneously and, even though the head coach has primary responsibility for her team, the other four coaches all know her game and can call out strengths and weaknesses.
Is my daughter challenged? The answer is: Definitely. Playing on age rather than with older girls for one of the first times in her life, she has recognized that nothing about this college and professional soccer dream will be easy. The GA is packed with exceptional players, both on her team and elsewhere in the league.
BECAUSE THERE ARE SO MANY talented players in the country, whether they play for the GA, or ECNL, or any of the other leagues in the U.S., I know that the most important boxes to check have nothing to do with college and professional aspirations. All those interviews with all those National Team players roll through my mind, whether my daughter wins or loses, or scores, or sits on the bench.
“Even if my daughter doesn’t become a super player, I want her to play sports because of what it brought me,” said Shannon Boxx, who was recently elected to the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame. “Even if she doesn’t get to the level that I got to, it will still bring her joy, it’ll bring her persistence, it’ll bring her perseverance. It’ll bring the teammate relationships, it’ll teach her how to be a teammate, how we can be a good team, how to lose and how to win. And it will teach you to follow your dreams. That’s everything.”
These are the other questions I find myself asking more often than not:
Do the coaches care about her development as a person? Absolutely. As I was preparing to write this article, we told her coach that my daughter would be taking a week off in the middle of the spring season to go see her ailing grandmother. He didn’t hesitate to wish her well. We’ve had the same answer for missing a practice for a music lesson, a school play, or her sister’s cello recital.
Is she in a safe environment? Without a doubt. The GA’s code of ethics and behavior is unassailably well considered and certified health care professionals attend every single match. Our team avoids most tournaments with two-games-a-day formats because of the wear and tear on the players.
Does my daughter look forward to practice? The answer is Every Single Time. And I credit the coaches for that. The GA atmosphere is professional and respectful, but laughter is always allowed and often loud.
“I would say that it comes down to this,” said Amy Griffin as we signed off from our chat. “If your daughter just spent a year at a GA club in an environment with coaches that know what they’re doing, and it suited her, then I think you should really ask yourself if leaving makes sense. I think it’s like a classroom. If you have a methodology and standards and you learn math 101, then the next time you’re at math 102. You wouldn’t necessarily want to move to a new classroom where you’re doing something entirely different every year. True learning requires consistency and safety and care. I like to think that’s what we — the players, the coaches and the league — are creating together and I’m excited for what it will become.”
I plan to keep my daughter around to find out.
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.”